Donald Trump’s Racism Diminishes America

Depiction of Du Sable taken from A.T. Andreas’ book History of Chicago (1884). Reprinted from Wikipedia

Greetings from the U.S. city founded by a Haitian immigrant.

Sometime in the 1780s, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, reportedly born of a French father and an African slave mother, who had gained some education in France and made his way from New Orleans to the Midwest, settled with his Potawatomi wife on the north shore of the Chicago River. He developed what became a prosperous trading post before eventually selling it for $1,200 (no small sum in the early 1800s) before relocating to St. Charles, in what is now Missouri, where he died in 1818. According to the best-known assumption about his date of birth (1845), he would by then have been 73, a ripe age on the early American frontier. You can learn more about the admittedly sketchy details of his life here as well as through the link above. However, Chicago has long claimed him as part of its heritage, and his origins speak volumes about not only Chicago but the diversity of the American frontier despite the attempts in some quarters to continue to paint a much whiter portrait of the nation’s history than the truth affords. His story, and those of many others, can be viewed at the Du Sable Museum of African American History on Chicago’s South Side.

Du Sable Museum of African American History, photo from Wikipedia

What does this have to do with President Donald Trump? As almost anyone not living in a cave knows by now, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has said that Trump, while Durbin was at the White House for a meeting with the President and several Republican members of Congress to discuss a possible compromise on legislation concerning immigration and border security, began a verbal tirade asking why the nation was allowing so many immigrants from “shithole countries” such as Africa and Haiti. Yes, Trump now denies saying it, but there were other witnesses, and even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) acknowledges it and reports confronting Trump personally about his remarks. Moreover, the sad fact is that such remarks are consistent with a much broader pattern of similar comments ranging from his initial campaign announcement decrying Mexican “rapists” to provably untrue tweets to his infamous praise of “truly fine” people among the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Ku Klux Klan members protesting the pending removal of Confederate statues in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. Since those comments last August, Trump has continued to lacerate the Twitterscape with new gems of disingenuous absurdity.

It also betrays a disturbing lack of depth of any historical knowledge that might ground Trump in the truth. There is surely little question that Haiti is one of the poorest and most environmentally beleaguered nations in the Western Hemisphere. But it helps to know how it got there, which takes us back to what was happening in Du Sable’s lifetime. Emulating the ideals of both the American and French revolutions, including the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, deeply oppressed African slaves rebelled in 1791. An ill-advised expedition sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to suppress the revolution—Napoleon was more interested in financing his European wars with Haitian revenue than in honoring liberty among Africans—failed miserably when nearly 80 percent of 57,000 French troops first fell victim to yellow fever before being pounced upon by Haitian revolutionaries in their weakened state. Only a small contingent ever made it back to France alive. As time went on, however, Haiti found itself isolated in the New World. The United States, under presidents from Thomas Jefferson onward until the Civil War, refused to recognize the new republic, fearing a similar uprising among its own growing population of slaves in the South. Recognition finally happened in 1862, with the Confederacy in full rebellion against the Union and with Abraham Lincoln in the White House. The story gets much, much worse, including Haiti’s long-time mistreatment by France, its former colonial overseer, but those with more intellectual curiosity than our current U.S. president can read about it in a variety of books including Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois; the fictionalized but brutally vivid and historically accurate trilogy (starting with All Souls’ Rising) by Madison Smartt Bell, whom I met 20 years ago at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference; and the more modern history of exploitation, The Uses of Haiti by Paul Farmer. There is much more; just search Amazon or your local library. It is all there for the learning. We are at least partly responsible for helping to create the historical pattern of misery and poverty in Haiti. Its people have suffered through vicious, greedy dictators like the Duvaliers and yet bravely insisted on creating a democracy despite all obstacles.

Why do I review all this? Because, especially as we celebrate the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday and the ideals of the civil rights movement, history matters. For the President of the United States, at least a respectable knowledge of history matters, as do an open mind and a willingness to learn what matters. Little of that has been in evidence over the past year. And that remains a tragic loss for the nation.

