Around 11:30 on Tuesday night, I left CBS News studios in New York City to take a walk and call my wife. We talked about the election. We talked about the very real chance of President Donald Trump. We talked, just to talk. But we didn’t talk long. We had to do work. I had to write. And she had to figure out what she would say to her students, many of them Hispanic, most of them young children of immigrants.
Heading back, I walked past a conversation between two cops. They were outside the building, on duty. They were black. And out of some need to keep talking, I walked over and jumped into their conversation. Neither officer questioned me or shooed me away. Instead, they invited me to commiserate with them.
“I can’t believe this. I just can’t believe it,” said one of the officers, the younger of the two. The other just shook his head. I asked the younger officer what he thought about all of this—about President Donald Trump. “This is deep, man. This is deep. Who am I supposed to be protecting now?” He looked down at his uniform. “Why am I wearing this?” He didn’t need to explain. The Donald Trump who won the presidency on Tuesday is the Donald Trump who demanded execution for five boys, wrongly accused of a crime. He is the Trump who ran on a platform of “law and order.” The age of Trump will be an age in which police can act with impunity. And as an officer of color, he knew, perhaps better than anyone, that it’s people who look like us—who are brown and black—who will face the brunt of that impunity.
Pundits and observers will attribute Trump’s win to “populism” or his “anti-elite” message. This is nonsense. Trump ran for president as a nationalist fighter for white America. He promised to deport Hispanic immigrants. He promised to ban Muslims from the United States. He refused to acknowledge Barack Obama’s legitimacy, casting him—until the end—as a kind of usurper of rightful authority. When faced with the fetid swamps of white reaction—of white supremacists and white nationalists and anti-Semites—he winked, and they cheered in response. And for good reason.
More than anything, Trump promises a restoration of white authority. After eight years of a black president—after eight years in which cosmopolitan America asserted its power and its influence, eight years in which women leaned in and blacks declared that their lives mattered—millions of white Americans said enough. They had their fill of this world and wanted the old one back. And although it’s tempting to treat this as a function of some colorblind anti-elitism, that cannot explain the unity of white voters in this election. Trump didn’t just win working-class whites—he won the college-educated and the affluent. He even won young whites. Seventeen months after he announced his candidacy, millions of white Americans flocked to the ballot box to put Trump into the White House. And they did so as a white herrenvolk, racialized and radicalized by Trump.
There’s an easy rejoinder here: How can this be about race when Trump won some Obama voters? There’s an equally easy answer: John McCain indulged racial fears, and Mitt Romney played on racial resentment, but they refused to go further. To borrow from George Wallace, they refused to cry “nigger.” This is important. By rejecting the politics of explicit racism and white backlash, they moved the political battleground to nominally colorblind concerns. Race was still a part of these clashes—it’s unavoidable—but neither liberals nor conservatives would litigate the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. Looking back, I thought this meant we had a consensus. It appears, instead, that we had a detente. And Trump shattered it. With his jeremiads against Hispanics and Muslims—with his visions of dystopian cities and radicalized refugees—Trump told white Americans that their fears and anger were justified. And that this fear and anger should drive their politics. Trump forged a politics of white tribalism, and white people embraced it.
Here’s what we need to understand: This has happened before. For 10 brief years after the Civil War, a coalition of ex-slaves and white farmers worked to forge democracy in the former Confederacy. With the help of the federal government, they scored real victories and made significant gains. But their success spurred a backlash of angry whites, furious at sharing power with blacks and their Northern allies, murderous at the very idea of social equality. Those whites fought a war against Reconstruction governments, and when they won, they declared the South redeemed.
Decades later, another group of blacks and whites—this time in North Carolina—banded together to topple reactionaries and establish democracy. For a short moment, they succeeded. Working together as “fusionists,” they built schools, brought relief, and established true representative government in the South. And the backlash came. Some whites would relinquish white supremacy. Most wouldn’t. Using violence and terrorism, they toppled the fusionists and established a rigid white rule that would last into the 20th century, eventually dismantled during our Second Reconstruction, the civil rights movement.
As soon as that Reconstruction ended, there was a backlash. But it wasn’t as strong as previous ones. It brought leaders who nodded to problems of racism and racial discrimination, even as they played on white fears and white anxieties. After years of struggle, we had come to some agreement: We believed in equality. And when a black man won the presidency—the symbolic pinnacle of white power and white prerogative—we celebrated as a nation.
Fifty years after the black freedom movement forced the United States to honor its ideals, at least on paper, it’s clear this was premature. Like clockwork, white Americans embraced a man who promised a kind of supremacy. We haven’t left our long cycle of progress and backlash. We are still the country that produced George Wallace. We are still the country that killed Emmett Till.
Americans are stubbornly, congenitally optimistic. And the millions who backed Trump see something in his visage. Something that gives them hope. Here’s what I see. I see a man who empowered white nationalists and won. I see a man who demanded the removal of nonwhite immigrants and won. I see a man who pledged war crimes against foreign enemies and won. I see a man who empowers the likes of Rudy Giuliani and others who see blacks as potential criminals to control, not citizens to respect.
After the redemption of the South, black Americans—and nonwhites around the country—faced the nadir. Whites imposed new kinds of discrimination and turned a blind eye to the pogroms and racial terrorism that was scarring the American landscape.
In a few hours, millions of Americans will wake up in the age of Trump. I, and millions who look like me, will open our eyes to a second redemption. We can only hope—we can only pray—that we won’t reach a new nadir.