President Obama’s roast of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and rightfully so. It was brutally funny. Or was it hilariously brutal? In any case, it’s safe to say that anyone still supporting The Donald’s potential bid for the White House does so quietly and with some embarrassment. As host Seth Meyers noted at the dinner, Trump’s candidacy was—or is it still?—a joke. And although I’m not usually a vindictive person who relishes the humiliation of another human being, I can’t honestly say that I was anything but delighted to watch the smile fade from Trump’s face as he watched his grandiose political aspirations slip away in a hail of roaring laughter at his bombastic stupidity.
Then on Sunday an extra dimension was retroactively added to that verbal trouncing, as YouTubers everywhere returned to the video to re-watch it in light of current events. What one sees in that clip pre-May 1 is an intelligent politician delivering razor sharp punch lines with the cool assurance of a skilled orator holding the higher moral ground in an absurd situation. Post-May 1, it’s an intelligent politician delivering razor sharp punch lines with the cool assurance of a head-of-state staring down his detractors after secretly giving the order to eliminate the nation’s—perhaps the world’s—most vilified foe. Bloggers especially latched onto one clip of Obama laughing heartily at a quip by Seth Meyers about Osama bin Laden’s elusiveness, and the president was roundly applauded for maintaining his “poker face.” I’m not sure what else he was supposed to do, but it was really intriguing to watch amid the collective national fist-pumping over bin Laden’s death.
But why is this so satisfying to me? Am I relishing the fact that our awesome president finally has some points on the Republicans? Am I just really super excited that a terrible dude trained in the midst of a terrible idea died a terrible death during a terrible war, thus proving how fucking awesome America is and allowing me to finally be proud to be an Obama supporter because all this time I’ve felt effete and weak by not being able to express how badass a patriotic red-blooded American I can really be?
It can’t be a vindication of Obama’s policies that makes me smile, because I’ve been generally pretty dissatisfied—if not disgusted outright—with those. Corporate bailouts, our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gitmo, Race to the Top, the severely compromised health care plan, and a host of other letdowns have left me pretty disillusioned with an administration whose campaign stickers I still have by the stack somewhere in my apartment.
And it’s not because Osama bin Laden’s dead. I mean, I’m glad that a planner of and inspiration to mass murder is off the grid, and sure I take some pleasure in the fact that the guy was capped on a non-Republican’s watch. But the Democrats don’t have—will never have—clean hands either, and I’m not about to engage in all this bloodthirsty fist-pumping about how great violence and death are when they’re justified (quick side note about that: what the fuck are you doing, American liberals? Have you only opposed violent rhetoric and stupid jingoism up until now because it wasn’t your team carrying it out? ).
No, what turned my frown upside down was something different, something most Americans would (wrongly) consider a separate issue. What I’ve relished in viewing upon viewing of this smackdown is the complete disregard it shows for the “race card” taboo in American politics. Of course, it wasn’t (couldn’t) be framed that way explicitly, but it was there—it couldn’t not be there, focused as it was on the Birther issue. The Birther movement is a racist movement, regardless of whatever else they try to say and how gingerly the media tries to dance around that fact when they give it airtime. It’s not a coincidence that “Birther” is one letter away from “Bircher”—these are xenophobic nativists and nothing more. President Obama will never be an American to them, just as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were treated as buffoons—African-Americans are not Americans to these folks, and non-Americans are hardly even people.
But you can’t say that. To point that out would be to “play the race card.” Because the racists are not playing the race card, they’re being “patriots” and “realists,” they’re being vigilant about the Constitution or looking out for American jobs. So the rest of us are supposed to keep our mouths shut. We’re supposed to grind our teeth in silence at Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens, Jesse Helms’s hands, National Security PAC’s Willie Horton ad, John McCain’s Messiah commercials—but to point out the racist implications of each is going too far. That’s playing the “race card.”
So, to get this definition straight: playing on racial tensions and xenophobic fears, enacting racially discriminatory policies, employing racist rhetoric to appeal to a base of disgruntled sheeple is fair game. Pointing out these strategies and calling them for what they are: playing the race card.
It’s a clever metaphor, simultaneously implying a knockout quality and an unfair, forbidden advantage. So it’s both a trump card in the political game and a form of cheating. It’s as though, despite its power to win everything, it’s actually not part of this game, making it shameful to put it on the table. Of course, that’s bullshit. First, it’s incredibly rare that the perceived “race card” actually wins anything. Second, race is always already on the table—it’s only when we identify it that it becomes an issue.
What’s most troubling about this for me is that liberals play along. I think some of this is pure political pragmatism, but there’s something else going on: liberals (actually neoliberals, but let’s call them what they call themselves) relish their little victories. We really wanted to think we’d fixed racism when Obama won the election. We really like the idea that Brown v. Board of Education and the Voters’ Rights Act healed all those old wounds. Explain to a room full of white liberals how crack proliferated in American ghettos, why incarceration rates reveal a new form of Jim Crow, and watch how many squirm uncomfortably if not challenge you outright.
So the race card doesn’t get played not because it’s politically inexpedient. It’s politically inexpedient because half of the “left” in America is drinking the right’s Kool-Aid and allowing itself to be shamed into submission.
And that’s what made me love Obama’s roast of Donald Trump. He didn’t pull any punches and he didn’t leave the race card off the table. He slammed Trump, he mocked Michelle Bachmann for being an abject liar, he slammed FOX News for its idiotic coverage of every sensational tidbit they could scavenge from right wing hacks, and he didn’t let up until he’d essentially destroyed their ability to ever speak again on this issue. It was more than a series of political jokes, it was a rhetorical submission hold.
My reading is certainly open to disagreement, but I would direct detractors’ attention to the Lion King bit and ask that you consider all the implications of calling that the president’s birth video. In one crushing blow (and using a beloved Disney clip!) Obama brutally mocks rumors of his African birth, criticisms of his campaign’s messianic undertones, and questions of his leadership. It’s cocksure, brazen, and—to me, at least—glorious.
As far as I’m concerned, all of this turns on race—John McCain’s “The One” ad, which mocked Obama’s “messiah” status, was little more than a thinly veiled critique of an “uppity” negro. Questions of the president’s leadership are certainly merited, but much of that discourse has adopted the assumptions and rhetorical strategies of the Birther movement, which is pure xenophobia, and a huge segment of our population ate it up.
It’s that segment of the population that Obama’s speech really nailed. If anything, Trump was cancelled out and shown to be a political zero, FOX and Bachmann were called out for the stupidity we knew about all along—those are easy. But without Trump or Bachmann the idiots in our nation will carry on. They’ll find new leaders to spit vitriol and preach hate in the name of Christian love, so who cares about Trump and Bachmann.
What this speech really accomplished was a takedown of a form of political discourse, exposing a powerful ideology as nothing but stupid bigotry. Obama stood before the nation, looked half of it in the eye, and issued a smiling but serious “Fuck you.”
Does that mean they’ll go away? No. But at least I know that, for all the other shit he does wrong, this president can take a stand in the culture wars and be on the right side of history. Whether he’ll continue to do that remains to be seen, but for about five minutes, as the Black King trumped the Trump with a race card, it felt pretty good.