I just watched, for the first time in a while, the Saturday Night Live skit from right after the 2016 presidential election.
“Oh my God, I think America is racist,” says Cecily Strong’s character, stunned as Donald Trump is about to be called the winner.
“Oh my God,” responds Dave Chappelle’s character with amused sarcasm.
Watching it even now is like being smacked in the head.
I was no different than the white people in that room. My election viewing companions and I had had similar banter. It turns out our disbelief was coming from a place of naiveté.
Given what has been transpiring with regard to race in the years since Trump was elected, I am realizing how detached from reality I was. I’m not going to dwell in the embarrassment I feel, but I do want to acknowledge that it’s there.
(Incidentally, supporters of the President may as well just skip this column altogether, because even though it’s about you, writ large it is not about you at all. It seeks to illuminate a pervasive poison in our culture. By all accounts this week, in the wake of Trump’s racist comments about four freshman Congresswomen of color, you don’t think there’s anything to illuminate.)
So, back to those who see, upon hard examination, a situation that cannot be ignored.
Who would have thought that a corrupt, amoral narcissist in the White House and the invention of smart phones would converge and show us how prevalent racism still is in the United States?
Sure, people of color were trying to tell us they were being overwhelmingly profiled by some police officers, harassed, and even unfairly beaten or killed. But until we started seeing the videos from those trusty phones, we couldn’t even begin to comprehend the depth and breadth of systemic racism in law enforcement.
Now we know.
It’s not like I was completely closed off to this. I have been writing about race since my early days as a reporter. I’ve been paying attention, calling out racist behavior, trying to be better myself. I began shutting down biased comments made in my presence, happy in the knowledge that racist people were not going to bring that crap to my door.
I really thought I was listening. I felt like I understood my privilege. Barack Obama was elected — twice. That didn’t mean racism was erased, I figured, but that it was at least in retreat. Our national consciousness was on a trajectory. So much awareness and healing.
I wrote about Trump’s bloviating birther-ism while it was happening, but never thought it was anything more than a blip, a sad reach for whiter times in America. He was a fool looking for attention.
It didn’t occur to me that this could become a movement. Not until he seriously started running for President and I started seeing lawn signs with his name on them all over Ocean and Monmouth counties in New Jersey. I was startled and that soon turned to disgust. Oh my God, as Cecily Strong’s character says in that skit.
In the wee hours of election night 2016, I wrote this post on Facebook:
There’s no questioning it now. We are a frightened, hateful country. No other explanation for so many lining up behind a madman.
Later, in the same thread, I added this:
I am genuinely afraid for my Latino, Muslim, African-American, and gay fellow citizens. Violence against them will escalate and be encouraged. Their rights are at risk. Journalists will now be under siege. Personally, my health insurance is in jeopardy, but I am more concerned with all the people who finally got insurance because they have pre-existing conditions. This just scratches the surface. He’s a loose cannon.
Since then I’ve been called out by friends and family who find it insulting that I named Trump’s (and their) bigotry. My aunt decided Facebook was a great place to tell me to “have some respect” for the President and to “come out of the closet already.” First of all, I’m not gay despite being 57 and not married. Second, she thinks this was an insult because, well, duh. Third, imagine if I was gay and she was outing me on a public forum. Charming.
This is a picture of a Trump supporter plucked right from the family tree.
And even at that I could not have imagined how the racist behavior of our President – do I really need to list it all again? — would bring so many racists out of hiding. They had always been there, which of course people of color had tried to tell us. Hence, we are shocked and they are not at all surprised. We’re reeling and they’re shrugging, not from apathy but from a wondering why it took us so long to catch up.
What is getting lost this week in an important race discussion is also the simple fact that the President thinks it’s OK to tell democratically elected Congresswomen — who were swept in on a mandate and sharp rebuke of him — to take a hike if they don’t like this country. He speaks as if Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley are not obligated by the oath they took to bring themselves to the task of bettering this country. Not in his vision, but in theirs.
And the response from the right? Nothing of substance. Republican politicians are scared to buck the bigot. It’s all a pathetic display.
I’ve been watching the Showtime series The Loudest Voice about Roger Ailes and the formation of Fox News. It provides the perfect context, even just three episodes in, for the moment we’re in now. As we see Russell Crowe’s Ailes help engineer the Iraq War and threaten a producer if the anchors don’t enunciate Barack Hussein Obama every time they say his name, it is not a great leap from the hypnotic narrative being dished up to the entrenched belief system that now exists in the #MAGA crowd.
When this all went down with The Squad this week, here’s how it went in my head:
Us: Trump’s base can’t possibly defend this.
Them: Mr. President, we’re here for you.
Again with the naiveté.
I swear I’m listening. I swear.
I just can’t fucking believe it.