The “Feel Better” President: Making Racism Fashionable Again

Black Rag Dolls Intended to Be Abused Were Pulled from Shelves After They Were Called Racist

CNN headline, July 27, 2019

Orange, Abusive President Removed from White House After Repeatedly Making Racist Statements

– WHFO (?)* imaginary headline, To Be Determined

Recently, after complaints from consumers, so-called “feel better” rag dolls reminiscent of sambo dolls and other picaninny kitsch were recalled. This has not been the first time that such products have been removed from the market. The list includes Pradamalia, Prada’s own line of kitschy blackface collectibles, Gucci’s blackface wool balaclavas, Burberry’s noose hoodie, and H&M’s “coolest monkey in the jungle” hoodie ad. Unlike these commodity fetishes, however, these dolls were specifically created to be abused, with directions sewed onto their chests instructing the purchaser: “Whenever things don’t go well and you want to hit the wall and yell, here’s a little “feel better doll” that you just will not do without. Just grab it firmly by the legs and find a wall to slam the doll, and as you whack the “feel good doll” do not forget to yell I FEEL GOOD, I FEEL GOOD.”

By an uncanny coincidence, the same day news accounts about these items appeared, it was reported that Donald Trump, for whom of late things have not been going well, in a fit of what a colleague of mine has termed “digital diarrhea,” launched a venomous Twitter attack on House Oversight Committee Head Rep. Elijah J. Cummings and the predominately black district of Baltimore, itself a predominately black city, which he represents. In fact, Trump consistently throws blacks and other folk of color against walls, both literal and figurative, in order to make himself, his base, and a complicit Republican Party feel good.

Tossing black people around (and worse) in order for white people to “feel good” about themselves has a long and quite torturous history in America. This is particularly the case now when for a growing number of whites, the “American Dream” is no longer tenable, shattered by the opioid crisis, middle-class decline, and apocalyptic fears of a brown America. Nor is such abuse confined to stereotypical rednecks, torch-toting “alt-right” (or just garden variety) Nazis, or, to judge by the recent Turning Point USA Teen summit, legions of MAGA-capped Trump-jugend.

The argument has been made that Trump deploys the race card to distract from more pressing national issues. In this view, Trump’s attack on Cummings is a strategic diversion meant to draw attention from Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony and other tribulations (the trials, hopefully, will come later). This view implies that we should be engaging these issues rather than discussing Trump’s racism, since in doing so we play into his “master plan.”

While this view may contain a grain of truth, it gives Trump too much credit as a strategic mastermind and not enough the bloviating bigot he is. Moreover, it ignores an even better but far uglier explanation: the media prefers to spend their time debating whether he is racist (at this point, is there really any doubt?) than confronting the consequences of his racism. In fact, it is this protracted, faux uncertainty – the nervous reluctance, until recently, to call a racist a racist – that is the real distraction.

True, Trump may not fit the stereotyped image of the primordial racist we have been so inculcated to expect that we recognize racism only when it assumes the form of overt violence. As far as anyone knows, Trump has not physically lynched anyone. He does not physically block the entrances to schoolhouses or burned crosses on front lawns. He does not hide his face behind a white sheet. He is not a drawling, “nigger”- spewing southerner. He has not chased down blacks, treed them, cut off their genitals and shoved them in their mouths or preserved them as trophies in alcohol in mason jars, or passed out their severed fingers and skull-pried teeth as souvenirs. No, nothing so lethal and dehumanizing. Instead, the souvenirs Trump circulates are his tweets, his almost daily assaults on people of color in positions of power and disdain for the marginalized among us – racism lite, although many still refuse to consider such behavior racist at all.

In a nation that still allows Confederate statues, monuments to treason, to stand largely unmolested, one could hardly expect less. It is this failure of white America to face its past and to confront and remedy its present-day contradictions that has given us Trump and that jeopardizes the nation’s future. Indeed, as the political calculations and indifference of our leaders – and many of their constituents – to our mendacious, Russian-interference-denying, despot-loving, autocratic president has shown, they will abide his treacherous if not technically treasonous activities, in the name of national unity. Statues of Trump and his band of marauders cannot be far behind.

The fact remains that by any measure we have a racist president. (That it has taken barely a majority – just 51% – of Americans so long to acknowledge speaks to the state of national denial.) To be sure, it is not as if we have not previously had racists in the Oval Office, among them, most recently, a false idol still worshipped by Republicans decades before the birth of their current messiah, but whose racist statements have, some forty-odd years later, trickled down to us like tears down his proverbial “welfare queen’s” cheek or the defenses of his protective son.

The question is what do we do about it? This is the core problem, not a tangent. But we are lulled into compliance by the fact that Trump’s attacks are verbal not physical, physical aggression being the high bar white America arbitrarily sets for determining “real” racism, although these attacks not only hold the potential to inspire and provoke race-based terrorism, they have already done so, including Saturday’s carnage in El Paso.

