Republicans, Race, and the Politics of Resentment

The intense hatred of Barack Obama by so many Republicans is so fervid as to deserve thoughtful scrutiny. This hatred far exceeds normal political distaste for the opposition candidate. Obama, at least to his supporters and even some Republicans, is not some sort of far-left fanatic bent on turning America into a socialist state, though that is at least part of the charge against him. Despairing Republican voters such as a Navy veteran accuse him, for example, of “knowing nothing about the economy” and having spent four years doing “nothing.” A friend of mine attacked his foreign policy in vague terms, but I could not help but wonder if he was in fact attacking the very idea of a youthful, non-military president having sufficient gravitas and understanding of Realpolitik to make credible foreign policy decisions at all. The fact that former Secretary of State and four star general Colin Powell endorsed Obama, and specifically his foreign policy, surely set back many Republicans, for whom Powell is the embodiment of honor as a military hero—a black man to whom they can point with pride and simultaneously burnish their own claims of racial blindness. How, they must have privately asked, could he endorse Obama’s multitudinous failures, unless it was simply an act of racial solidarity? The fact that Powell endorsed McCain against Obama in 2008 just makes it more puzzling.

I confess to a degree of partisanship that sometimes makes me uncomfortable. But the hatred of conservatives towards Obama outstrips my dislike for Bush, or even for Romney, whose mendacities and perpetual flip-flopping could only leave a neutral observer aghast. There certainly must be more to it than the mere fact of Obama being a Democrat in the White House. Right wing radio has been apoplectic since the election, alternately brooding and braying, filling their rhetoric with secession, implied violence, and racist screeds. One long-bearded truck driver interviewed by USA Today was “prepping” for the apocalypse and could only lament that he now needed to buy more guns before doing so became illegal. His was the face of the paranoid far right-wing, and not reflective of the GOP at large. Even so, how far is his extreme view from that of Donald Trump, who tweeted that Obama’s re-election was a call to “revolution”? Nor do we see the Republican Party repudiating its primitivist Tea Party wing, which has done nothing to disguise its vicious contempt for Obama, including signs at rallies portraying him alternately as Hitler and as an ape.

The ape imagery is, of course, a familiar racist trope. Few Republicans would admit a racist element in the mainstream of the Party, but that element embedded in the virulent anti-Obama animus is simply unmistakable among the Republican right. Here in Mississippi over 200 Ole Miss students protested the election results in racist terms on election night, and a similar rally occurred at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. The thirty-somethings down the street from me who stole my Obama signs three different times left a note deriding the “HNIC”—an apparently well-known acronym in redneck circles meaning “Head Nigger in Charge.” Much of what passes for general anti-Obama sentiment based on his policies and alleged liberalism is in fact covert racism intertwined with a profound and unalterable resentment. What Obama represents is the source of this resentment: a presumed multi-racial tide of black and Hispanic Americans inundating and submerging white America. Not only is white America under assault in this view, but it has a moral and patriotic obligation to “take back” our country, a phrase common among the Tea Party radical right but also among regular Republicans. Hispanics and Asians, though still part of “the Other,” are reluctantly acknowledged by the far right at least to be hard-working; but in our long, race-conscious history, African Americans have always been seen by innumerable whites as lazy. This stereotype was recently employed by Republican hardliner John Sununu, who used the word in reference to the President and refused to recant it when a shocked Andrea Mitchell offered him the opportunity.

The laziness charge flows perfectly into a larger white Republican narrative of a runaway culture of entitlement which benefits blacks in particular, and thus becomes a central tenet of the politics of resentment. The fusion of a white Republican perception of blacks inordinately benefiting from the “gifts” of an entitlement-drenched government, coupled with a smoldering bitterness toward the government for its extortionate over-taxing of whites to support the socialist, entitlement bureaucracy, is the jet fuel of the Republican narrative centered on and animated by resentment. Their shorthand is We (patriotic, white America) pay; They (mostly minority freeloaders) play. A construction worker working next door told a friend and my wife that he had to keep working so that he could pay all of his income to the government. Though he smiled, the comment reflected his resentment-inspired politics. Romney tapped into the resentment in his infamous, secretly recorded comment about the 47% who did not take responsibility for their own lives and depended on the government (including veterans, retirees, and the disabled) for their livelihood. Ryan expressed the same sentiment with his overly simplistic comment about “makers and takers.” The fact of Obama’s race hugely exacerbates the politics of resentment, since from the white Republican perspective he won only because of minority support. Certainly he would have lost without minority support, just as Romney would not have been in contention without a majority of white support. But that is sort of the right wing’s point: We’re supposed to be a white, Christian nation, and so it is nothing short of galling to have that nation run not only by a black man, but a likely Muslim and, at least in Trump-world, a black man not even born in the United States. The whole “birther” obsession is both an attempt to de-legitimize Obama’s presidency as well as an appeal to the politics of resentment. Informed Republicans may scorn the birther and Muslim absurdities, but even for them those absurdities are part of the background noise and are rarely disavowed.

For Republicans, especially but by no means exclusively those born to wealth, “entitlement” evokes connotations of lower classes receiving unearned benefits, benefits which they also see themselves paying for. This perceived transfer of wealth is the centerpiece of the virulent attacks on “socialism,” and it is at the heart of their resentment. Of course entitlements also redound to veterans, retirees who have worked their entire lives, and the disabled—not just Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens.” But for the well off, and many in the middle class, entitlement also has another meaning, though one not acknowledged: it is one rooted in wealth, heritage, race, and class, in addition to personal accomplishment. This sort of entitlement is the opposite of “noblesse oblige”—namely “le droit de seigneur,” the right of the upper class, the presumed duly earned privilege of the doers and makers. In its most naked form, it is the privilege of race. Like good health, it is barely recognized unless lost; and Republicans’ dual perception of its loss to the undeserving masses, coupled with the unearned, socialistic “gifts” and entitlements for the “takers,” drives the resentment. For the underclass far right, this unacknowledged upper class- and race-based entitlement takes the form of racial heritage and race pride, again coupled with the anger and resentment toward the 47% unwilling, according to Romney, to take responsibility for their own lives. Any parsing of American politics, in particular invidious attitudes toward the current president, can hardly avoid examining the politics of resentment as a central animating force.