Cardella: The Great White Hope

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Through the early years of the last century, the world heavyweight boxing champion was white. And that’s the way most Americans wanted it. Boxing was a large part of the American ethos. It was more than just the manly sport. The man who reigned as heavyweight champion was more than an important sports figure. The heavyweight champion was almost a mythic creature. He was proof of the superior strength and courage of the white race. It was unthinkable that it would ever be any other way. But in Sydney, Australia –on the day after Christmas in 1908 — a boxer with coal-black skin — knocked out the white champion, Tommy Burns. It didn’t matter much to the racists in this country that Jack Johnson was an American and Burns a Canadian. All that mattered was the new champion was black. And worse than that, Johnson was married to a white woman. Reason enough for the racists to want Johnson dethroned. Eventually, Johnson confessed that he was forced to take a dive to make a white man champion again. The phrase “the Great White Hope” was born. It’s no accident that in 2016, when after a black man had resided in the White House for eight years, America elected a political version of a great white hope. Donald J. Trump.

Am I claiming that all Trump supporters are racists? Of course not, although racism animates much of Trump’s core support. Racist or not, Trump supporters have enabled racists to become a major force in White House policy, and helped Trump to hijack the Republican Party.

The rest of us should’ve seen it coming. Richard Nixon won the White House using a self-styled “Southern Strategy.” Nixon was almost certainly no racist. But he wanted to win, no matter how. The Democrats had made themselves vulnerable by passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The South became solid Republican. The seeds of Trumpism were planted. George H. W. Bush was an honorable man. But he, too, wanted to win. Thus was born the “Willie Horton strategy.” Horton, a black man, had been granted a weekend furlough while serving a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison. On furlough, he committed armed robbery and rape before he was apprehended.

To help get Bush 41 elected, his campaign used the Horton furlough incident to portray his Democratic opponent — Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor — as soft on crime. The “Willie Horton” strategy, in large part, resulted in Bush’s victory.

When Democrat Barack Hussein Obama became the first African American to win the White House, and even get re-elected, racists became energized. Until that point, racism was hidden in the shadows of American politics. But no more. There was no better evidence than the phony theory of “birtherism.” The biggest proponent of birtherism was Donald J. Trump. Trump was a businessman with a history of bankruptcies. He had often hinted that he would like to run for president. His popular reality TV show had a huge following. And he used his newly found fame to promote his birther theory. Obama is not American-born, Trump claimed. The birthers desperately wanted to discredit the Obama presidency as illegitimate. How could a black man with a foreign-sounding name be American? Trump beat the drum loudly and often for Obama’s birth certificate. Even after the former president produced proof that he was born in America, Trump refused to admit that he was wrong.

Birtherism defined Trump more than any other issue. When he ran against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump was really running against the Obama presidency. It didn’t matter that Trump had been friendly with the Clintons. Invited them to his wedding. Contributed to the past political campaigns of both Clintons. It didn’t matter that Trump was a longshot in a crowded Republican field that included the favored Jeb Bush. It didn’t matter that all the other candidates were better credentialed than Trump. During the ensuing campaign, Trump transformed himself. A candidate who had eluded the draft because of alleged bone spurs became an uber-supporter of the military. Went from being pro-choice to pro-life. Tossed aside traditional Republican views favoring free trade, balanced budgets and support for reasonable immigration laws and made forcing Mexico to build — and pay for — a border wall a major campaign promise. Despite his three marriages, affair with a porn star while married, having a child out of wedlock and the release of a video showing him boasting that because he was famous, he could physically assault women, Trump gained favor with conservative evangelicals. But what really helped Trump defeat heavily favored Hillary Clinton was his not-too-subtle promise to wipe out any vestiges of the Obama presidency. Trump would erase the accomplishments of that black presidency as surely as taking a dive erased the first black heavyweight championship.

Some Trump supporters will tell you that he isn’t a saint, but he’s done great things. Stock market is booming. Lowest rate of minority unemployment. Peace in our time. But most average Americans don’t have stocks. Minorities still have twice the rate of unemployment as whites. There’s still no Trump healthcare plan. Mexico never did build that wall. His foreign policy is in disarray with a nuclear North Korea building missiles. Iran’s nuclear program is now unfettered by a treaty. Trump echoes Putin’s party line against his own intelligence agencies or our allies. His nominees for judgeships are no less conservative than those any other Republican would make. What’s the one thing Trump offered that no other Republican candidate did? Wiping out anything Obama.

He’s been impeached, but still stands strong. Because one thing Trump has done is fulfill his promise. The Obama legacy is torn and shattered. Trump has proved to be, above all things, the Great White Hope. 

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