America’s First White President

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon, December 11, 2016

For the first time in American history — OK, maybe the second time — a presidential candidate’s race played a central role in his campaign, and is one of the key factors that got him elected.

Donald Trump will not be our first white president. (Or our first male president either.) By my informal count we’ve had 43 others, in an unbroken line from George Washington in 1789 to George W. Bush in 2009. Not only were all the presidents elected during that stretch white guys, the runners-up were all white guys too (as were the third-place finishers, on the occasions there was one).

But something has shifted. Donald Trump will be our First White President, in almost exactly the same sense that Barack Obama has been our First Black President. Trump is the first president defined by whiteness, the first whose glaring and overwhelming whiteness is a salient issue that lies at the core of his appeal. Trump is a symbol of whiteness as self-conscious political power, in a way that none of those 43 other dudes even approaches — not even Ronald Reagan, the proto-Trump and whitest of all previous presidents. Trump is the president who inaugurates the era of white identity politics, the president who stands for the wounded and embattled white minority (even though it is not a minority).

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It clearly isn’t true that only white people voted for Trump; perversely enough, he seems to have done slightly better among blacks and Latinos than Mitt Romney did in 2012. But anyone who believes that people of color are inherently immune to the power of whiteness, or are incapable of being conquered by it or distorted by it — well, nobody believes that. Spend 10 seconds gazing into the bland, bottomless void behind Ben Carson’s eyes, and you can’t possibly believe it. To repurpose Nietzsche’s famous maxim, sometimes it’s scarier when the abyss doesn’t stare back.

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For the first two centuries or so of American history the fundamental whiteness of politics and power were simply atmospheric conditions, rarely noticed and barely worth talking about. At least until now.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think African-Americans failed to observe the power of whiteness, any more than women were fooled by reassurances that wielding power in the home suited their temperaments much more than wielding it in Congress. But for white people in general, the whiteness of political power was either invisible, irrelevant or a shameful secret to be jealously protected. George Wallace, another proto-Trump whose 1968 presidential campaign offered one of the first signs of white anti-Establishment restlessness, was just a little too explicit with his racial messaging. His call for “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” became a national embarrassment for white people because it was unambiguous. Whether by strategy or sheer animal instinct, Trump has not made that mistake.

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Trump was running against the first woman to receive a major-party presidential nomination, and running to replace a cosmopolitan biracial black man with a Muslim-sounding name. Those are important facts too, but also insufficient in themselves. Trump was the first presidential candidate to run not merely as a white man pitching himself to other white men — that remains the norm, if rendered slightly problematic by demographic change — but as a walking, talking Dionysian celebration of Whiteness and Man-ness, the Ur-white man around whose brilliance other white men cluster like faint and distant stars.

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It almost seems that along with all the genuine insults and injuries inflicted on the “white working class” by the forces of global capitalism and the so-called coastal elites, the election of Barack Obama inflicted a psychic wound that demanded immediate payback, at almost any cost. And then they were going to elect a girl. It was not supportable.

So now they have Donald Trump, the avatar of white grievance and white resentment.

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There will always have been a President Barack Obama; that Kenyan birth certificate never panned out and he will never be erased from the history books.

Of all the lies Donald Trump told to get elected, perhaps the biggest and worst was something he never quite said aloud but became the primary text of his campaign: White male hegemony could be restored, and all racial and sexual doubt and anxiety erased, because on some deep level that was the natural order of things. Isn’t that a correct translation of “Make America Great Again”? But electing our First White President is a dead giveaway that none of that is possible. If the republic survives this particular white president, we may have others in the future. But we will never again have an automatic white president, an invisible white president or a white president that nobody notices is white.

 

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