If there was ever a day that encapsulated the dynamics of the forces arrayed against each other in our national politics, January 10 was it. At a confirmation hearing in the United States Senate, the incoming president’s nominee for attorney general defended himself against charges of racist behavior. Not long after the hearing concluded for the day, the nation’s first black president took America to school about the very threat to democracy posed by the incoming administration and the winds of fear and resentment that propelled Donald J. Trump to power.
President Barack Obama’s farewell address was an extraordinary thing. In our current moment—filled with the frenzy of a strategically compressed schedule of confirmation hearings, and spicy if not wholly substantiated allegations of coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin—it’s possible to miss the fact that the speech the president delivered in Chicago on Tuesday was one for the ages. For all its optimistic wrappings, the speech was a warning that the United States could be on the verge of losing its democracy, and contained a set of instructions on how to stop that from happening.
In those instructions, Obama made an impassioned plea for engagement with the political process by people who wish to retain democracy. He also gave a concise explanation of the nation’s racial dynamics, and a critique of attempts to cramp the free expression of groups led by people of color who are seeking change and redress. In a line addressed explicitly to white people, Obama explained, “when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”
Earlier in the day, Senator Jefferson B. Sessions, nominated to the post of attorney general by a president-elect who has promised to “investigate” the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest movement, faced questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on his views of, among many other things, the Justice Department’s role in addressing unconstitutional behavior by police—such as recent shootings of unarmed black people that gave rise to BLM—through the implementation of consent decrees that require departments to change their use-of-force training. Sessions indicated that he didn’t much like it (although he allowed that use of the consent decree can sometimes be “a legitimate decision”), and suggested that police departments feel bullied into accepting the agreements in order to remove the stigma of accusations by the DOJ that police are not appropriately serving all citizens.
“Law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable actions of a few of their bad actors,” Sessions told the panel in response to questioning by Mazie Hirano, Democrat of Hawaii. “They believe the political leadership in the country has abandoned them.”
While the hearing was still taking place, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery unearthed written testimony provided to the committee in 1986 by the late Coretta Scott King for the hearing on Sessions’s nomination to a federal judgeship, which she opposed. (Somehow, her testimony was never entered into the Congressional Record.) King’s testimony focused on Sessions’s role in prosecuting members of a local black voting rights group in Perry County, Alabama, for voting fraud when he was a U.S. attorney. The group, one of whose members had been close to Martin Luther King, Jr., had been registering voters and organizing the elderly to vote by absentee ballot if they couldn’t make it to the polling place. Half of the charges were later thrown out; defendants were acquitted of the others.
“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters,” Coretta Scott King wrote in the cover letter for her written testimony. “For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
While the Sessions record is mixed on matters involving race—he did sign on to a prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan during his time as U.S. attorney—it’s a fair bet to say that he leans toward favoring the dominance of white culture. How else to explain his attendance at David Horowitz’s Renaissance Weekends, or his involvement with the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigrant group founded by the white nationalist John Tanton, who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, once wrote: “I've come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
That this element of Sessions’s history has received little attention speaks to the growing normalization of white nationalism in the Age of Trump. The president-elect’s campaign elevated the voices of white supremacy via his retweets of posts from accounts associated with white nationalist and other far-right ideologues, and his hiring as campaign CEO, and then White House strategist, of Stephen K. Bannon, who boasted of providing “a platform for the alt-right” during his tenure as the chief executive of Breitbart News. (“Alt-right” is a sanitized, catch-all term for denizens of the racist, right-wing fever swamp.)
In his farewell speech, Obama lauded the role played by his wife, Michelle, as the nation’s first African-American First Lady—“a role she didn’t ask for,” he reminded his audience, which she performed with “grit” and “style.” It was Michelle Obama who spelled out, in the wake of the leak of the video that revealed Trump saying of women that he could “grab ‘em by the pussy,” that “this is not normal.”
Just three days before Michelle Obama made those comments, President-elect Trump’s current nominee for the post of the nation’s top law-enforcement official said he didn’t think what Trump described doing in that infamous out-take footage from Access Hollywood amounted to sexual assault.
From an October 10 interview with The Weekly Standard (TWS):
TWS: But beyond the language, would you characterize the behavior described in that [video] as sexual assault if that behavior actually took place?
SESSIONS: I don't characterize that as sexual assault. I think that's a stretch. I don't know what he meant—
TWS: So if you grab a woman by the genitals, that's not sexual assault?
SESSIONS: I don't know. It's not clear that he—how that would occur.
By the time of Tuesday’s hearing, Sessions backtracked on those comments, allowing that, yes, grabbing a woman’s privates is actually an act of assault. “Clearly, it would be,” he said in response to the question put to him by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee. Sessions’s answer was telling for its subtle gaslighting—as if he had never thought anything else.
Just hours before President Obama took the stage in Chicago, Buzzfeed published raw memos said to be written by an anonymous intelligence operative for hire (formerly of the United Kingdom’s intelligence services) alleging ties and coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, as well as compromising information about Trump’s behavior in Russia that could be used against the president-elect as a form of blackmail.
Perhaps the most ominous warning in Obama’s farewell address was a mere few words nestled in with comments on the threat of terrorism. The national values of human rights for all and the rule of law were being threatened, he said, “first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power.”
Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire for an alliance with one such autocrat. He has baldly used racial resentment and misogyny to fuel his ascent to power. The sitting president has spelled out a course of action for resisting these forces—the headwinds of the next administration—just days before he leaves power. That’s an extraordinary thing.