In One Embrace, Barack and Hillary Demonstrate the Very Thing That Drives Trump Supporters Crazy

PHILADELPHIA—With the world watching, an extraordinary thing happened on the big stage at the Democratic National Convention while the world watched: a black man embraced a white woman. Never mind that he is president of the United States, a position her party has tapped her to fill. With millions watching, a black man embraced a white woman. When I was a child, this would have been unthinkable. And I’m still years away from collecting my Social Security.

It happened as President Barack Obama, the first black man ever to occupy the White House, soaked in the ovation given him by the crowd in the Wells Fargo Center for a speech even his detractors would have to deem a great piece of oratory. As he paced the stage, waving to each section of the audience, Hillary Clinton, the first woman to land a major party’s presidential nomination, stepped out of the wings to join him. The crowd went wild. As the two hugged, the historical import of the moment came sharply into view.

While much of America applauds these firsts—indeed, feels redeemed by them—there are some left behind in the current economy who feel anything but. They look at the color and shape of those previously banned from positions of power who are now assuming them and feel anxious, even angry. The world is not as they were promised it would be. And that television image of the brilliant black man hugging the brainy white woman affirms those anxieties.

As the Democrats gathered here, a PAC supporting Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, began running an ad on cable news channels designed to play to those fears, promising a restoration of manufacturing jobs and the revitalization of the steel industry that once ruled Pennsylvania’s economy. (Details of any plan for doing so remain elusive.) In this battleground state, Democrats traditionally win in the presidential elections. But the Clinton campaign is not taking this year’s outcome for granted, and for good reason: the one demographic category in which the Democratic standard-bearer is the weakest is the white working-class, especially white men who do not have a college degree. “In six polls conducted this month,” writes the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, “Mr. Trump leads among white registered voters without a degree by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent.”

In the video played just before the president took the stage, both the risks Obama took in pushing for the Affordable Care Act and in bailing out the auto industry were played up, likely in part as a bid for the votes of persuadable working-class white men whose concerns he and the Democrats have sought to address. 

In his wide-ranging speech, Obama pointedly spoke of his mother’s white working-class family in Kansas. “See, my grandparents, they came from the heartland,” he said. “Their ancestors began settling there about 200 years ago. I don’t know if they have their birth certificates—but they were there. They were Scotch-Irish mostly—farmers, teachers, ranch hands, pharmacists, oil rig workers. Hardy, small-town folks. Some were Democrats, but a lot of them—maybe even most of them—were Republicans. Party of Lincoln.”

Obama delivered a stemwinder that in lesser hands would have been decried as having tried to do too much. Part character testimony for the nominee, review of his own presidency, defense of his policy convictions, appeal for party unity and takedown of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the speech accomplished nearly every goal the president had set. It was so captivatingly delivered, it wasn’t until Obama got to the end that it sank in this was his farewell. He was tearful, but not too much so. He was characteristically graceful. He pushed through his reserved demeanor to show each segment of his audience love and appreciation. 

When Hillary Clinton, in a surprise move, walked onto the stage to stand with him and wave, the changing shape of society was made plain. Brace yourself for the backlash, for you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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