Instead, we have a President who, before taking office, spent five years helping to peddle the canard that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and thus not a native-born U.S. citizen as required by the U.S. Constitution. Based on his recent comments, one might suspect that, all along, he regarded Kenya as among the “shithole countries.” It is small wonder, then, that he holds Obama’s legacy in such low regard. (Several years ago, while in Oahu, my wife and I met a Punahou School high school classmate of Obama, working as a tour guide, who said he knew Obama’s grandparents. “I was not in the delivery room,” he mused, but “I think I would have known” if Obama had not been born in Honolulu.)

The problem, as millions of Americans seem to understand, is that, despite Trump’s claim that these nations “do not send us their best,” our nation has a history of watching greatness arise from humble origins. Abraham Lincoln, in fact, arose from starker poverty in Kentucky and southern Illinois than many immigrants even from African nations have ever seen. Major League Baseball might be considerably diminished without the many Dominicans who have striven mightily to escape poverty and succeed, more than a few making it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. (I worked in the Dominican Republic in 2000-2001, organizing HUD-funded Spanish-language training on site planning for design professionals working on reconstruction after Hurricane Georges, and can attest first-hand to the national pride Dominicans feel about their achievements in the U.S.) How many Americans visit doctors who emanated from India, Nigeria, and other countries who saw opportunity here to expand their talents and contribute to this nation’s welfare? And, lest we forget, Steve Jobs, who created more and better American jobs through Apple than Trump ever dreamed of creating, was the son of Syrian immigrants.

Only willful ignorance and prejudice can blind us to these contributions and lead us to accept the validity of Trump’s vile observations. As adjunct assistant professor, I teach a graduate-level seminar (Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery) each year at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Since this began in 2008, I have taught not only Americans but high-quality students—in a few cases, Fulbright scholars—from places like Zambia, Haiti, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. They do not see themselves as coming from “shithole countries,” but they do perceive that they are availing themselves of excellent educational opportunities in a nation they have typically seen as a paragon of democratic ideals. Now we are undermining that perception at a breakneck pace. These students, whose full tuition helps undergird the finances of American universities, know there are viable alternatives for a modern education in Britain, France, Germany, and Canada, but until now they have believed in the promise of America.

Meanwhile, Europeans—the very people whom Trump apparently would like to see more of among our immigrant ranks—are watching this charade with alarm and dismay. I know this evidence is anecdotal, but my wife and I, as noted in recent blog posts, traveled to Norway last July. We encountered New Zealand, South African, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, German, British, and Norwegian citizens, among others, as we traveled. Almost no one we met was impressed with Trump. This is a new development in European perception of American leadership. Moreover, our perceptions then are supported by reporting in the last few days on reaction to Trump’s comments. Despite Trump asking why we cannot have more immigrants from Norway, NBC News reports that Norwegians are largely rejecting this call as “backhanded praise.” If we want more European immigration to the U.S., we would do far better impressing them with our sophistication and our commitment to the democratic ideals we have all shared since World War II.

Beyond all this, it must be noted that thousands of dedicated Americans serve overseas in the nations Trump has insulted, wearing the uniforms of the Armed Services, staffing diplomatic missions, and representing their nation in other ways. No true patriot would thoughtlessly place them in jeopardy and make their jobs more awkward than they need to be. It is one thing to face the hostility of Islamic State or other terrorist-oriented entities because of U.S. policy. Those who enlist or take overseas jobs with the U.S. government understand those risks. It is another to engender needless fear and hostility among nations that historically have been open to American influence and leadership. How do we mend fences once they perceive the U.S. President as an unapologetic bigot?

That question leads to another, more troubling one. Silence effectively becomes complicity, but far too few Republican members of Congress have found the moral backbone to confront the reality that both their party’s and their nation’s reputation will suffer lasting damage if they remain too timid to stand up to the schoolyard bully they helped elect. A few, like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Mitt Romney, and members of the Bush family, have demonstrated such integrity, but most have not. It is one thing to recognize that you badly misjudged the character of the man you nominated and helped elect. It is another entirely to refuse to speak up once it is obvious. Admittedly, Democrats right now have the easier job. But this problem transcends partisan boundaries. It is about America’s badly damaged license to lead in the world. We either reclaim it, or we begin the long, slow torture of forfeiting it.

