Over the last year, it’s been astonishing to see how the bar for basic decorum has been lowered for U.S. President Donald Trump.
Every time Trump––or anyone from his administration for that matter––tweets, I think about how different the reaction would be if any other elected official had peddled the same blatant lies and half-truths that we’ve seen during his brief tenure. What would we hear from vehement right-wing Republicans and ardent “we need to move away from identity politics” liberals?
Consider the following questions: What would Republicans say if, well, President Barack Obama had spent an inordinate amount of his time tweeting? Or if he and Democrats demanded that Ex-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a U.S. citizen whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from India, show his birth certificate?
What would be the reaction if Russians had hacked Republican National Committee computers and engaged in covert political propaganda to––at the most––help Hillary Clinton win, and––at the least––discredit Trump?
What if, say, after Clinton had won, she and her husband ex-President Bill Clinton were cordial toward Russian President Vladimir Putin?
To be president, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds … Donald Trump had to be rich and White.––Ta’Nehisi Coates
Or, wait, imagine a Black congressman asking on national TV, what “sub group” has contributed more to civilization than Black people, à la Republican Iowa Rep. Steve King?
What if pundits in the “liberal” media asserted that we need to call Dylann Roof a “radical white Christian extremist,” and that to avoid doing so was “political correctness?”
If Obama, like Trump, had been caught bragging on camera that he sexually assaulted women (while he was married to Michelle), how many Black folks, let alone Whites, would jump to frame it as “locker-room talk?” Would we support Obama before and after a host of women had accused him of groping them?
What if incoming First Lady Michelle Obama had plagiarized a speech by outgoing First Lady Laura Bush like Melania Trump? What would be the mainstream reaction if First Lady Obama fake-smiled and grimaced while standing behind President Obama?
Would voters call Fox News “biased” if it cited something straight from Bernie Sanders’ mouth? Then how would Fox react if Sanders tweeted, “Dishonest Faux News!”?
What if Hillary won, and bragged about her historic win, even though she lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes? What if Hillary won on a campaign pledge that purportedly championed the working class, and then appointed nothing but millionaires and billionaires to her cabinet? What if her first act as president made it harder for middle-class homeowners to own property?
How would Republicans, who obstructed President Obama to an unprecedented degree for eight straight years, react to even minimal opposition to President Trump, let alone a Democratic House member yelling “You lie!” at him during a speech or a governor wagging a finger in his face?
Building Walls To Hide Mediocrity
I raise these questions to show that bias is part of the human condition. It reifies many assumed binaries––good and evil, weak and strong, right and wrong, winners and losers. But there is much more at work in terms of the leaps and stretches taken to redeem Trump’s inadequacies. Republicans, but also Democrats, are allowing the standards and practices of American politics to devolve in ways in which we can’t afford.
There are a host of cultural structures and strictures that compelled the election results that goes beyond mere “economic anxiety,” anti-elitism, or anti-political correctness. When it comes to oppression, critics tend to think in terms of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, classism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and other structures. But maybe those walls are meant to hide the fact that the emperor, indeed, has no clothes.
A culture that says men are superior to women affords men certain privileges that women are not privy to, including equal pay. As a result, men can outstrip women in achievements, despite their mediocrity. This is a general probability, not a truism, that may explain why Hillary Clinton was held to a different standard than Trump.
And for all of these “isms,” the more people wield the power that socially constructed superiority affords them, the more mediocre they are allowed to be, the harder they will fight to maintain artificial constructs and walls. Writer and scholar Ta-Nehisi Coates said it best:
“To be president, [Obama] had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking to two different worlds … Donald Trump had to be rich and White.”
Obama had to be excellent in virtually every aspect of his presidential campaigns, particularly in 2008, and appeal to the widest, most diverse base as possible. There are several reasons Clinton lost the presidential election––beyond emailgate or her “basket of deplorables” comment. She was one of––if not the most conventionally “qualified”––presidential candidates in American history, but she did not appeal to enough White Americans.
The Truth About Identity Politics
To become the nation’s 45th President, Trump appealed categorically to White people, and peripherally to everyone else.
But there were social forces much bigger than Clinton, ones that she could not account for, and ones that Trump benefited from. One of them is how deeply race is embedded in U.S. politics, and ways in which it can be manipulated in order to win.
We try to avoid it, but regardless of race, class, gender, political ideology, religion, citizenship status, etc., scores of Americans believe in one incredibly powerful logical fallacy: progress for people of color, especially Black people, is achieved by taking something from White people.
That base assumption is central to an array of discourse and stereotypes––welfare recipients, ‘”job stealing immigrants,” affirmative action, what people think of when they hear diversity, which immigrants should be denigrated, why, and for how long. That is the rocky foundation on which Americans stand anytime race and politics inhabit the same space.
To be clear, I don’t think any reasonable person could dismiss the fact that to win, Trump tapped into the zeitgeist of the 21st century––economic anxiety.
But it’s dangerous to overlook the identity politics embedded in our democracy, especially ones that allowed such a (relative to historical and common standards) demonstratively unqualified person to become president. It’s why the logic of “deserving” and “undeserving” working class exists in the first place. It’s why the rationale about why poor White Americans are poor versus, let’s say, why poor Black or Latino Americans are poor, is different, even when they share the same economic reality.
It’s why Americans who grow up in the most diverse neighborhoods in coastal cities are said to live in “liberal bubbles,” while millions who have never seen a Muslim are “heartland Americans.” It’s why folks can vote for politicians who promise to diminish globalization’s effect in their town, even though the same politicians know for a fact that, due to outsourcing and automation, certain jobs simply do not exist anymore.
It’s why millions can believe our country is perpetually exceptional, express fiery outrage when minorities express anything less than jingoistic love of country, and in the next moment, galvanize around the idea that America “doesn’t win anymore” and needs to be made great “again.”
Mediocrity vs. Hypocrisy
Though all of these are contradictions, I am deliberately using the term “mediocrity” instead of “hypocrisy” because part of what fuels mediocrity is ignoring the fact that standards are applied differently to different groups. It’s one thing to acknowledge contradiction. It’s another thing to not see it as such. It is committing to a bias so fervently that it turns objectivity into a concession.
Trump is our President. And though he comes from a world of reality TV, this is the reality for the next four to eight years. But the logic used to justify his words and actions are diametrically opposed to the standards we set for the majority of this country, politicians or not. Forfeiting those standards should not be a badge of honor, or sign of solidarity. It’s merely a power-grab; posturing and positioning within the new order of the things. In the midst of Black History Month, it’s bitterly ironic that we are shedding light on the exceptional Hidden Figures of America as we watch the beginning of an “alternative facts” presidency.
How low can the bar go?
Joshua Adams is a writer and arts & culture journalist from Chicago. He holds a B.A. in African-American Studies from the University of Virginia and a M.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California. His writings often explain current and historical cultural phenomena through personal narratives. Follow him on Twitter at @JournoJoshua.