The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What the disgusting right wing backlash to Michelle Obama’s speech really tells us

(AFP photo/Saul Loeb)
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Perhaps it was inevitable that when Michelle Obama mentioned slavery in her speech at the Democratic convention, the word would cause some conservatives to lash out in reflexive anger and resentment, as though she had tapped their knees with a rubber hammer labeled “race.” But the backlash to Obama’s speech shows better than anything what profoundly different stories the parties are telling about America.

If you didn’t watch the speech, you might have heard that Michelle mentioned the fact that the White House was built by slaves. In response, Rush Limbaugh went on a rant about how the Obamas “can’t stop talking about slavery” and are “never going to let it go,” because they’re so eager to keep white people feeling guilty. Bill O’Reilly felt it necessary to offer a defense of the whole thing, using his Fox News program to assert that the slaves working on the White House “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”

Many people were shocked and outraged at Limbaugh and O’Reilly’s comments, but if you’re familiar with those programs, it shouldn’t have surprised you at all. For eight years, they’ve been telling their audiences that

1) the Obamas are militant black nationalists bent on racial vengeance who have twisted the federal government into a cudgel used to bludgeon white people; and

2) in America today, whites are the only true victims of discrimination, in large part because of liberals’ relentless, baseless charges of racism, a weapon of “political correctness” used to keep whites down.

But let’s do something crazy and look at what Michelle Obama actually said. Here’s the excerpt:

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.
So, look, so don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!

It takes a truly staggering amount of either dishonesty or sheer stupidity to portray that passage as some kind of complaint. Her whole argument is about progress, the idea that despite a history of injustice America has come so far that a black family now inhabits the White House. This has been a regular theme of Barack Obama’s rhetoric as well. You can see it in what I believe to be the greatest speech of his presidency, the one he gave last year at the 50th anniversary of the march at Selma:

What could be more American than what happened in this place? What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people — unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course?
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

When conservatives hear liberals talk about Selma, or about slavery, or about the internment of the Japanese during World War II, or about other dark moments from our past, they hear it as unpatriotic and bitter, running down a country that deserves not criticism but praise. That’s because their version of the American story is a very different one. While liberals celebrate progress and change, the American story conservatives usually want to tell is one of national perfection: God made America to be the greatest country on earth, it always has been and it always will be. Sure, there were times we didn’t live up to our ideals, but we don’t want to dwell on them; what’s important is that we’re the greatest.

That’s why they became so obsessed with the idea that Barack Obama “apologizes for America,” when all he was doing was acknowledging the mistakes of the past. For conservatives, the liberal version of the American story is self-contradictory. How can you think that America is great if you keep bringing up things it did wrong? You might recall that their presidential nominee four years ago went so far as to title his campaign book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”

Because it’s about progress and change, the liberal version of the American story also celebrates the kinds of social changes that many conservatives find so unnerving, like increasing racial diversity and the granting of full civil rights to gay people. Which brings us to the third version of the American story currently in wide circulation: Donald Trump’s version.

This story says that America’s greatness is not to be found in progress (the liberal version) or inherent and eternal (the traditional conservative version), but that it was once great but no longer is. America was great back when no one questioned the primacy of white male Christians and everyone else knew their place, but now we’ve got immigrants and Muslims and feminists and a black guy in the White House who can’t possibly be the legitimate American president so he must be a foreigner (don’t forget that Trump is America’s most prominent birther), and why don’t you damn kids pull up your pants, turn down that god-awful rap music and get the hell off my lawn.   

Trump’s version of the American story didn’t come out of nowhere; as he does so often, he took what many conservatives were implying and made it explicit. So he argues that the America of today is a hellhole where nothing works and everyone’s miserable, but once we kick out the immigrants, keep out the Muslims, punch those uppity protesters in the face and build a gigantic wall, greatness will be restored. That’s the logical conclusion of the messages that Republican voters have been getting from the likes of Limbaugh and O’Reilly for a long time now.

So while any Republican with half a brain is fretting about the fact that their party can’t find a way to appeal to voters who aren’t old, white, and pissed off about it, the Democrats are putting on a spectacle of American diversity in Philadelphia. And the GOP’s presidential nominee is running a white nationalist campaign based on alienating as many different kinds of Americans as possible. It’s the only story about America that he knows how to tell.