Jim Schwab

When Words Lose Meaning

This is not going to be a polite blog post. It is going to be blunt and brief. Politeness serves a purpose in life, but mostly when engaging with other people of honest intentions but different perspectives, in an effort to keep discussion civil and respectful. It is not an effective tool in dealing with prevarication, obfuscation, and deflection.

Those are the tools of the current President of the United States, and I feel sorry for those who are so enamored of the narcissist named Donald Trump that they have become incapable of seeing this reality. But I am just stubborn and old-fashioned enough to believe there is such a thing as truth. Most of us may struggle to various degrees with the challenge of discerning it, but it does exist. And many of us also are at least aware when someone is trying to obscure it rather than illuminate it.

Let us consider the case of a presidential candidate who has only recently acknowledged, as President, the reality of Russian interference in the U.S. elections through fake news and hacking of e-mails, among other activities intended to destabilize democracy, using a set of tactics they appear poised to repeat in other nations. Trump, who last year refused to admit such things were happening, and whose campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia, now has the effrontery to tweet that then President Obama did “NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling” and that Obama “didn’t ‘choke,’ he colluded or obstructed.” And somehow, although it was Hillary Clinton who was the target of Russian interference, Obama did this to help her.

Look—as a parent and grandparent, I know a dodge when I see one. What parent of multiple children has not heard in some form the “He did it too” defense as a means of deflecting blame? I almost have to wonder about the parenting skills of those mature voters who fail to recognize this game for what it is. It almost does not matter what Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or anyone else ever actually did or failed to do; the only real point is to deflect attention in order to avoid accepting responsibility. To the extent that we allow elected officials to play this game, we voters are essentially like ineffective, overindulgent parents who fail to call their children to account. I say this without regard to party or philosophy, even though I am targeting Trump as the current deflector extraordinaire. And I am focusing on Trump because, instead of taking the presidency seriously, he is elevating this ruse to dangerous new levels.

This requires serious linguistic deconstruction to grasp what is happening. Trump as a candidate denied and ignored Russian interference even as he sarcastically urged the Russians to hack some more. (Sean Spicer now says he was joking). How is this now the focus of alleged collusion and obstruction by Obama? If Obama is guilty of anything, in the eyes of most rational and experienced observers, it is perhaps of being too cautious to warn the public until October. And even then, when Obama or other administration officials mentioned it, they were greeted with jeers and skepticism by the Trump campaign. More importantly, note the misuse of the word “obstructed.” In the context of the current investigations being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, obstruction is a legal term that refers to efforts to impede the administration of justice. In the Trump context of the recent tweet, suddenly it refers to hesitancy or inaction at a time when officials were still trying to determine the proper course of action in response to an attack on the American electoral process that Trump was insisting was not even happening. In the absence of any criminal investigation at the time, how does official inaction, to whatever extent Obama’s reluctance to go public can be characterized as such, become obstruction? Obstruction of what? And how does one collude by failing to act more quickly against an identified enemy whom Trump does not even perceive as such?

If this were an isolated instance of such an assault upon the meaning of words, I might not be writing this essay. But any astute observer, including many worried Republicans, knows by now that this is a persistent pattern—the rule of Trump, not eethe exception. Words are turned inside out, stripped of all normal meaning, deprived of context. James Comey should worry about tapes, while the White House spends weeks refusing to acknowledge tapes exist before finally deciding to say they don’t, and now we are to believe this was merely a ploy to keep Comey honest. A ploy, that is, by a president who has yet to establish his own credibility with anyone but his core followers. The president who would protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security seems woefully unaware of the contents of the Republican health care legislation, gleefully tweeting that he wants a Senate bill with “heart,” even as it starts from a premise of depriving millions of Americans of accessible health insurance through a bill that whose content was secret until only a week ago. But who cares about details when you can spend your time bashing Obama? Why spoil the fun?

