Op-Ed: From wise and thoughtful Obama to thin-skinned and mean-spirited Trump

After eight years of “No Drama Obama,’’ the spectacle of Donald Trump continues to be quite a bit to absorb.

As the shock of November’s election has faded, we’ve been forced to consider the brass tacks of Trump’s plan to remake this country. For many of us, the scenario still seems surreal.

Obama’s presidency normalized inclusion. Gay marriage was, finally, celebrated. Mixed-race families became a mainstay of advertising campaigns. Every American was considered valuable enough to deserve health coverage.

Now our wise and thoughtful commander in chief is handing the country over to a thin-skinned, mean-spirited egomaniac who thinks that lobbing insults is a form of governance.

I’m trying to wrap my head around how the most ambitious nation on Earth moved so quickly from the optimism and confidence of “Hope” and “Change” and “Yes, We Can” to pitchforks and fistfights and promises that building walls and bullying will “Make America Great Again.”


Trump’s campaign normalized belligerent intolerance. Taunts became a stand-in for conversation. Demonizing entire groups made clear the distance between “them” and “us.”

Whatever happens in Trump’s presidency, I will not absolve him of the malignancy he bred with his dog-whistle campaign.

I have acquaintances — middle-aged, Midwestern and white — who voted for Trump. They’ve been a bit embarrassed by his juvenile behavior since election day but believe he will redeem himself. I’ve listened to them explain the reasons for Trump’s appeal: A populist movement. Hillary Clinton’s inadequacies. The economic dislocation thing.

But whatever forces inspired them also sent a message to millions of others, including me, that we are the problem, that if America could just keep out, send back, lock up or ignore enough of us problems, the country would be great again.

Trump didn’t say that directly. But it’s clear that many of his most ardent followers got the message. Bigots freed from chains of political correctness have begun waving Confederate flags, scrawling swastikas on synagogues, and taunting, threatening and picking fights with anyone they deem not American enough.

Much was made in 2008 of Obama’s landmark win. How we’d outrun our history. How good we looked in the eyes of the world. How brave and open-minded we were. But Obama’s victory did little to loosen the nation’s grip on prejudice. Anti-black attitudes and racial division have risen in the eight years since he was elected. The black president’s mere presence provoked a backlash.

Obama’s rise was dogged by efforts to delegitimize him — launched by the vile “birther” campaign waged by Trump and expressed in the shocking “You lie!” shout by a Republican lawmaker who heckled the president during his healthcare speech to a joint session of Congress.

Now Obama’s opponents are asking that we show our patriotism by supporting Trump’s efforts.

Black folks have always been willing to forgive, by nature and necessity. Witness the unfathomable display of grace from the families of nine black worshipers murdered in a South Carolina church by white supremacist Dylann Roof. One by one, they spoke at Roof’s court hearings, extending forgiveness to the man who massacred their loved ones.

I am not feeling noble right now. Whatever happens in Trump’s presidency, I will not absolve him of the malignancy he bred with his dog-whistle campaign.

Every day I try to believe that his bluster will fade and principle will emerge. But every day he says or does something to remind me of what a dangerous doofus he is.

Still, Trump didn’t manufacture this nation’s racial division, just as Obama didn’t create the racial tension that shadowed his presidency. And perhaps the slimmest of silver linings in our new reckoning with intolerance might be found in its raw honesty.

If we want to bridge the deep divisions that Trump’s victory revealed, we have to acknowledge the haters in our midst — and dilute the newfound confidence they feel.

For years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, I’d brace myself for hate mail and ugly online posts whenever I wrote about race. The messages hurt, made me angry, frightened me — and always left me wondering: Were these the demented ramblings of some tiny but prolific racist fringe, or might ordinary people standing in line with me at Starbucks harbor hateful prejudice?

I didn’t know how to answer that question then. I have my answer now.

And yet there is the possibility that the Trump presidency will require us to focus on the values that have actually made America great, like courage and compassion.

It may also energize this nation’s young people, the “generation coming up” that Obama called upon in his farewell speech and characterized as unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic. I suspect the election has been their wake-up call.

Obama’s presidency offered them a window on glimmering possibilities. He drew more than 69 million voters into his vision of a country that valued fairness and nourished diversity.

But where Obama opened up a window, Trump installed a mirror. His campaign exposed a country at war with itself. The next four years will give us a chance to decide whether we can live with our reflection.

Sandy Banks was a Times staff reporter, editor and columnist for more than three decades. She is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

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