The election of Barack Obama, our first black president, was an amazing thing to have happen in a nation founded on segregation, slavery, and the marginalization of people of color. Unfortunately, it created a never before seen level of resentment and social strife that is currently playing out in our political arena, where he is accused by some mainstream Republicans of dividing society with his brand of ‘racialized’ politics, while others beat the drum and scream about having to “Make America Great Again” after eight years of Obama policies.
So, what is this “Great America” that Trump and his followers want to make again?
When Obama was elected President, it served as evidence to many Americans that we have broken through a barrier—that our society had moved past its racist past, and any past (or present) racial differences were wiped clean from our collective slate. By this measure, any new instances of institutional or implicit racism must be unwarranted. You see, White Americans tend to judge racial progress by comparing the present to the past. How can society be racist against blacks and other minorities when we elected a black president?
This bizarre factoid was recently examined by psychologists Clara Wilkins and Cheryl Kaiser in 2014. They found that some people view racial progress—such as the election of President Obama—as a sign of significant binary change that has suddenly turned the world on its head. Because America suddenly elected a black President, it must mean that whites must now be a minority themselves. Further, because whites are (as they feel) a minority, they are more inclined to believe that their own racial group is the marginalized one. As new “minorities”, whites believe that their put upon status negates and cancels out any claims of discrimination made by actual minorities. After all, Obama is President, so…
Even worse in this equation is the understanding that demographics are rapidly shifting in America. Knowing that America’s Latino/Hispanic population is growing, and that within 30 (or so) years, whites will no longer be the majority in America, has had a serious psychological effect. Merely thinking about this impending ethnic demographic shift has important emotional consequences for whites. Some see this impending change and growing ethnic diversity as a threat to the world they know, and this heightened sense of threat is expressed in increased negative feelings toward ethnic minorities and an increase in feelings of victimization and a threat to what it means to be America. It’s easy for people feeling threatened to grab hold of platitudes like Trump’s “Make America great again” and to cheer when he talks about building a wall to keep Mexicans out—after all, something needs to be done to stop this inevitable change from happening and to reinstitute the America they once knew.
Unfortunately, no matter how bigoted Trump gets in the campaign—silently accepting white supremacist robocalls or tiptoeing around the direct endorsement of Klansman David Duke—the psychological barriers created by the fear of demographic change serves as a buffer to his supporters who would previously have been horrified that their candidate of choice is backed by white supremacists. After all, if black people and other minorities can support a candidate like President Obama, who represents the gain of minority America at the expense of white America, they should be able to support a candidate who promises to change this back… to make America great again (for them), even if he is the worst candidate for America itself.