Buckle your seat belts. Barring impeachment or resignation, this steady erosion of the essential meaning of words in the English language will almost assuredly continue for at least another three and a half years. The upside is that, if our democracy and constitutional system can survive this trial, it can quite possibly survive nearly anything. Keep your BS detectors fully charged and operative.


Jim Schwab

Misusing the Populist Label?

Long ago, in a graduate urban planning course at the University of Iowa called “Collective Decision Making,” I had an interesting exchange of views with Professor Mickey Lauria, now at Clemson University. We are both much older than we were in 1982, so it might be interesting to reignite our brief debate over coffee or beer, but it was a friendly, if slightly testy, intellectual debate that has taken on some new meaning for me in the context of our current presidential race. Much of what I am seeing serves to reinforce my original beliefs, but it might just as easily serve to reinforce his as well. I just don’t know. What I do know is that, in objecting to the press describing Donald Trump’s rhetoric as populist, President Barack Obama seemed to land firmly on my side of the debate. I was pleased.

As I recall, and I am relying on an excellent but certainly not perfect memory, our classroom debate occurred in the midst of a discussion about some issue regarding the politics of public housing or low-income housing development in Minneapolis, where Prof. Lauria had acquired a Ph.D. in geography just five years earlier. Most of the details of the immediate issue are now obscure, but I recall that he made some reference to populism in a way that suggested it merely meant catering to popular sentiment, which, of course, can easily be turned against disadvantaged populations on issues like adequate housing. I objected by saying, “That just means anything goes.”

Mickey turned to me with a face that suggested some disbelief, even some cynicism, and replied forcefully, “Anything always has gone, Schwab.”

I insisted, in the face of his adamant response, that populism had some clear historical origins that rose above such a broad indictment, and that it was not as simple as catering to popular prejudice. I discovered that not everyone in the class was enamored of his take on the question, though I am sure I did not win all the endorsements that day, either. Mostly, I just deserved credit for offering and articulating another perspective.

It was a classic confrontation on the question of just how the word “populist” is used. Populism has certainly been denigrated by certain political scientists like Richard Hofstadter, author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And, heaven knows, American history has been full of such sentiments, which have gained and lost ground over time. Some of it is fed by nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments, but some also is fed by resentment of privileged elites, who sometimes can be blamed for stoking such resentment with their own brands of arrogance and condescension. Coming from a working-class family yet striving for higher education and intellectual achievements, believe me, I can see both sides of the debate. I can see both the grievances of many working-class people as well as the futility of the frequent search for easy answers that can dominate their thinking. And while the targets of resentment may vary among blacks, whites, Hispanics, and others, the temptation to latch on to easy answers is omnipresent in one form or another. It is often difficult for people to take time to think more deeply and to perceive that the world can be a very complex place.

But I have never seen that as an excuse for intellectuals to see populist politics as inherently naïve or to paint it with the broad brush of the ignorance of the unwashed. In the end, in my opinion, such attitudes about what constitutes populism concede far too much to the demagogues and manipulators among us because they then wear the populist label with honor when some of them clearly deserve opprobrium.

What Mickey Lauria almost surely did not appreciate, aside from my own undergraduate education in political science, was that I had specifically done my homework on the origins of populism as a political concept in American history. Part of this was due to my move to Iowa as executive director of the small but feisty Iowa Public Interest Research Group and connecting with the politics of agricultural protest during the emergence of the 1980s farm credit crisis. That subject eventually became the focus of my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, for which I subsequently did a great deal more historical research over the next few years. But one book that had captured my attention was highly recommended by another urban planning faculty member at the time, Michael F. Sheehan, who later obtained a law degree to supplement his Ph.D. in economics, and then moved to Oregon as an environmental and public interest lawyer.

Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, by Lawrence Goodwyn, had been a game changer for me in shaping my awareness of the role of protest politics in American history. It outlined the growth of the admittedly short-lived People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s but led to the title of my first book, which came from a quote from Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Kansas populist politician of the time, who consistently told farmers that they needed to “raise less corn and more hell.” The populists essentially took over the state of Kansas in the early 1890s, a far cry from the Tea Party Republicanism that dominates there now. But their moment in the sun was relatively short. The party actually won electoral votes, largely in the West, in the 1892 presidential election, but the growing threat it posed also prompted Democratic leaders like William Jennings Bryan to engineer its absorption into the Democratic Party, where its voice became less distinctive. It articulated legitimated grievances against the industrial elite of its day, such as the railroad barons, but also worked in many instances across racial lines. It may be worth noting that similar grievances during the Great Depression prompted the emergence of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, which elected one governor, but which also was eventually absorbed into the Democratic Party after World War II in part at the urging of Hubert Humphrey.

The tragedy is that some of its leaders, like Lease, a suffragist who broke with the populists, became anti-Semitic, and suffered from self-importance, and Tom Watson of Georgia, who later descended into racist diatribes, succumbed to the enormous pressures to conform to the prejudices of the day, taking the easier route to public acceptance after the collapse of their third-party effort. But it must be said that others helped form the core of the emerging Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene Debs. Others helped minimize elitist tendencies in the progressive movement by keeping its focus on issues of economic justice for the working class, exemplified later in the Wisconsin initiatives of Robert LaFollette.

There is no question that much of this poses problematic history and that its implications are subject to debate. But I also think that populism at least presented an articulate alternative for a large segment of public opinion that felt oppressed by powerful forces emerging in the post-Civil War American economy. I would also ask what movement for social justice has ever failed to experience its growing pains, including often severe backlash from the powerful interests representing the status quo. Think of the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, and gay rights. The big difference with populism was that it once threatened the status quo not just with demonstrations but with viable candidates for elected office. No wonder the powers of the day reacted so vehemently.

That leaves the question of what has become of the populist label. Is it now whatever we decide it means whenever someone like Donald Trump can rouse large audiences to an angry froth by scapegoating minorities, immigrants, and women who do not conform to his expectations? If so, we had best be careful about the mantle we are allowing such leaders to wear and what they will do with it, for it will then take on authoritarian and fascist dimensions. On the other hand, if we insist, as President Obama did, that there must be a strong element of actually positively representing and fighting for the interests of working people, we can deny Trump and his ilk a hero’s label they have not earned. Demonstrably, Sen. Bernie Sanders has made a clearer case for building an honest populist movement in this century, whatever the shortcomings of his campaign, which did far better than most people ever expected, most likely including Sanders himself, who seems in any case to prefer the label “democratic socialist.” Curiously, that self-description seems not to be hurting him politically, although most politicians would have run from that label in panic.

Many have argued that both Sanders and Trump mounted populist campaigns. I would argue that both tapped into a palpable anger at the nation’s current political leadership, but that, while one is opening old wounds, another is trying to heal them. One is focused largely on himself; the other is actually building a movement for social change.

As I did in 1982, I still argue that the way we use the populist label has serious political implications, and that using it loosely and thoughtlessly may have dangerous consequences for our national political dialogue. The news media, in particular, need to rethink this one. Unfortunately, many reporters have only a cursory knowledge of history.


Jim Schwab

Knowing Much about History


Cover ImageCover ImageI may be one of the few non-historians to have read at least one biography of every

George Washington

George Washington

U.S. President from George Washington through Barack Obama. The fact that I earned a B.A. in Political Science at Cleveland State University way back in 1973 may make my quest seem a little less oddball, but my effort to tackle such a mission in chronological order did not begin until 1997. It was aided at times by serving as a biography judge for the Society of Midland Authors book awards for several years, which resulted in my receiving copies of presidential biographies at times, but mostly those supplemented reading I had already done.

And what did I achieve? Something I suspect many voters lack—a long-term, in-depth perspective on how the office has evolved and what has allowed a relatively few men so far to succeed in the job. It is now historically possible that a few women may succeed (or fail), with gender, like race and religion, rapidly falling by the wayside as an obstacle on the road to the White House. I, for one, am happy to see the nation expand its pool of viable candidates beyond the white guys, however capable some of them might be. Judging from this year’s race, our nation needs all the help it can get.

