Demonization watch: Presidents Clinton and Obama!


Were they treated alike or different:
This past Sunday, Isaac Chotiner moderated a discussion featuring Slate's Jamelle Bouie and the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb. In a new post at Slate, Chotiner describes the session thusly:
CHOTINER (5/25/16): The panel, “Race, Politics, and the Obama Presidency,” was initially intended as a look back at how the current president has discussed race during his two terms in office. But given the political earthquake that is Donald Trump...we ended up talking primarily about the ways in which race has shaped this year’s contest for the White House.
In what ways has race "shaped this year’s contest for the White House?" Below, you see an excerpt from the first Q-and-A with Bouie.

We think Bouie's comments tee up an intriguing question. Has President Obama been treated differently than President Clinton? Or were these two Democratic presidents treated in much the same manner?
CHOTINER: How has the presence of a black president for the past eight years played a role in Trump’s rise?

BOUIE: My theory of the case here is I think that Obama, as a person, represents for a nontrivial number of white Americans a sense of diversion from the political order, as they commonly understood it. And I almost have a bit of empathy for that perspective. One day the president of the United States is George W. Bush, most of the country’s political leadership looks like you, has similar cultural experiences as you, and then, all of a sudden, it’s completely different, and it’s completely different in what feels like a radical way. And it feels like a radical way, in part, because of all the rhetoric around Obama, both from the right—that he is a socialist, that he is someone who is undermining our [right to our] guns—but also from the left—from this idea that this now demonstrates that we don’t need a traditional voting base to win national elections; that we can win on the strength of minorities, and young women, and just a smattering of white voters. And if you look at the social science, what you find—in concrete terms—is an increase in the amount of what political scientists call “racial resentment” towards Obama.

So: Donald Trump, in some way, is almost spontaneously generated out of all this anxiety and fear and sense of dislocation among some number of white voters. He kind of captures their feelings; he captures their sense of loss that they’re no longer at the top of a status hierarchy that they just assumed had always existed. And I’m not sure if people are understanding this in conscious ways—I think it’s a very visceral and very emotional thing...
We'll try to paraphrase in a reasonable way. To our ear, Bouie seems to think that Obama received a unique type of treatment, at least from some "nontrivial number of white Americans," based upon his race.

He seems to be saying that the presence of a black president destroyed these people's sense of the political order. Here's his sense of this nontrivial number of people's experience:

"One day...most of the country’s political leadership looks like you, has similar cultural experiences as you, and then, all of a sudden, it’s completely different, and it’s completely different in what feels like a radical way."

It may be that some number of people did have that reaction to Obama. When Cobb follows Bouie's answer with his own, he quickly cites the birther movement which was dumped on Obama's head.

All through the Obama years, we've seen people express this sense—the sense that Obama was treated in something like a unique way because of his race. We tend to find this view frustrating, because we're so old that we can remember the way the last white Democratic president was treated when he ascended to office.

Thanks to Candidate Donald J. Trump, we're starting to get a reminder of the lunatic conduct directed at President Clinton during those years. Over at The Daily Beast, John Avlon recalls those lunatic days in a new post, which features an excerpt from his book, Wingnuts.

Has the treatment of Obama been crazier than the treatment of Clinton? Headlines included, Avlon starts like this:
AVLON (5/25/16): Donald Trump Revives the Crazy Clinton Conspiracies/
Hillary is about to face the same scorched-earth attacks that Clinton haters first fired a generation ago.

Hating Bill and Hillary Clinton has been a conservative cottage industry for a quarter-century. But ever since Bill’s self-inflicted sex scandals overtook dark talk about shadowy schemes in his second term, the most unhinged ideas about the Clintons faded into the fringe. Until now.

Donald Trump has grabbed hold of Clinton conspiracy theories with both of his tiny hands, shaking loose names like Vince Foster and introducing them to a new generation. There’s more where this garbage came from—festering heaps of paperbacks and VHS tapes that had been rotting in partisan landfills.

So let’s air the old accusations out and expose them to sunlight to show how ugly and absurd the work of the Clinton conspiracy entrepreneurs has been. In the second edition of my book Wingnuts, I added a new section on the unhinged Clinton haters and how they foreshadowed the era we’re living in now. Many of the names echo on in our politics today, from Roger Ailes to Citizens United to WorldNetDaily to an unexpected cameo by then-conservative Ariana Huffington. An edited excerpt is below.
That edited excerpt is worth reading, although it just scratches the surface of the craziness of the Clinton/Gore years.

