Let us not sugarcoat the central fact: Cain is a clown, if an entertaining one, who may well be a perfectly capable pizza marketer and motivational speaker but who had no more qualifications for the presidency than a Friars Club roastmaster. Yet no matter how unabashedly and frequently he advertised his own shortcomings, few had the temerity to say this short-lived emperor had no clothes—whether he was “joking” about building an electrified fence to stop illegal immigration, or reveling in his complete ignorance of foreign policy (from Libya to “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”), or proposing economic panaceas that were a euphonic delight but otherwise as nonsensical as a pronouncement by Chauncey Gardiner in Being There.
The silence was notably conspicuous among those Republican and conservative leaders who saw in Cain a tool to portray the GOP as a more inclusive brand than the nearly all-white bastion it actually is. (Just 8 percent of blacks identify themselves as Republican, according to Pew.) The only time conservatives criticized Cain—accusing him of playing the “race card,” needless to say—was when he had the temerity to suggest that the “Niggerhead” sign at a hunting ranch leased by Rick Perry was “insensitive.” That daring bit of truth-telling on Cain’s part was soon forgiven and forgotten (including by Cain), and he was back to being hailed on the right as “a magnificent man” and “a great man,” in the words of Ann Coulter. His only real sin was “getting too uppity” for liberals, Rush Limbaugh explained helpfully. Once Cain started to reel from multiple accusations of sexual harassment, Coulter and her cohort eulogized him as Clarence Thomas redux—the blameless victim of a “high-tech lynching.” When Cain finally dropped out of the race, The Wall Street Journal editorial page faulted him not for his dubious personal behavior but for his inept public-relations management.
After the Herminator’s candidacy finally did implode under the weight of the aggrieved women coming forward (five proved to be the tipping point), his farcical journey through the entire racial spectrum of the presidential race came full circle. He went from being a figurative clown to a professional one, reemerging as a popular comic partner for white liberal comedians like Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and John Oliver of The Daily Show, playing Richard Pryor to their Gene Wilder in delightful segments of neo-minstrelsy. Only in America! The GOP, meanwhile, liberated from its expedient shotgun marriage to a black front-runner, could return to its racial business-as-usual—its campaign to depress minority turnout on Election Day by pushing onerous new voting requirements in any state legislature they can.
Herman Cain could not have defeated Obama. Whether Republican efforts to curtail voter turnout can help do so is unknown. In retrospect, it’s not even clear whether Obama’s election in 2008 was a historic triumph of America over its racial legacy or a freak confluence of unlikely forces. Voters went to the polls just as the economy was crashing, and the only alternative to the black man was a crabby old white guy who didn’t seem to have a clue about what was going on.
The 2012 contest may be a more revealing indicator of the racial state of the union. Obama is running against the whitest man America could produce—a product of white states, white neighborhoods, and white institutions that include a church that didn’t give African-Americans full equal rights until 1978, well after the Old Confederacy had been forced to surrender to the new order of federal civil-rights laws. The new Census Bureau report that minority births have finally surpassed white births can only increase the demographic panic in a GOP that looks less and less like the electorate. No one should have been surprised to learn last week that one of the right’s billionaire sugar daddies was considering writing a $10 million check to support an ad campaign that would have exhumed the Reverend Jeremiah Wright in its plot to persuade America to “hate the president.”
Romney has declined invitations to see The Book of Mormon. It’s hard to imagine that he’d even recognize the historical context of Clybourne Park. Norris’s raucous comedy was inspired by a mostly somber (and seminal) Broadway drama of 1959, A Raisin in the Sun, by a young black woman, Lorraine Hansberry, then 28. (She would die at 34.) Her play has a single white character: Karl Lindner, the milquetoast emissary from the Clybourne Park neighborhood association who wants to bribe the black family, the Youngers, to prevent them from moving into their newly purchased house. The white man proves unable to buy what he wants. Raisin ends with the indelible image of the family matriarch, a domestic worker, walking out of her old home into a future that no one could foresee but that surely held more promise than the dead-end existence she is leaving behind.