Harry Truman

Harry Truman

It took me 17 years in spare time—amid child rearing and professional travel and responsibilities and life’s many diversions—and a lot of reading to reach my goal. My list includes several behemoths between 500 and 1,000 pages, the longest of which was David McCullough’s Truman (just shy of four figures). Some were far easier reading than others, not so much because they were intellectually lighter fare, but just because they were better written. McCullough is one of the true masters of biography; not every author is. Some presidents have attracted the interest of the best; others have been memorialized by more mediocre authors. It is all in the nature of the business.

So what if I could at least offer a shortcut for those still trying to get some broad perspectives on the presidency in the midst of one of the most puzzling and unpredictable races in decades? Bill Yenne, a veteran nonfiction author, has offered just that recently in The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, an illustrated compendium of summaries, ranging from two (Chester Arthur) to fourteen pages (Franklin Roosevelt), of the lives and presidencies of those 43 men who have served

Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

as our 44 presidents since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. (If you haven’t heard already, Grover Cleveland is the one president who served two nonconsecutive terms and is thus counted twice. He is actually the subject of a very good biography, An Honest President, by H. Paul Jeffers).

With the background outlined above, I can judge pretty accurately, and Yenne’s summary presentations for the most part do a very good job of capturing the highlights of each presidency and the big issues each man faced. Illustrated, it includes sidebar sketches of each First Lady and vice-president, as well as the candidates each president defeated on his way to the White House. It is fun reading. Occasional copy editing errors or wrong dates mar the overall effect for an ersatz perfectionist like me, though many people might not notice, and these errata are few and far between. That said, the book could easily serve as a handy reference point for people curious about past presidents in a year when the future seems so uncertain. It could even make a very good birthday present if you know someone who was born during primary season, or before November, and who cares about U.S. history.

Who knows, get hooked on this one, and you might decide to go deeper like me. Before you know it, you’ll be a presidential history junkie. Worse things could happen to you. Trust me.

(All images courtesy of Zenith Press.)

Jim Schwab

America’s Problem

There has been considerable angst in recent weeks about relations between police officers and young black men, and more than a little finger-pointing. While I certainly think this nation needs ongoing discussions about how race relations affect police activity and vice versa, that is not the immediate subject of this blog. Instead, I want to turn to a different aspect of race relations in the United States that I think is undeniable, and yet will be denied by certain segments of the population. It is the ongoing inability of some people to accept the legitimacy of African American leadership even when a majority of Americans have supported it.

I spent the first week of December in Washington, D.C., at a series of meetings big and small, mostly with two federal agencies but also with others. It was only as the week was coming to a close, and I was killing time eating a dinner of shrimp, clam chowder, and beer in the Legal Sea Foods restaurant at Reagan National Airport that I got an interesting revelation by initiating a conversation with the man seated next to me at the bar, where people often get their dinner when they want faster seating than waiting for a table might provide. Besides, being a naturally gregarious sort, I find it relatively easy to strike up such conversations, which might be more difficult if I chose to sit by myself.

In this case, my conversation partner turned out to be a retired U.S. Navy officer who, among other things, talked about the challenges posed to some naval facilities by global warming and sea level rise. He manifested a trend in defense thinking that runs directly counter to Tea Party ideologues who see talk of climate change as some sort of left-wing conspiracy. This man noted the rise in sea levels in places like Diego Garcia, a remote island naval base in the Indian Ocean, and what it might mean over time. But the conversation started when he ordered a New Zealand wine, and I casually remarked on my experience with the subject after receiving some bottles of New Zealand red as gifts for speaking during my visiting fellowship there in 2008. That led to discussion of disaster work, and his comparing military response to disasters to my work on long-term community recovery through urban planning.

Somehow that led to a discussion of visits to Hawaii. I noted that, on our visit there in 2011, my wife and I had taken a rainforest tour in Oahu. It turned out that the tour guide had been a classmate of Barack Obama at the Punahoe School in Honolulu, and he joked, “I must be one of the underachievers.” But I added that he also noted that, on a previous tour, a Marine “birther” had challenged him on the idea that Obama was born in Hawaii and was thus a U.S. citizen. The tour guide laughed and said he told the Marine, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, but I went to school with him and I knew his mother and grandparents.”

