Did the Obama Backlash Give Us Donald Trump?

Did the Obama Backlash Give Us Donald Trump?

A supporter of US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump stands up and shouts as US President Barack Obama speaks at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, North Carolina, November 4, 2016, during a Hillary for America campaign event.

SourceJim Watson/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because sometimes breaking down a big barrier can also be a huge obstacle to progress.

Psychologists call it moral licensing. We’re all guilty of it: After doing something virtuous and boosting our own self-image as someone who does good things, we let ourselves indulge in more unseemly ones, whether it’s eating that candy bar following a jog, checking Facebook once we’ve completed a task at work or, perhaps, living through a history-making election of the first Black president, then watching many engage in levels of prejudice that others thought were well behind us.

Indeed, such behavioral concessions do more than just ruin diets or lower worker productivity. Writ large, they can allow a social majority to open the doors of opportunity to the traditionally excluded — only to use such generosity as a license to return to their old ways. “Maybe Donald Trump is what you get when you’ve had two terms of Obama,” best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, who explored moral licensing in an episode of his podcast Revisionist History, recently told CNN. Somewhat counterintuitively, he argued, “the thing that perpetuates prejudice is acts of openness.”

Obama’s presidency increased levels of what scholars call “old-school racism” — the belief in the biological inferiority of African-Americans.

As odd as it may seem, there are a nontrivial number of American voters who voted for Obama and for Trump. But the racial backlash against the Obama presidency started well before the 2016 election. No American president has been forced to defend his own citizenship and legitimacy as much as Obama — thanks in no small part to the man who is now replacing him. And, according to a Brown University study, Obama’s presence in the White House has increased levels of what scholars call “old-school racism” — the belief in the biological inferiority of African-Americans — within the U.S.

Levels of more implicit racial resentment also appear to have increased. A 2009 Stanford study found that being an Obama supporter made participants more likely to favor white job applicants at the expense of Black ones, and a 2011 University of Michigan study also found that Obama’s election raised opposition to race-related policies like affirmative action. Far from leading America toward some sort of post-racial society, Obama’s presidency seems — at least in the short term — to have exacerbated racial divisions in the country, with animus boiling over in 2016 with the election of a man attracting the support of segments of white America opposed to immigrants, Muslims and other nonwhite minority groups and women.

To be sure, as Tyler Okimoto, a management scholar at the University of Queensland and an expert on political backlash and restorative justice, points out, Obama’s election has had a positive impact as well, including what psychologists call “the Obama effect” — the improved test scores of African-American children as a result of the boosted confidence provided by an increase in perceived opportunity and positive role models. And the racial backlash has promoted its own backlash, rekindling a culture of protest and resistance, such as the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, as Okimoto argues, the rise in racial conflict in recent years is not just a product of those who are lashing out at minority groups but also “reflects a newfound confidence and unwillingness to continue the cycle of racial bias” in America. Or, as Gladwell observed at OZY Fusion Fest this summer, “Black Lives Matter is not a sign of the country falling apart … it is a sign of the health of the country.”

In the end, the existence of a social backlash need not depend on moral licensing or on the history-making elevation of a traditional outsider. Even without Hillary Clinton being elected president, the misogyny and sexism stirred up by her candidacy among Trump supporters will probably not be going away anytime soon. “The kind of campaign Trump has run has given license to people who are sexist and those who don’t like Hillary Clinton to speak and condemn her in a way that was for a very long time seen as completely inappropriate,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University and co-author of Women on the Run: Gender, Media and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era.

Can we expect such a backlash to continue in the coming years of a Trump presidency? That will depend in large part on Trump himself and what he does, including what actions by his supporters he condones, says Lawless. And if the past is prologue, then the tempest of tension that has engulfed the country this year will not abate anytime soon, and forging a more perfect union, as Obama so often refers to it, will mean dealing with the sometimes nasty realities of an imperfect one.

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