Sen. Barack Obama, President Barack Obama, soon-to-be ex-President Barack Obama, perhaps even Barack Obama the husband and father, has always been a paragon of patience and magnanimity. Joe Lieberman betrays him during the passage of Obamacare? He lets it go. Congressman yells at him during the State of the Union? Obama brushes it off. Republican Congress blocks more than 100 judicial appointments? Obama appoints “compromise” judges. Donald Trump spends six years questioning Obama’s citizenship, Harvard transcripts and overall fitness for office? Obama decides to compliment him publicly and become Trump’s presidential mentor.
According to the Wall Street Journal, President Obama has agreed to provide more transition support and mentoring for Donald Trump than usual because the former media mogul and businessman has proved thoroughly overwhelmed and unprepared for the job.
After all of the abuse, racism and attacks by the Republican Party, and Trump in particular, Obama just can’t help himself: He’s got to be the bigger man and, thus, unintentionally, the “Magical Negro.” A common trope from fiction, the Magical Negro is a stock black character who exists solely to help the white protagonist on his or her journey. The Magical Negro guides him or her, provides insight and then fades away, having no desires or motivations of his own.
Obama, in his efforts to rise above the partisan rancor and racialized politics of his adversaries, is the accidental Magical Negro, seemingly driven by an inadvertent desire to help and guide white folks who have done nothing other than hurt, attack and dehumanize people of color, in hopes that they’ll change their ways.
The problem is, the time for the Magical Negro has long passed, and Obama’s attempt to mentor and charm Trump is dangerous for the entire country.
Trump and Obama’s first press conference together was a visual feast of awkwardness. Trump’s eyes darted back and forth, he nervously tapped his fingers together, and he hunched over like a kid who had just spent the day at the factory with his dad and realizes that maybe he’s not as much of a grown-up as he thought. Obama, both that day and since, has been somewhat complimentary of Trump, calling him “pragmatic” and “gregarious”; has exhorted Americans to “give Trump a chance”; and has steadfastly refused to criticize any of his successor’s policies or early appointments.
I haven’t seen this kind of benevolence in the face of naked bigotry since Hoke Colburn spoon-fed pumpkin pie into a withered, old Miss Daisy. Obama couldn’t be any more magical if he walked into the Rose Garden with a panama hat and a bag of golf clubs and said, “Ya know, ole man Trump is a lot like a crab apple: He’s tough on the outside, and a little green, too. … But I reckon, once you peel away the layers … he just might save Obamacare … ”
I understand that Obama is a black man, and there is not a black person in this country who hasn’t had the denigrating experience of having to mentor or train a less qualified white person who may one day take his or her job. I also understand that, as a patriot and a traditionalist, Obama realizes that attacking Trump’s behavior and policies after the election is a violation of precedent and protocol. However, Trump is not a traditional president-elect.
The nation is awash in protests against Trump’s election and awash in racial hate crimes from supporters of his election. He’s just appointed Steve Bannon, a white nationalist and terrorist sympathizer, to be his senior adviser. Deference is one thing; Obama doesn’t need to be Luther the anger translator postelection. However, talking up Trump’s good points and patting him on the back is not the answer, either.
Obama could easily point out that appointing an administration that looks like America, not just your supporters, is part of the job. He could say, more forcefully, that the rhetoric Trump used in the campaign is not compatible with how you run the country. He could reaffirm that the incoming president should show the same respect to the press as the Constitution and tradition call for.
Most important, Obama is still president of the United States for two more months. A postelection black-and-white bromance with Trump and a sprinkle of platitudes are not going to quell riots, protests and racial violence. He needs to speak firmly on the state of the nation and challenge Trump to do the same before he takes the oath of office.
Tuesday, while on TV One’s NewsOne Now, my colleague and frequent The Root contributor Lauren Victoria Burke took part in a lively exchange about why Obama is handling Trump the way he is. Burke believes that Obama is kissing up to Trump in hopes that the incoming 45th president won’t completely dismantle everything Obama has worked on.
I disagree. Obama isn’t naive enough to believe that a few strolls through the West Wing are going to stop Trump from trashing everything he can get his hands on. What Obama hopes, like all Magical Negroes, is that he can appeal to Trump’s better angels, in hopes that when a crucial moment comes, Trump will remember Obama’s sage advice and not send the world into Armageddon. What Obama seems to forget, however, is that the Magical Negro never gets credit for his work. The white person scores the winning shot, gets the girl, finds inner peace, or reconnects with his estranged wife and kids. If the Magical Negro is lucky, he just disappears, but often he literally sacrifices his life so that some ungrateful white person can live his.
As African Americans come to grips with what a Trump presidency may mean, we realize that we’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. Hopefully Obama has seen this movie, too, and shows a firmer hand and gets out while he can. The Magical Negro almost never makes it to the final credits—and seldom gets any credit, either.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.