The now retired naval officer noted his disgust with those who questioned Obama’s citizenship, stating that the advocates of such nonsense had turned “a lifelong Republican into a Democrat in the last ten years.” He then expressed a desire to see the right-wing Republicans who raise such questions focus on more substantive issues and quit pursuing issues that, in his view, were a waste of everyone’s time.  He was a very practical man who preferred to solve real problems rather than chase phantoms.

It struck me that a good deal of the far-right criticism of President Obama has been of this nature, but that there is a reason. After all, even before he was elected, Obama was the target of accusations and insinuations that he was a Muslim, that he secretly hated white people, and so forth. American politics has always been to some degree a fountain of character assassination, but over the years most of it has stayed in bounds. With the Obama presidency, however, there seem to be no limits. Most of the issues I have mentioned—the birth controversy, his alleged devotion to Islam, and so forth—are issues absolutely without factual foundation, yet they have circulated and maintain a hard core of believers that polls have often shown to be in the low double digits. To me, anything above the very low single digits in support for such blatant lies is somewhat frightening. I find it troubling that so many fellow Americans readily accept and even advocate such outrageous nonsense. And, frankly, I strongly suspect that a great deal of it emanates from the inability of a certain segment of the population to accept the legitimacy of a black man, even a biracial man, in the White House. Some people seemingly cannot reconcile themselves to the reality of black political leadership at the highest level of government. Never mind the obvious fact that a sizeable minority of whites had to vote for the man, or he would never have become president in the first place.

That brings to mind a small item in Business Week’s recent special issue celebrating its 85th anniversary. The magazine lists, in reverse order, the 85 most significant disruptive innovations during its years in business. Far down the list is the Republican Party’s southern strategy, first enunciated under President Richard Nixon. The aim was to use coded racial appeals to woo the Deep South away from the Democratic Party, taking advantage of resentment among white voters over civil rights. It has worked like a charm, cementing what is now a Republican “Solid South,” but, the magazine notes, the presidency has become a “poisoned chalice” for the GOP because the party’s tactics and ideology have alienated many former adherents of the Party of Lincoln in places like California and the Northeast, which now form a solid block of Democratic support. As a long-time Chicagoan, I would add to that Illinois, which after all generated Obama in the first place. What is interesting in Illinois is that Republicans can win here—but only if they are socially moderate while fiscally conservative. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who died recently only a month after winning re-election to statewide office, was a testament to that proposition, and someone who routinely criticized the more extreme factions of the Republican Party. Bruce Rauner, the governor-elect who defeated Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn, made obvious appeals to and inroads into the African American community. The state fiscal mess created by Illinois’s Democratic legislative leaders added to Quinn’s vulnerability because of his perceived inability to gain control of the situation.

But try to elect a Tea Party or far-right Republican statewide, and you are headed for electoral disaster. Obama handily defeated such a candidate, Alan Keyes (also African American), in 2004 to become U.S. Senator. Illinois voters tolerate many things, but extremism is not one of them.

Now, mind you, I do not mean to imply that any disagreement with President Obama is suspect on these grounds. There is plenty of room to disagree with any U.S. president, and I cannot think of any in my lifetime with whom I would not have some differences on some issues. That includes Obama; there are decisions he has made with which I can at least quibble, and some to which I have serious objections. In most cases, however, there is a good deal of room for compromise. Instead, in Obama’s case, from the very beginning there have been indications that some people had no intention of reaching accommodation with him on any issues whatsoever. The degree of vituperation and name calling has been at times absurd, shameful, and ridiculous.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to see this vituperation as a backdrop to the whole discussion that is now taking place on the streets about police relations with minorities. It is a testament to the fact that there are more than a few among us who lack any capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, especially the shoes of anyone of a different ethnic or racial group. It goes without saying that those lacking capacity for empathy are usually the last to recognize that fact.


Jim Schwab