White Rage and Obama’s Tears

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President Obama Speaks In The East Room Of White House On Efforts To Reduce Gun Violence
Tears were shed.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2016 Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. To kick off 2016: Obama’s gun-control push, the Donald dredging up Bill and Hillary’s past, and the simmering rage of white America.

Once America decided killing children was bearable,” one gun-control commentator memorably wrote when reforms failed after Sandy Hook, any effective debate on guns in the U.S.“was over.” Does President Obama’s emotional call for new measures this week create any political movement to change that?
Given the initial response by the GOP, a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA, you’d have to say no: The president’s move was greeted with the usual hysterical blather about how “The cruel despot Obama is coming to take your guns!” and the usual pooh-poohing about how “Nothing he’s proposing would have stopped the mass shootings of Sandy Hook, Charleston, San Bernardino … ” And in truth, the effect of his proposed executive actions will be small gruel indeed — enabling, perhaps, some thousands of additional background checks. That’s a pittance in a nation where, in 2015 alone, there were more than 23 million background checks on gun sales, and who knows how many gun transactions requiring no vetting at all. And yet: Am I, a longtime pessimist about progress on this issue, completely delusional to see a tiny bit of movement in the right direction?

As polling has long showed, more than 90 percent of Americans favor rigid background checks on gun buyers, making it a well-chosen focus for the president’s initiative. Even Bill O’Reilly came out in agreement with Obama on this point this week — potentially a more influential voice in changing hearts and minds than, say, the preaching-to-the-choir front-page editorials in the New York Daily News and Times. And, as the Times reported in a recent front-page news story, Michael Bloomberg’s serious capital investment in fighting for gun reform, initially fruitless, has quietly started to notch up a few political victories over the NRA at the local level.  

Meanwhile, those (on the left as well as the right) who have typed Obama ad infinitum as a passionless law professor can no longer say that he doesn’t have or show emotions — despite some attempts on the right to claim that his tears were a hoax. What did turn out to be a hoax was Jeb!’s oft-repeated anecdote that he was given a rifle by Charlton Heston when receiving the NRA’s Statesman of the Year Award — a claim revisited by BuzzFeed in the run-up to Obama’s press conference. There is no such award, Jeb! didn’t win it, and Heston gave him no rifle. It was another small but immensely enjoyable setback for Second Amendment fanatics this week.

Hillary Clinton has so far made good on her New Year’s resolution to avoid talking about Donald Trump’s personal attacks on her and Bill — despite seemingly constant pressure to do so from reporters following her as she takes the trail in Iowa. How many nonanswers can she give before the press stops pursuing Trump’s line of questioning?
If she sticks to her resolution, it will fade fast. And certainly many in the Republican Establishment, including some of Trump’s rivals, hope it will fade. That’s because they are smart enough to figure out that attacks on Bill Clinton’s unsavory sexual history, no matter how they are framed, are destined to backfire on the GOP rather than hurt Hillary Clinton. That political equation became clear in the aftermath of the scandals that led to impeachment in the late 1990s: The more salacious the headlines, the more sympathy accrued to Hillary Clinton, and the more Bill Clinton’s approval ratings went up, reaching a whopping 73 percent in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky revelations. It was not for nothing that Lindsey Graham, a so-called “House manager” of impeachment during Clinton’s 1999 Senate trial, declined to call attention to that chapter during his own presidential campaign even though it was arguably the most famous interlude in his political career. Rand Paul, the one 2016 candidate who did bring up Bill Clinton’s “predatory behavior” before Trump did, has fared almost as poorly in his presidential bid as the impeachment-stained Graham did in his now-kaput bid for the White House.

What’s been fascinating, though, is that one prominent enclave of the conservative Establishment, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, has ignored the lessons of Clinton-era political history, taken Trump’s bait, and elected to jump on Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” as if it were 1998 all over again. Back then, the Journal had been a dogged prurient chronicler of Clinton sexual activity, so much so that it published no fewer than six fat books collecting its reportage and editorials about Clinton administration scandals. In the aftermath of Trump’s attack, the Journal has run an editorial giving readers a primer on Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, et al., and chuckling that the “Clinton war on women” will trump any efforts by the Democrats to talk about the GOP war on women in 2016. One Journal columnist, William McGurn, went so far as to equate Clinton to Bill Cosby, and to rationalize Trump’s misogyny by drawing a moral distinction between his “aggressive male boorishness” and Clinton’s “outright sexual abuse.” Granted the Journal has an aging readership, but surely someone there must know that this sort of men’s-club blather is offensive and probably baffling to younger voters, at least some of whom weren’t born when the Lewinsky news broke. Hillary Clinton can only hope that more and more of her political adversaries will follow the Journal’s example in jumping on the Trump bandwagon and help assure her path to the White House.

An online poll on “American rage” released this week by NBC News, Esquire, and SurveyMonkey found that over the past year no groups had a bigger increase in self-reported anger about current events than white people and Republicansangrier, in fact, than black Americans, who would seem to have more reason to be enraged in the 2015 of Ferguson, Charleston, Cleveland, and Chicago. Where does this anger lead?
This poll confirms what the former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote in the current issue of The Atlantic — that “the angriest and most pessimistic people in America” aren’t the protesters of Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter or the DREAM-ers demanding immigration reform but the “people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor.” Indeed, this poll, unexpectedly, finds that black Americans are more optimistic about the future of the country, about the future of the American dream, and even about their own financial standing than white Americans higher up on the economic ladder.

Frum makes the point, with which I agree, that this anger and pessimism resides in both parties, and that neither party is addressing it, thus giving rise to both the serious insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders and the rage-fueled crusade of Trump. On the assumption that neither of them will be president, this rage is going to continue to boil, and boil over, in ways that could ultimately make the Trump disruption look relatively benign. Or such could be the case if whatever government takes charge on January 20, 2017, doesn’t address the grievances many Americans have against what Frum calls “the power of organized money” (whether that power is held on Wall Street or by the Koch brothers).

One footnote in this poll worth citing: The one unifying source of rage in the entire survey — the only national phenomenon that 90 percent of all Americans regardless of race or class or party are mad as hell about — is school shootings. This too may offer a sliver of hope that Obama’s leadership on gun-law reform this week might be a harbinger of change we can believe in, not just another impotent gesture in this long-running American tragedy.