Populism, Cont.

Chris Orr flags another factor that might hamper Obama's populism act:


Even when Obama has been at his cucumber-coolest--and has earned abuse from the left and center for it--figures on the right have aggressively tried to hang the "angry black man" label on him. A June editorial in The Washington Times (entitled, bluntly enough, "Angry Man Obama") cited his "tough guy" persona and "bullying undercurrent" and tied him to Spike Lee. A year ago, Rush Limbaugh described the school-bus beating of a white student by black students as typical of "Obama's America"; in the run-up to the midterms, Glenn Beck accused the president of "inciting people." The idea that Obama is driven by fury is prevalent enough on the right that Dinesh D'Souza could take it as a given in the title of his Amazon bestseller The Roots of Obama's Rage. Idiotic though it may be, this is not a narrative the president wants to fuel. 

Appeals to populism and displays of anger are not, of course, the same thing. But they're not unrelated, either, particularly in the current political environment. Indeed, if anything, the mainstream Obama critiques along these lines have tended to emphasize personality over policy.

Let me not presume to read the collective brain of white America. Perhaps race would not matter. But I doubt that Obama, being a black man, is eager to find out. In the broadest sense, becoming a corporate Negro means accepting certain limits. Frankly, I would not bet on the consistent returns of any black man who regularly employed anger in a room full of white people.

Granted it's been decades, but I think Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis are still instructive here.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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