It was a framing that might have worked with any other two presidents. On Friday, The New York Times published a comparison of how Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, approached controversies over racism. “Obama offered balm. Trump drops verbal bombs. But both were accused, in a polarized country, of making racial tensions worse,” the paper tweeted. That bland equivalence between the first black president and his white successor, who rode to the White House on a racist conspiracy theory denying Obama was born in the United States, provoked a firestorm of criticism on social media.
That fact alone shows how impossible it is to approach the Trump presidency the way the media might approach any other administration—indeed, bafflingly, the article briefly references birtherism without acknowledging Trump’s embrace of the conspiracy theory, and how it affected his political fortunes. The relationship between Trump and Obama is historically unique in that the former was elected by a racial backlash to the latter, another point the piece declines to acknowledge, whether to refute or affirm.
Instead, the piece is constructed around the juxtaposition of the criticism that Obama encountered for acknowledging the racism black Americans still face with the fact that Trump is often accused of racism. The piece notes that after Obama spoke at a funeral for nine black people murdered by a white supremacist, “some people, mostly white, accused him of dividing the country when he spoke empathetically about the racism faced by black Americans.” By contrast, in the Trump era, “People often debate whether what the president did or did not say was a sign that he was racist.”