But what if the progressive champion they’re looking for is already sitting in the White House?
I know, I know. For some people, this is blasphemy. Yet one of the biggest ironies of Trump’s presidency is that he has become a more effective catalyst for progressive social change than Obama.
He has discredited core conservative beliefs, boosted the popularity of left-wing causes and caused millions of Americans to face ugly truths about racism and bigotry that they used to deny.
“We can’t afford to just be tinkering around the edges,” he added. “If history teaches us anything is that change never starts in the center. But it always starts on the fringes with people who are first dismissed as crazy and unreasonable and ridiculous.”
Change works in even more mysterious ways. Trump is, in some ways, unintentionally doing what Obama was supposed to do.
You can already see this in several areas.
Trump has banished the ghost of Ronald Reagan
Obama’s cultural impact is also incalculable. A generation of American children grew up thinking there was nothing strange about seeing a man of color in the Oval Office.
Then Trump came along.
Then he did something else that Obama couldn’t do: He made Obamacare popular.
Now a new generation of Democratic leaders is walking a path that Trump, in an odd way, helped clear. They are talking about raising taxes on the wealthy, expanding government programs like Medicare and Medicaid and creating a “Green New Deal.”
Meanwhile, Trump has emboldened progressives in an even more counterintuitive way.
He’s triggered a ‘Trumplash’ against his own policies
“This was a whitelash against a changing country,” Van Jones said on election night in 2016. “It was whitelash against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.”
Three years later the pain has led to something else: A “Trumplash,” a ferocious backlash against the President that’s boosted progressives and weakened conservatives in several ways.
Trump has operated at times like an Oval Office double agent — a conservative by virtue of his rhetoric, but one whose actions tend to hurt his cause.
He’s pushed more progressives to get involved in politics.
He’s pushed voting blocs into the arms of Democrats.
He’s even damaged some powerful conservative interest groups.
Trump also helped do something else that Obama couldn’t. He revived the Obama Coalition, the group of young voters, women and racial minorities that first put Obama in office.
He’s sparked a more enduring form of hope
Trump also has done something even stranger: He’s arguably brought more hope than Obama did, and here’s why.
It’s not as if Obama didn’t know about the limits of charismatic leadership. He was a former community organizer who said in his farewell address, “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved… and come together to demand it.”
“Yes we can” became “He’s got this.”
That’s not how lasting change occurs, said Kevin Kruse, a historian at Princeton University.
“But also, that’s just not how change works. You got to provide the pressure and actually do some of the heavy lifting yourself.”
He’s removed the veneer that hid America’s racism
There was one problem, though, that even Obama wouldn’t even dare try to solve.
Then Trump came along.
He called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” referred to African nations as “sh*thole countries” and said there “were very fine people” who marched with white supremacists at a 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Few are saying the US is post-racial now.
Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has done what Obama couldn’t do because of his skin color — convince countless white Americans that racism is still pervasive in our country.
In the Trump era, we have to talk about racism.
Obama couldn’t do that because people would point to his success as evidence that racism was no longer a problem.
“It doesn’t make any difference what color the president is,” Andrews told me. “Malcolm X could have been elected president and racism would have continued just the same.”
Boot wrote after Trump’s racist tweets: “It is as blatant example of racism and xenophobia as we have seen in our politics in my lifetime… I am ashamed to have spent most of my life as a Republican.”
In this way Trump has taken away one of the most effective weapons used by racists — plausible deniability, Kruse told me.
“Racist policies work better when they don’t seem to be racist,” Kruse said. “If you could give voters in the middle some plausible deniability that this isn’t about race — ‘I don’t believe in segregation, I believe in neighborhood schools; it’s not voter suppression, it’s voter integrity’ — If you put a more positive spin on it, it invites more people in who don’t see this policy as racist.
“Once the veneer comes off, a lot of people in the middle will shy away,” he added. “Trump has taken away the veneer.”
Staring into the abyss: America faces two possible futures
So which future will we choose? I really don’t know. There’s no law that says we deserve a happy ending. Democracies die all the time. Tragedy is part of history.
But so many people hoped that Obama’s election would be different. People talked about it in religious terms, as if his ascension meant we were getting closer to the promised land.
Maybe we expected too much.
It was hard enough for some white Americans to accept a black president. Accepting one who also pushed through dramatic, systemic political change may have been impossible.
But maybe it’s such chilling scenes that will cause us to turn away from the abyss. We won’t wait anymore for some messianic figure from the left or right to fix it for us.
That’s the only hope and change I believe in now.
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