Early morning hours, post-Election Day 2008, and I found myself sitting on my back step, looking across a field and feeling anxious. It wasn’t what I expected, having just experienced the spectacle of Barack Obama becoming president-elect.
In increasing intensity, I realized that my own personal experiences, not much unlike Obama’s, would now be in the harshest spotlight in the world. And that was troubling me and zapping out any feeling of historical precedence, celebration.
I began a letter, to let this new president know that at least one person knew what he was up against. Silly, I thought. Never finished it.
I’ve been to a lot of places in my life, mostly around Minnesota. Save for a stint in the more diverse New York, the first question I often get when meeting people is the same. (And I’ve met a lot of strangers working as a journalist.) Where are you from?
Seems innocuous enough, right? It’s a small enough thing to brush off, and I have, mostly. But I know the code there. “You don’t look like you’re from around here.”
Imagine getting that all of the time. It can wear. And it can tell.
So enter the birther movement. Grand-scale “otherness.”
And enter the human need, somehow now more than ever, for a bogeyman.
What I’m most impressed about with President Obama is how he persevered despite these constructs. And in doing so, only inflamed those who wanted so desperately to have someone to blame for any slight in their life or the American psyche.
But Obama had a brain and a heart on full display, and there was nothing he could do but just press on. He didn’t cater, he didn’t flinch. And it was never enough to just be an exemplar human being. Never enough.
Recall any small slight blown to mega proportions during his presidency. Compare that to the misanthrope who resides in the office today. There is no comparison to how each man has been treated, just as there is no comparing their competency levels.
Bogeyman. Been there, through that.
Now that the main bogeyman is gone, we need a replacement. So now we see the faulty creation of cultural monoliths. It’s the media. It’s BLM. It’s antifa, a made-up term that didn’t exist in any popular vernacular until it was needed after Charlottesville.
And don’t get me wrong — we all fall into this trap. The key is to realize it, wake up and work to find better understanding about how your emotions play in the public sphere.
The obvious reality is that Obama made people think. He didn’t make “race relations” worse. He simply helped foster a rise to clarity of thought, to maybe rethink the status quo.
In short, his very presence brought white people to think about plights they may have never imagined before. And for many, not all, that meant “race relations” were never worse. Because white people had greater access to what “others” experienced day to day, year to year and generation to generation. It was placed on their lap for examination.
And that’s uncomfortable. And it makes some search for another bogeyman, or to keep hammering on the one in office.
I long ago gave up the notion that the presidency was all-important in the way we look at history. It’s a figurehead position. But it is one that can set the mood, move the goalposts for this still-emerging America.
It’s why Obama was so impressive. And why the current occupant is so wanting. President Donald Trump is a man constantly in search of a bogeyman, not realizing it’s in his own soul. To get there, he would need introspection, curiosity and a lifetime of historical knowledge he never bothered to take in.
The natural tendency for those on the “left” is to make Trump their own bogeyman, which may feel good but needs context. He is something I believe most of us are not. He doesn’t care a bit about human conditions or the American ideal. He cares about himself. He has no nuance, no sense of the pulse of the country save for red meat, simplistic pandering.
For the most part, I’m comfortable watching Trump fight his inner bogeyman. It won’t last. He can’t last. He’s just too damaged as a human being. It’s a waste of energy and bluster to goad him into submission. He’ll do that all by himself.
Which is to say: Let people be who they are. Stand up for obvious wrongs but check yourself for political or personal bias. Understand this nattering need for a bogeyman and excise the notion from your being. The work we need to do is in us, not them. We need to work from that inside position, not the atomizing influx of social media and lazy news. Work from your gut and then share with others what you find and be open to their own huzzahs.
Continue walking in others’ shoes, and offering a true understanding to those who may not act like you, look like you or even like you. It’s time we stopped labeling and scoring points and being masters of our own bubble.
If we can get there, I can ease my regret about not fully expressing my muddled thoughts on that early morning in November nearly nine years ago. America, bereft of the bogeyman.
Michael Creger is a freelance writer and former journalist. He lives in Duluth.