When I hear the number forty-four, I think of President Obama. It’s funny — I never thought of Reagan as forty, or Clinton as forty-two. But Obama is forty-four, and Trump is forty-five. I’m not sure where it started, but my guess is that it happened when George W. Bush became president. Suddenly we had two presidents George Bush within a decade or so of each other. The elder Bush suddenly gained some initials, and was sometimes referred to as George H. W. Bush. But just as often, he was now “Bush 41,” and the incumbent was “Bush 43.” Made sense. I wonder if that stuck, so that we now think of presidents in terms of their number more than before. The numbers become shorthand for the president, and for what they symbolize. And I’ll tell you, I think Presidents 44 and 45 are very deeply symbolic.
Forget their policies for a minute. Forget their actual qualifications and accomplishments. Just look at what they symbolize:
President 44 was a young, freshman senator from Chicago, whose teeth had been cut on community organizing. And he was African-American. Yes, he was actually multi-racial, but he presented as black. He owned his black identity. His election symbolized a fresh start for America. It symbolized the end of racism. (It was clearly not the end of racism, but that’s a symbol many people hoped they were seeing at the time.) Or, perhaps more modestly, it symbolized a shot against racism. The electorate stood up and said, “Race will no longer be a stumbling block to election to the highest office in the nation.” It symbolized hope, hope that there could one day be equality for people of all sorts and stripes. It symbolized a hopeful future. It symbolized change. I remember that I cried the day he was elected. It was so moving. I couldn’t believe I was living through this.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that everyone who voted for Obama did so for this reason. And I’m not saying that those who voted for McCain were voting against hope, or in favor of racism. Not at all. People had all kinds of reasons for voting how they did. I’m not making judgments here on voters — I’m just saying what I think the election results symbolized.
In contrast, the election of President 45 symbolized something quite different. This was a candidate who stirred up not hope and dreams, but anger and passion. A candidate whose identity was about being a Washington outsider, a source of chaos and change, a chance to “take back” our country from — well, what we would take it back “from” was never clear. Perhaps from Democrats? Or from illegal immigrants? Or from — dare I say it — that black president? Certainly not all who voted for Trump are racist. Certainly not all who voted for him are xenophobic. But what did his election symbolize? I believe it symbolized a backlash. I believe it symbolized a reaction to change, an attempt to shore up the borders (both figuratively and literally), an attempt to take care of ourselves and root out the rot. And it also — let’s be honest — symbolized an old-fashioned view of race and gender and sexuality.
The election of Obama symbolized openness and progress. The election of Trump symbolized slowing down, returning to past glory. In a way, this is the typical “ratcheting” process that our two-party system can provide. A two-part repeated process in which liberals move things forward (perhaps too fast and too far), and conservatives put on the brakes. Rinse and repeat. This process is probably a very healthy way to make progress as a nation. The elections of 44 and 45 are almost a parody of this process. Too much acceleration in one, and too much braking in the next. Again, this is not a a judgment on their actions or deeeds, just the symbolism.
Makes me wonder who’s next. And when? 2020 or 2024? What will he or she symbolize?