“Make ‘America’ White Again”: White Resentment Under the Obama & Trump Presidencies

Neo-Nazis, the KKK, the Proud Boys, and various white power groups have been rallying in Portland, Boston, Berkeley, Charlottesville, and Gainsville. Mass shootings and numerous hate crimes targeting immigrant/Latinx/Black/Muslim/Jewish people are on the rise. Four junior women of color U.S. representatives are under constant racist, xenophobic, and misogynist attack. In fact, Rep. Ilhan Omar has received so many death threats she has had to hire private security. Last fall Brett Kavanaugh had a privileged white boy tantrum in front of a national audience, egged on by white male senators equally outraged by challenges to their entitlement. These are the latest signs that the United States is again gripped by white resentment. While this is certainly not a new cultural phenomenon, we have yet to deeply explore what makes the last decade unique.

The two parts of my title signal these interventions: 1) any analysis of whiteness or white resentment in “America” needs to consider how the U.S. was/is produced by white settler colonialism (hence the scare quotes around “America”); and 2) the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump are key to understanding contemporary white resentment. The first intervention disrupts the narrative of slavery as America’s “original sin” and the associated redemptive multicultural tale of “a nation of immigrants” by foregrounding U.S. settler colonialism. The second intervention is more nuanced. It moves us away from a narrow analysis of Trump as a product/engine of white rage, to examining how both presidencies (not just the individual men) – in complex interrelation with socio-economic and political factors – were/are unique flashpoints, exposing but also producing white resentment.

To say that the presidencies of Obama and Trump are key to understanding contemporary white resentment is not to simply claim that Obama and/or Trump directly caused it. While that kind of easy assignment of blame might feel good momentarily, it is misleading. Instead I am making a claim about these two presidencies as unique and in complicated relation to key socio-economic and political factors building today’s white resentment. Scholarship has identified those factors as: the “browning of America“ (non-white demographic shift); consequences of the economic collapse beginning in 2008; and new political movements for racial, gender, immigrant and indigenous justice. These big national shifts, combined with the Obama and Trump presidencies (which were also in part produced by these factors), built a perfect storm erupting in open white supremacist rallies and an upsurge in racist violence.

We might think of the Obama and Trump presidencies as lightening rods for white resentment, and at times, the lightening itself. U.S. presidencies have always been windows into cultural logics and national narratives regarding race, but Obama and Trump’s have gone beyond simply providing a racial pulse point. The presidencies of these two men were/are – intentionally or otherwise – flashpoints, exposing and also producing our current moment of “white rage.”

Take Kavanaugh’s performance on September 27, 2018, which may have been largely for the President and has been described as Trumpian in its self-entitled ferocity. Even if it wasn’t aimed at Trump, the toxic political atmosphere of this presidency certainly enabled it. Much has been, and will be, said about how Kavanaugh’s tantrum is symbolic of the “pernicious patriarchy“ tied to white male entitlement. What is less discussed is how this also ties to settler colonialism, which relies on sexual and gender violence. Native American and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other groups of women in the U.S. If a woman with all the privilege of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford cannot be heard, what does that mean for survivors of color and Native survivors? This is one of the reasons many Native communities organized against Kavanaugh.

“Make America White Again” is a popular read of the dog whistling in Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan – a slogan that would not have resonated without eight years of racist vitriol against the Obama presidency. The dog whistle was a signal to those anxious about their futures, feeling others were cutting in line, and that the country had lost its way/values/priorities and its international dominance. America needed to be put back on the right (white) track. In this way, the popular read of the Trump campaign slogan ties the two presidencies together – as does Birtherism.

In fact, “Make America White Again” could be the actual slogan of the Birther movement, since it is anathema to think of a white America lead by a Black man. The possibility of a Black (also read as Muslim) president was so unfathomable, so abominable to some that they had to banish it – to Kenya. During the 2016 campaign Trump was pressured to distance himself from the Birther conspiracy he had spent years fomenting. Unsurprisingly, he did so with a wink and nod, and is reportedly back to propagating the myth. This is because it is a gift that keeps giving, a neat narrative that feeds fundamental desires of an increasingly anxious white “America.”

The Birther movement not only links the two presidencies through a context of white resentment, it also links my two interventions. Birtherism is not just about anti-Black racism tinged with Islamaphobia. It is certainly that, and I by no means want to diminish that, but when we push deeper we uncover a foundational desire for normative white citizenship and belonging – making “America” white (again?). And that desire is at the heart of more than five hundred years of white settler colonialism on lands now unproblematically considered “America.”

Obama fundamentally disrupted a white settler future – he could not be of “America,” could not possibly be a “native son” (a phrase used by non-Natives to claim belonging to place) given his Blackness and his exotic otherness (bi-racial and bi-national cosmopolitan family, international upbringing, educational privilege, Hawai’i childhood). He had to be disqualified from citizenship, had to be portrayed as another “illegal alien” lacking proper documentation. The fact that he was from Hawai’i facilitated Birther claims given Hawai’i’s liminal status as part of “America” – a cultural, political, historical and geographic lack of fit that Hawaiian sovereignty activists seek to augment.

The title of this article purposely calls out “America” in the “Make America White Again” slogan to indicate an analysis that destabilizes the assumed fixed nature of the U.S. nation-state. That analysis is built on Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies scholarship that make clear we cannot understand contemporary white resentment if we do not situate it in the on-going project of producing a white settler state. That production happens through the territorializing of settler claims to land and belonging – claims that also foster anti-Black racism and anti-immigrant xenophobia.

The demographic shift, economic collapse, and new social movements all challenge white settler claims and destabilize naturalized entitlement. They remind white Americans of our precarious status – this land never was ours, our citizenship is thin cover for centuries of colonization. That history haunts us, hence our anxious insistence on making “America” great/white again. Still, no matter how big our walls or how militarized our points of entry, our borders are a fiction.

It is imperative that we build an understanding of the political and cultural logics motivating white Americans to retrench themselves in ideologies of white supremacy and xenophobia. This includes examining the anxious remaking of settler whiteness in “America.” Only then will we develop effective strategies to turn the tide toward a more socially just, anti-racist, and decolonial future.

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Judy Rohrer is a scholar-activist who has written previously about whiteness, racial politics, and settler colonialism for both academic and popular audiences. Rohrer is currently the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Eastern Washington University.

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