Barack Obama is a famously optimistic rhetorician. He’s also one who doesn’t really do “bad guys.” The enemies in his speeches are always unnamed and merely alluded to. He’s also extremely even-handed, in typical fashion balancing a slam on people who deny that racism is real and important with a call on people of color to empathize with “the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he's got all the advantages, but who's seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.”
But for one brief, shining moment, Obama stopped being polite and started being real.
“If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities,” he said, “then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
It does not take a genius to understand who is who in this parable. Donald Trump, who was born rich and lives in a gold-plated tower, is a wealthy person who can withdraw further into his private enclaves. So is his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. So is his billionaire education secretary, Betsy DeVos. So is his billionaire commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. So is the Goldman Sachs executive he’s tapped to run the National Economic Council and the Goldman Sachs trader turned hedge fund manager he’s tapped to run the Treasury Department. This crew is laughing all the way to the bank as white working-class voters install a new regime based on regressive tax cuts and bank deregulation.
And in this brief section of the speech, Obama mercifully spared us the tired pieties that have dominated discussion of this topic since Trump won.
He didn’t balance the ledger with a slam on identity politics. He didn’t argue that white people’s economic pain is somehow more authentic or meaningful. He identified, correctly, that the economic woes of the working class of all ethnicities are caused, to a large extent, by the racism of a subset of the working class that leads them to prefer a politics of white supremacy to a politics of economic uplift.
This commitment to white supremacy is, Obama argued, deadly to the future of the country:
If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce. And our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.
What Obama chose not to dwell on, given the tenor of the occasion, is that this broad-based income growth didn’t impress everyone. Older and less educated white Americans embraced Donald Trump’s story that the country was going to hell in a handbasket, and as soon as he won, they immediately started saying the economy was good again. Actual results in the form of rising incomes weren’t good enough. Trump telling them the good old boys were back on top again was.
Obama pivoted, later, to the existence of profound threats to America as a democratic society. Those threats are real and important enough. But having taken office amid a ruinous recession that essentially wiped out a generation’s worth of middle-class income growth in the course of a couple of years, I wish he’d paid more attention to banal threats. Trump is proposing to bring back the exact policy mix of tax cuts for millionaires and deregulation for banks and fossil fuel extractors that brought the global economy to its knees under George W Bush. Economic policy will be crafted at the highest levels by and for the inheritors of large fortunes.
Obama is far too polite a man and far too savvy a politician to say so plainly, but the message, if you read between the lines, is clear enough: White working-class Trump supporters played themselves this November.