Obama’s Legacy & the Rise of Trump

Against the Current, No. 186, January/February 2017

Malik Miah

“We fight for our collective liberation because we are clear that until black people are free, no one is free.” — from Black Lives Matter statement after Donald Trump’s election

SO MUCH HAS been written about why Donald Trump won the presidency and the anger of the white working class. White supremacists are overjoyed by his victory. White Americans who believed that they had suffered so-called “reverse discrimination” from Blacks, Latinos and undocumented immigrants proclaimed the defeat of “identity politics.” Many now feel confident to strike out verbally and at times physically against Muslims and others.

Much less is written or discussed about the failures of liberalism and the Obama presidency for Blacks and other minorities who voted for Hillary Clinton as a lesser evil. Tens of millions did not vote — 46% of registered voters. For many of these little has been gained from a rigged two-party system that makes it impossible for alternatives to be viable. (Worse, the system is based on an Electoral College created by the Founding Fathers to protect slavery.)

Liberals point to the racism directed at Obama for eight years, including Trump’s birther campaign. In the wake of Clinton’s defeat, they blamed Trump’s support from avowed white nationalists/supremacists.

The truth is that white supremacists have always existed, and institutional racism is still strong. But an objective analysis shows that there has been real progress on civil rights. And whites are less overtly (or even covertly) racist than during the pre-civil rights legal segregation era.

However, as history shows, there have been reversals that Blacks have suffered, both in the old Confederate South (voting suppression) and across the country. The Trump victory is a new pushback against the civil rights revolution and the rights won by women since the 1970s.

Why the Backlash

“Make America Great Again” is a clarion call to retake more of those gains — a political counterrevolution. But the right wing’s goal is not a return to legal discrimination. That’s not winnable, and the Black middle class and wealthy layers are not seen as a threat.

Furthermore, Barack Obama won the previous two elections. Along with 95% Black support and majority support from Latinos, Asians and Native peoples, some 40% of whites also voted for Obama.

Why the white backlash? Liberals assumed that Obama marked a future that could not be stopped because of evolving demographics. That may eventually be the case, but eight years of stagnant wages and fear of a worse future for working-class families were central factors in a white backlash and a stronger conservative movement.

The liberals’ answer was that Obama got the country out of the recession and unemployment is much lower. They, including Obama, downplayed the institutional racism — dog whistles — used by Trump and his supporters.

Obama and the liberal political establishment did not see the anger. He condescendingly said after the election that the failure in 2016 was “messaging.” That’s a simplistic and false answer.

Failed Policies, not Messaging

Obama rejected advocating for special programs to lift the oppressed (a new Great Society) or take steps to help labor win higher paying government jobs. He criticized, by lip service, big business and the banks while these same institutions recovered their wealth and size since the 2008 Great Recession. The stock market soared.

The Republicans won most state governorships and state legislatures. Obama got little credit for job creation since so many were lower-paying, nonunion, private sector jobs, while outsourcing of better paying jobs continued.

 The Black community — not just white workers in manufacturing — gained little. Without a viable pro-Black party, or even much “Hope” after eight years with a Black president, there was little excitement with two whites running for president.

The root problem was not messaging. It was the neoliberal policies that both Obama and Democrats support, even if less extreme than the Republicans. Black elites, relying on a strategy of electoralism to bring change, blamed Blacks who did not vote for hurting Obama’s legacy and blasted those who voted for third parties.

Extra-legal actions, as occurred in the civil rights era when segregation made going to the streets the only option, were rejected by the liberal and Black elites. The $15 an hour movement, which Obama didn’t embrace, grew over the last four years.

Obama made verbal promises to relieve the plight of immigrants, but when his Latino supporters sought a reform push in the first two years the president did nothing. He became the “Deporter in Chief.”

He visited the Standing Rock Native peoples’ reservation after his election, then did nothing to help the water protectors opposing the Dakota Access oil pipeline going through their land in North Dakota. He refused to act against the corporation, its thugs and governor’s police. On December 4, faced with a growing protest movement with national and international support, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that it wouldn’t grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota.

African Americans got less in job training, education and housing opportunities in eight years of the first Black president. Social services (except Medicaid expansion in some states) declined and even government jobs that many African Americans once got disappeared.

Trump’s call to inner city Blacks, “What do you have to lose,” was a cynical ploy but exit polls did indicate that he received getting 13% of the Black male vote, more than the Republican’s 2008 and 2012 presidential nominees.

Many whites voted for him expecting more help. Most were not bigots when they voted for Trump; they want higher paying jobs and security. They voted against the political establishment, even though the billionaire has no intention of” draining the swamp” as he called it.

Trump understood the popular anger and rejection of the elite status quo. He used racist demagogy and offered false promises to get working-class whites and the middle class (including some minorities who had voted Democrat in the past) to turn against the Clintons and Obama.

Obama was a good soldier for the ruling class on both domestic and foreign policy. While his skin color was too much for many white people (especially those from the old Confederacy), Obama saw his role in non-racial terms.

His foreign policy was also an expansion of Bush’s presidency. He used more drone attacks than all previous presidents combined. He personally oversaw the killings of those labelled “terrorists” without due process, including American citizens. He was a war president who used the same executive powers that he criticized as a candidate.

Obama did not visit Israel during his presidency, and is known to despise prime minister Netanyahu. Yet his administration gave more weapons and money to the Israeli state — with a $38 billion commitment over the next decade — than Bush and Clinton. And he opposed every Palestinian initiative for an independent state even though U.S. policy officially calls for “a two-state solution.”

Obama pulled off the shelf a 1917 espionage law to go after whistle blowers and others who exposed the crimes of the US abroad — most notably Chelsea Manning, now in military prison for 35 years, and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now in exile in Russia.

The Resistance

The most significant developments during the Obama era were the rise of three social resistance movements: The Dreamers movement of young undocumented immigrants; the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement initiated by young Black women; and the rise of militant action by Native peoples and their allies against the oil pipeline corporation and its police and state backers in North Dakota.

BLM is seen in some ways as the most threatening to the ruling establishment. African Americans have a unique status as descendants of former slaves and vanguard role in fighting oppression.

BLM began three years ago, after cop killings of unarmed Blacks in city after city. These new activist leaders understood that mass resistance and organization were the answer — not reliance on elected officials, Black or white, Democrat or Republican. It was a lesson taught in the 1960s by Malcolm X and others to the left of the moderate civil rights leaders.

Each of these movements will continue to press the fight. “The national leaders of the Black Lives Matter Global Network said Tuesday [November 11, 2016] that their mandate remains unchanged in the wake of ‘the election of a white supremacist to the highest office in American government.’” (Monique Judge, The Root, November 15. For the statement in its entirety, see the accompanying box.)

A post-election town hall meeting of 700 in Newark, New Jersey, November 18, 2016, heard from longtime Black intellectuals and militants of the left nationalist and Pan Africanist struggles. They included Ron Daniels of the Institute of the Black World and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the son of the late radical nationalist activist and poet Amiri Baraka. They pledged to “agitate, agitate, agitate.”

The clarity of the Black Lives Movement statement points the way forward. It explains that the battle for justice will be won by mass organization, protests and agitation. It reflects No Fear of white supremacists and their apologists — and fierce determination.

Malcolm X said it best, “I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.”

January-February 2017, ATC 186