If Trump’s recent tweets are, as some have called them, “textbook racism” – to which scores of past presidents on both side of the political divide have contributed chapters to the same disgraceful volume – then Republican reaction to them, in those rare instances where there has been any, is textbook racism illuminated by the hazy gaslight of denial. For example, asked by Meet the Press host Chuck Todd if Cummings’ criticism of U.S. Border officials justified “a racial resentment tweet,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida responds, “I didn’t do the tweets” (only, it would seem, defend the man who wrote them). When Todd points out that Scott was harsher on Cummings than Trump, Scott responds, “When I agree with the President I’ll agree with him; when I disagree, I’ll disagree with him,” although he has just spent several minutes of the interviews assiduously avoiding doing just that. The question is what does Scott gain from his silence? Is it to stay in Trump’s good graces or to gain more support from Trump’s base and his own constituents? In either case, the problem is greater than Trump – and always has been.

Also exemplary is the response by Kansas senatorial candidate Kris Kobach. In an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Kobach denies the tweet was racist, disingenuously arguing it was correct because the four congresswomen come from “crime-infested districts,” conveniently overlooking the fact that Trump described those districts as “countries.” He then goes on blame Twitter, claiming its 140-character limit allows “people to read into them what they want.” (Apparently, Trump forgot to affix a “this-is-not-a-racist-tweet” emoji.) When Kobach attempts to defend the “go back to your country” remark, Cuomo points to the long history of the phrase being used against nonwhites and immigrants. Later, Kobach concedes that the tweet “doesn’t make sense” because three of the Congresswomen were born in the America, belatedly acknowledging without apparently realizing it that he is making the same point Cuomo made earlier in the broadcast. The piece de resistance, however, comes when Cuomo asks Kobach if he would defend Trump if he were racist. Kobach says he would not because “there is no excuse for racism in America”; but when he is asked if he would still support Trump for president, after a long, constipated pause, he mumbles, “Um, I don’t know, that would be a really tough question . . . I’d have to know who was running against him.” So much for no excuses! Perhaps sensing the contradiction, Kobach regroups and dismisses the question as a “ridiculous hypothetic” because “the president has never said anything racist.” This is racist contortionism at its excruciating best.

North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer has also defended Trump, arguing, “If African-American lawmakers are going after him, he goes after them. If a white lawmaker goes after him, he goes after them.” The problem with this line of reasoning is obvious: It is not that Trump attacks his black critics but the tropes he employs to do so, tropes he never employs against his white critics.

Given this climate of denial, perhaps the whole thing is a distraction after all. Indeed, putting aside Mueller’s testimony, Russian interference, and Trump’s reckless tweet diplomacy (his spur of the moment decision to traipse across the DMZ in June has done nothing to prevent North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un from lobbing more short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan), there is one soul-numbing irony that has failed to generate much if any discussion in the corporate media echo chamber: While attention has been drawn to Trump’s notorious 1989 ad calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty for the Central Park Five; thirty years later, despite a wealth of evidence of systemic racial bias, the United States will once again implement the death penalty for federal crimes after an almost twenty-year moratorium has gone largely unnoticed.

Perhaps the greatest distraction of all is the fact that the same media that has now come to label Trump racist, ignored his racism for so long and, in doing so, minimized their complicity in his rise to power. In 2016, during his candidacy, media pundits dismissed a Trump presidency as a joke, an escalator-driven descent into political parody. As such, they were more than willing to grant free airtime to the clownish, colorful business mogul/reality television star. They were not “distracted” by Trump’s racism to devote much attention to it; as a consequence, he now occupies White House.

Yet it was not that Trump’s racism was unknown at the time. According to a 1973 Department of Justice lawsuit, Trump and his father systematically discriminating against black rental applicants. Although the Trumps settled the case in 1975, in 1978 the DOJ alleged that they broke the agreement, resulting in another case that lasted until 1982. Trump’s anti-Semitism has also been an open secret. However, while the American media and politicians from both parties have castigated Rep. Ilhan Omar over a tweet that purportedly accused Jewish-Americans of having dual loyalties, Trump’s comments in a speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition, in which he told an audience of American Jews that “I stood with your prime minister at the White House to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights” somehow escaped rebuke. In fact, Trump, who surrounds himself with anti-Semitic allies, has a tarnished history of anti-Semitic statements.

The argument has been made that whether or not Trump is himself racist, he is playing the race card to garner the support of white, working-class voters to win the election. If this is the case, the issue then becomes – and really always has been – more than Trump’s racism but its growing appeal to an electorate that allows him to throw people of color against the wall in order to make America feel good about itself again.

For America to begin to feel better about itself, however, Trump must be impeached.


*When Hell Freezes Over