27 January 2021

He could have been our greatest President

A couple of years ago I did some politics-adjacent field research. I talked to a lot of different kinds of people. I saw something about a certain strain of racism which I did not understand at first.

I am skilled at conducting interviews with a measured neutrality which brings out surprising honesty very quickly — check out Liam Neeson’s subtle performance in Kinsey for a taste of how it works — but there are limits to what I can do. I can tone it down, but I will always read as a weird nerd. My research partner was Asian. We were not going to convince any white people in 90 minutes that we were “cool” enough that they would slip into using The N Word.

Those people still give it away with their characteristic coyness. “I don’t hate anybody.” “I’m just saying.” When they talked about Obama, I could see their plain disgust.

I mention those folks because I want to point to a different flavor of white racism.

There were white people who had conservative political and social sensibilities but claimed to have voted for Obama, or if not, to have greeted his election in 2008 with some enthusiasm anyway. I say claimed because we know that people claim to have voted when they did not, people claim to have voted for winners when they did not, people misrepresent themselves to nerds who interview them, people lie to themselves.

How they really voted, and how they really felt in 2008, matters less here than the story they told about it, to me and to themselves. They did not have the disgust of the Obama haters. They had, instead, a deep, bitter disappointment. They talked about him and racism and politics in different ways, but I heard this haunting refrain repeatedly.

“He could have been our greatest President.”

They said this as they talked about the excitement and patriotic pride they claim he inspired early on. They spoke directly about feeling a thrill at seeing a Black man as President. They said they were happy to have seen the day. They said it was good for the country. They called it a victory for American values. Again, I don’t take this at face value, as the complete truth, or even a truth at all. These people repeated any number of ideas I recognized as conservative propaganda, spoke racist sentiments different from the kind I heard from culturally and politically liberal people. They clearly did not feel the disappointments which a lefty like me would name, looking at Obama.

Nonetheless, I feel dead certain that this was not some deflection they were feeding me. Truthful or no, it had the sincerity of a story they were telling to themselves.

“He could have been our greatest President.”

But he was not. I asked how and why. What should he have done which he did not?

They gave maddeningly vague answers. He “did not bring the country together”. He “did not accomplish anything”. He was “divisive”. He was “uncompromising”. He made “wrong choices”. He was a “failure”. They were not angry with him as some of their friends were, they were sad.

I might have been able to get past that blurriness of this, but I had to resist the temptation to dig because I was mostly there to talk about something else.

“He could have been our greatest President.”

It itched at me. What? What did they mean? What had they hoped for? What had they expected? What had they wanted?

But of course it makes sense. It settled in my head and bounced off of other conversations and I wondered how I had not seen it at first.

They wanted him to declare racism over. Finished. Defeated. To tell them that they did not have to think about it now, they did not have to deal with it now, his election had proved that racism no longer played a part in our politics or our society. To be the Great President who finally put our legacy of racism to bed.

They imagined the absolution he should have given them. So they thought that he failed them.

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