Call it the curse of high expectations. When Barack Obama took office, the world swooned, America exhaled and pundits declared an end to centuries of racial division. Gazing at the 1.5m people who braved the cold to witness Mr Obama’s inauguration, Steven Spielberg said it would have been impossible to stage for a movie. That was then. Today America’s first non-white president is winding down at the nation’s tensest moment of racial polarisation in decades. Thanks to Donald Trump, the Ku Klux Klan is back in the headlines. I doubt Mr Trump will succeed Mr Obama as president but he has injected poison into the bloodstream. For all Mr Obama’s hopes, fear is the dominant currency.
Much like the end-of-history declarations in the 1990s, America’s racial history did not end with Mr Obama’s election. It simply opened a new chapter. Nations, it seems, suffer from similar disorders to humans — what happens in their formative years shapes their character for evermore. Just as India sees foreign investors as potential colonisers, and Britain confuses Brussels with the papacy, so the US is enchained to its original sin of slavery. Half a millennium after the first Africans were shipped across the Atlantic, the US still has one foot in its past.
Do not take my word for it. Listen to Mr Trump’s supporters. According to exit polls in South Carolina, which Mr Trump won handily last month, a fifth of those who voted for him thought that Abraham Lincoln was wrong to emancipate slaves. Just over a third wished the south had won the civil war. Ted Cruz, who looks like Mr Trump’s only viable rival, had similar numbers. Seventy per cent wished that the Confederate flag was still flying above the state’s capitol building. It was removed last year following the massacre of nine black churchgoers by a self-declared confederate. “The past is never dead,” said William Faulkner. “It is not even past.”
The weight of history is borne out by today’s voting patterns. In 2008, more than nine out of 10 African-Americans voted for Mr Obama both in the primary race against Hillary Clinton and in the general election against John McCain, the Republican nominee. Last month more than 80 per cent chose Mrs Clinton over Bernie Sanders in South Carolina — not because Mr Sanders is considered suspect but because they backed the candidate most likely to win the presidency. Martin Luther King said that Sunday morning church was the most segregated hour in America. Nowadays it is the polling booths. Black voting in the south is an almost exact mirror of that of whites, who vote Republican by similar margins. Though a minority of Mr Trump’s supporters are racist — and he may simply be posturing out of expediency — the dangers are very real.
What can Mr Obama do about it? Nine years ago he launched his campaign from the same steps in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln rose to prominence. He quoted the former president: “A house divided cannot stand.” Mr Obama would usher in a new politics that transcended the gulf between red states and blue states. The subtext was that by electing an African-American, the US would also bridge a more ancient divide. The promise of both have been belied by Mr Trump’s rise. In fact, the latter’s popularity is icing on a cake that was already baked. Not since the era following the civil war has American politics been so gridlocked. Republicans have said they will not even meet whomever Mr Obama nominates for the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death last month of Antonin Scalia — let alone hold hearings.
Mr Obama’s biggest weapon is the power to help Mrs Clinton succeed him by ensuring a high turnout on November 8. Should Mr Trump be the Republican nominee, or indeed Mr Cruz, they would need as much as 70 per cent of the white male vote to win, according to Politico. That may prove impossible. The share of white male votes for Mitt Romney in 2012 was 62 per cent. It is hard to believe Mr Trump could improve on that. It is likelier to fall.
Moreover, a Trump nomination could spark a civil war inside the Republican party. Last week Mr Romney made it clear he would try to bend party convention rules to deny the crown to Mr Trump. If he failed, there could be a third party bid by a “true conservative”. Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to George W Bush, last week suggested that could be Condoleezza Rice. Others think it could be Mr Romney. Whoever it is would be immaterial: by splitting the vote it would all but hand the White House to Mrs Clinton.
But would her victory be Pyrrhic? That will depend mostly on Republican leaders. Last week Mr Romney said Mr Trump represented “a brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss”. He was right. However, it is an anger that his party has quietly stoked since the civil rights era. Mr McCain echoed Mr Romney’s views yet he took no responsibility for having chosen Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. Ms Palin endorsed Mr Trump in January. She did as much as anyone to breed resentment against Mr Obama’s “hopey, changey stuff”.
For decades, key Republican strategists have used a dog-whistle to play on racial fears. It should come as no surprise that someone like Mr Trump would one day swap it for a megaphone.