There's no truck scale which can be used to answer our question, but we'll ask it again:

Has the treatment of President Obama been crazier than—different from—the treatment of President Clinton? Or was the crazy treatment of Clinton similar to that which occurred with Obama?

We've always seen more similarity than difference. Having said that, please note:

When Bill Clinton came to office, the new president of the United States wasn't "all of a sudden...completely different" from the white folk in question. Still, that new president was met with massive craziness. It's hard to argue that the reaction to Obama was really crazier than the reaction to Clinton.

For ourselves, we've always seen more similarity than difference. That said, many liberals don't seem to have been awake or alive during the Clinton/Gore years.

After driving the birther movement, Donald J. Trump is now reviving the craziness of those earlier years. We're also seeing how poorly equipped the liberal world is to respond to such matters.

As Candidate Trump rampages on, our basic question remains unanswered:

How about it—more alike, or more different? Unless we love narrative all the way down, the answer may actually matter.


  1. Here is an oddness. Bernie Sanders has been attacking Hillary Clinton over speeches made to Goldman Sachs after she was Secretary of State and before she ran for president. He has been claiming that the business model of Wall Street is fraud and that her association with them is thus corrupt.

    I've been reading Flash Boys by Michael Lewis and Goldman Sachs comes off pretty well, as one of the firms that was trying to help investors find the best market price. See Chapter 7, where Goldman ensured the success of the new, fair exchange created to undercut high frequency trading. They did that by sending all of their large investor orders to the new exchange.

    Isn't it remotely possible that Hillary Clinton might have spoken to Goldman Sachs about helping people and being less greedy and helped to show them the way toward this enlightened long-term strategy of helping investors find fair market prices? The time would be right, since this good stuff happened in 2013. Why would Sanders assume she only said things that would encourage Wall Street greed and not things that would help them conduct their business by serving the interests of their investors more fairly?

    Mostly, I am finding it hard to understand why Goldman Sachs is synonymous with evil when they were one of the better actors in Lewis's book.

    1. The extent of your research is one book?

    2. As luck would have it, today I read an interesting Thomas Frank essay- "Too Smart to Fail: Notes on an Age of Folly" from the 2014 book "No Future for You, Salvos from The Baffler". The article mentions a past column from the same Michael Lewis mocking people concerned about risky derivatives back in 2007. How not only have there been no consequences for those in the media so tragically wrong about the tech bubble, the housing bubble, financial deregulation, and the Iraq invasion, but rather to this day they maintain a perverse "credibility" amongst themselves for being so wrong.

  2. I was 16 and just becoming politically aware when Clinton ran against GHWB, and I have vivid memories of just how dark and twisted the right wing's origin stories about Bill Clinton were, going all the way back to his childhood. He certainly grew up in a rough, toxic environment, but Far Right shills concocted stories in which he was second cousin to the Devil and his mother was an Illuminati Project Monarch sex concubine. The biggest difference between the Clinton Era hate propaganda and the Obama Era propaganda, to my mind, is that the speakers weren't turned all the way up yet in the Clinton years (but they were certainly turned up louder than most people care to remember).

    I also find it interesting that the same kind of white panic/nativism/"anti-PC backlash" that seems to excite Trump supporters was originally amped all the way up into hysteria during the late GHWB/early Clinton years when Schleisenger was shilling The Disuniting of America and critics and movie goers were gushing over Falling Down.

  3. I actually think the wingnut treatment of Clinton was worse than the treatment Obama has received. However today I saw an interesting sight on the freeway. A guy in one of those jacked up four-wheel drive "Tonka Toy" trucks had emblazoned across the entire back windshield- the letter 'N', a red Soviet hammer and sickle and the letters BAMA.

    1. I saw a very similar one last week.

      On a commie-red background, it led with a yellow hammer and sickle, followed by "How do you like the change?"

      A non-trivial portion of the electorate really act as though they live in some alternate-universe USA.

    2. I guess ever since W left they don't have anyone to drink an imaginary beer with.

  4. Don't forget Joe Conason and Gene Lyons' The Hunting of the President, which documents many of the awful abuses of that time. They've created an excerpt of the craziness directed at Hillary that's available for download without charge. -

    1. The dozen or so remaining Somerby readers will never forget "The Hunting of the President."

      They know if Bob had a partner like those two fellas, he might have gotten past Chapter 6 and finished a whole darn book.

    2. Rachel, is that you?

    3. I think one of the cable heroes Bob is not fond of had one of those two favorite Somerby authors on his show recently to promote the website Caro mentioned.