Column: Looking for hope in the face of Trump’s very firm base

  • Los Angeles Times/TNS illustration -- Wes Bausmith

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Saturday, June 08, 2019

One puzzle future historians will be eager to solve is what really explains the continued support for President Donald Trump long after anyone paying attention can see his disdain for nearly all that has made America great.

If the answer were simple, Democrats might have found effective ways to charm Trump’s base. And you’d think his support might have diminished by now anyway, given the persistent efforts of journalists all over the world to reveal the potentially catastrophic effects of Trump’s policies, as well as the corrosive power of his lies. But his boosters’ numbers stay pretty steady, sometimes growing in the face of scandals and the exposure of lies.

A partial explanation for his durable support occurred to me recently while reading the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013). She explores the influences of race and racism in the United States. Among other things, she considers the joy and hope Barack Obama’s election brought to black people. And Americanah reminded me of my own failure to understand what his election meant to many white people.

After Obama was elected in 2008, gun sales grew dramatically, and many gun dealers reportedly ran out of ammunition. “It started the day that Obama got elected,” Johnny Dury, of Dury’s Gun Shop in San Antonio, Texas, told NPR. “It is when everything just went crazy in the gun business.” Like many who commented on the gun and ammunition sales surge, I assumed this was primarily a response to the election of a Democrat expected to push for gun regulations the National Rifle Association and other gun rights organizations claimed would put the country on the slippery slope to gun confiscation.

It’s a mistake to underestimate the influence of the NRA, but after reading Americanah, I’ve concluded the response to Obama’s election was probably more visceral than that.

As an outsider who came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1996 at 19 and has lived here off and on since then, Adichie sees the power of racism here with unusual clarity.  The protagonist in Americanah, Ifemelu, a woman whose story has many similarities with Adichie’s, is shaken by her encounters with racist behavior when she comes to the U.S. for a college education. She is humiliated in ways she never thought possible.

Reading of Ifemelu’s experience reminded me of disgraceful things I heard and saw while growing up in Oregon, a state the black writer Ernest Gaines once told me he considered “the Alabama of the West.” It occurred to me for the first time that ammunition probably disappeared from gun shop shelves mainly because people were afraid of what it could mean to have a black president in power.

Obama surely understood this fear. He rarely expressed anger or “played the race card,” as his critics put it, when he did mention the continuing influence of racism in our country.

We will never know how many of the people who provide Trump’s seemingly indestructible base are moved by racial fear. Still, considering the increasing influence of white supremacists in our time, continuing efforts to defend symbols of the Confederacy, and widespread resistance to conversations about race, it seems clear racial fear, like misogyny, is a largely unacknowledged, and potentially lethal, wound to our national psyche.

The U.S. is not the only nation with such a wound. But a powerful fusion of racism and misogyny, joined recently with increasing anti-Semitism, produces violence, hate, injustice and political instability here at home. And because America’s power has grown so vast, our president’s daily stoking of these fires adds immeasurably to the international crisis.

There is almost no sign the Republican Party, which helped to end American slavery more than 150 years ago, will turn its back on the president or the people who support his tweets and rallies and policy proposals. And there is no telling what will happen between now and the day historians fix on reasons for Trump’s resilient base.

But with his recent essay “The Takeback” in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik finds hope in the historical analysis that has already begun. He compares our current predicament with Reconstruction, a shameful time in American history. Relying on Henry Louis Gates’ new book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, as well as the work of other historians, Gopnik makes this convincing case: The “long fight for freedom, with too many losses along the way” continued in the years after the Civil War despite the disappointment and sense of betrayal black people felt when they continued to be denied their full citizenship and true equality. Jim Crow laws and violent white supremacy, epitomized by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, stole their hopeful dreams from them. However, Gopnik concludes his essay with hope: “Resilience and resistance are the same activity, seen at different moments in the struggle. It’s a good thought to hold on to now.”

Comparing our predicament now with Reconstruction, both Gopnik and Gates have in mind specifically the hope-filled vision of racial reconciliation that came alive with the election of Barack Obama, only to be followed eight years later by the election of Donald Trump. It’s a potentially heartening comparison when you consider the grim similarities between Trump and President Andrew Johnson, who took office when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson was impeached. He escaped conviction by a single vote, but did not run for a second term.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.