Picture the year 2008. A then-Sen. Barack Obama, running to be the first black president, declares in a campaign stump speech that America is no longer great, that the country is losing to everyone else all the time. During those same remarks he repeats a crude comment about a woman’s anatomy shouted out by a supporter in the crowd and pretends to be offended, earning a few hearty laughs. Can you imagine this man getting elected president?
What if this alternative Obama questioned Sen. John McCain’s heroism, called Fox News anchorwoman Megyn Kelly a “bimbo,” and described his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, as “in a way, evil”?
Most seasoned political pundits would predict that version of Obama would have been laughed off the national stage, if not barred from major-party politics for the rest of his life. But somehow that same level of scrutiny has not been leveled on Donald Trump, who has actually said all these things and is now a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Could it be that Trump is simply the beneficiary of unabashed white male privilege?
To be sure, not all white male politicians could get away with Trump’s rhetoric. And it’s not clear that Trump will be his party’s nominee — he came in a disappointing second in Iowa last week, despite leading in several polls in the run-up to the caucus, slowing some of his momentum. Nonetheless, Trump goes into New Hampshire’s primary and several subsequent states with a broad lead in most polls — all on the strength of his argument that the U.S. is a weakened laughingstock.
Compare that to Obama, who nearly saw his first presidential campaign with its more feel-good themes of hope and change derailed because of something someone else said about the nation’s standing in the world.
In March of 2008, some incendiary speeches delivered by his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright were unearthed. In those addresses, Wright, ironically, talked down about the U.S., forcing Obama to give one of the most memorable speeches of his campaign, in which he artfully distanced himself from the African-American minister. And the racially coded mea culpas were not limited to just the candidate himself. Future first lady Michelle Obama was pilloried during that campaign for saying she was really proud of her country for the “first time,” during a campaign appearance on behalf of her husband.
“What I was clearly talking about is that I am proud in how Americans are engaging in the political process,” she clarified later, but that didn’t prevent her from being portrayed as an afro-sporting, fist-bumping terrorist on the cover of The New Yorker, albeit ironically.
Also that year, there was considerable hand-wringing over whether Obama could convince the American public that he could be a plausible commander in chief, even though he was a sitting U.S. senator who had served on the Foreign Relations Committee.
In contrast, Trump’s biggest claim to fame has been his considerable wealth (some of which he inherited), real estate holdings and career as a reality TV star. He has routinely refused to give detailed foreign policy proposals because he believes it would tip off America’s enemies.
As president, Obama was excoriated for playing the race card by saying a white police officer who arrested black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates outside of his own home in 2009 “acted stupidly.” The president’s off-the-cuff response to the racially charged incident led to a precipitous fall in his support from white voters, and an infamous “beer summit” at the White House to cool off the tension. Meanwhile, Trump has called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and backed a moratorium on Muslims coming into the country.
Even Obama’s biggest detractors would admit he has been the subject of some virulently racist parodies and invective during his seven-plus years in the White House. His trademark cool helped him weather the Trump barrage questioning his legitimacy in 2011. When he released his longform, authenticated birth certificate, it silenced most conspiracy theorists — but not Trump, who has never admitted he was mistaken or acknowledged that the president is unquestionably American. To this day, a disturbingly high number of Americans still believe that their president was actually born in Kenya.
Like so many white, wealthy men of privilege, Trump doesn’t apologize, because he doesn’t have to. He is seen as a plausible leader almost entirely by virtue of who he is, not what he stands for or has done collectively in his past. That hasn’t stopped him from perpetually trolling Obama for not being presidential by his own standards.
For instance, Trump has attacked Obama in the past for not wearing a tie, for hosting a screening of “The Force Awakens” at the White House (which was, coincidentally, for the families of deceased Iraq War veterans), and has even suggested that the way he walks is unbecoming of a commander in chief.
On Tuesday, Trump told MSNBC’s Tamron Hall that the “political correctness” in the U.S. is “too much.” When pressed for specifics, Trump mentioned his use of the problematic term “anchor baby.” Meanwhile, Obama was once attacked for using the N-word in a nuanced discussion of race in a radio interview with comedian Marc Maron.
David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist and no great admirer of Obama, has nevertheless said in a recent column that the president “radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss.” And despite strong jobs numbers as of late, and a record of accomplishment both domestically and abroad, the president enjoys middling approval ratings and is frequently overshadowed in the news cycle by Trump, a man who has not only questioned Obama’s authenticity but his sanity.
Should Trump emerge triumphant in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, it will perhaps finally make plain how legitimate his candidacy is. The role that race — Trump’s own and his ability to stoke the anger inspired by it in others — has played in his ascendancy has so far been something akin to a dirty open secret.
Pundits will say Trump is popular because he says the things other Republicans don’t dare say. But they will ignore the fact that by virtue of being a rich, white man, he always had the right to say whatever he wants, wherever he wants, with little fear of reprisal and will continue to do so whether or not he wins the presidency.