It is my contention now that THE SEARCHERS and TAXI DRIVER both, despite their aforementioned flaws, carry within their analyses vital lessons to grasp about our current cultural milieu regarding both the presidencies of Barack Obama as well as Donald Trump and the American gun culture. Both are the locations of great anxieties within the American polity. I would contend that THE SEARCHERS and its tackling of the question of inter-ethnic marriage directly informs the challenges to Obama’s birth status, last name, and whether he was a legitimate president, a nativist movement that went under the heading of Birtherism. And I would argue that TAXI DRIVER imparts to viewers lessons and insights about the machismo underlying a portion of the gun culture that embraces nihilism and paranoia about the relationship between the individual and the state.
First, it is worthwhile to articulate a brief summary of black and brown voter trends. This voter is, from an issues-based perspective, the most Left-leaning constituency of both the Democratic Party and the wider United States. In terms of same-sex marriage, Affirmative Action, expansion of Social Security and other social safety net programs, abortion care rights, equal pay for women, and even wealth redistribution via a progressive income tax or reparations, the black/brown voter is further towards democratic socialist political positions than their Euro-American counterparts. There is a split, however, between accommodation and liberation politics, best exemplified by the public dispute between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, who disagreed about whether African Americans should work within a white supremacist culture to carve out a living or whether they should destroy white supremacy. This divide defines a strain of thought in terms of how black and brown people manage when they encounter white supremacy.
Barack Obama was always a right-of-center neoliberal Democrat. Journalist Glen Ford of the radio magazine Black Agenda Report has said that he knew how far to the right Obama was when the future president claimed that the disagreement between Du Bois and Washington was one that could be resolved, which in reality means he thinks Washington was correct (Ford). Political scientist Andrew Levine has written:
[H]e is a libertarian…because unlike the liberals in whose ranks conventional wisdom casts him, he is an enthusiastic, not a reluctant, free marketeer. According to some of his defenders, Obama is a “pragmatist,” a non-ideological politician, unencumbered by principles (though that implication of what pundits call “pragmatism” is, for obvious reasons, seldom stressed)… As much as any bona fide (right-wing) libertarian, he is guided by the idea that market arrangements, left undisturbed, lead, as if by an invisible hand, to the best of all possible worlds (Levine 166).
Consider for example of this Libertarian ideology his controversial Affordable Care Act. Very quickly he ejected those advocating for universal healthcare, colloquially known as Medicare For All. This was easy to accomplish due to the death of the major Senate advocate for such a plan, Edward Kennedy, before the Congressional debate over healthcare took place. What emerged in the final law was a basic allowance for cooperatives, although the regulations and other systemic hindrances have made them all but cease to exist as of 2016, along with emphasis and structural support exclusively for the major health insurance companies while putting out of business the smaller industrial players. This is a practical form of Libertarianism that defies typical shibboleths about the free market in that political party but Libertarianism nevertheless.
In terms of foreign policy, Obama was a hawk and never denied this. His policies, alongside Hillary Clinton, towards Honduras, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, China, Russia, and many others were further to the right than his predecessor George W. Bush would have ever dreamed of. At the end of his second term a summary of such policies had become an act of rote memorial recitation.
Domestically, his assault on civil liberties and human rights was also greater than anything Bush would have proposed. He put into place policy efforts that would serve as the first steps towards privatizing Social Security, failed to prosecute a single Wall Street banking official for the 2008 crash by way of his Attorney General, militarized the police forces of all fifty states, and allowed for the largest transfer of black/brown wealth to Wall Street in American history. At the end of his tenure, a Black Lives Movement that had arisen as a response to what were public lynchings of black and brown men by police carried within their platform a set of positions that were just as much a rebuke of Obama as anyone else.
So the operative question here becomes how one explains the paranoia and extreme reaction to Obama’s presidency, including its right wing policies? I would contend that in fact this presidency had a vociferous and powerful protest movement from the outset opposing his right wing policies but that, due in no small part to the white supremacist tendencies that arose alongside criticisms of these policies, they were effectively demonized and marginalized by both the mainstream and the anti-racist element within the population until the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The way one properly understands this query is through an analysis of the entryists that tried to take control of both the Republicans and Democrats beginning in 2006. On the Left there were the Progressive Democrats, who used the second set of midterm elections to elect candidates who would oppose the Bush administration’s war policies. On the Right were the Libertarians, who brought to the Republicans a brand of America First isolationism that was in direct confrontation with the neoconservative imperial project that had be actualized in Western and Central Asia after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Both these currents were, broadly speaking, based around the same anti-imperial, pro-civil liberties, pro-human rights, and populist currents. However, differences over individualism, race and racism, along with opposing views about neoclassical economics and monetarism linked to racial issues hindered a substantial united front from below from developing, something that would be absolutely necessary for a class-based opposition to the neoliberal imperial project.
I would contend that this is due to the role the mainstream media played in the presentation of Obama as a Leftist when he never was that. The mainstream media, such as the publisher of his memoir Dreams of My Father, utilized signifiers that articulated the impression that the then-Senator was much more progressive than he actually was. For example, there was the oft-cited passage regarding the his college days:
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist Professors and the structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon [sic], Eurocentrism, and patriarchy. When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society’s stifling constraints. We weren’t indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated (Obama 100-101).
Yet despite this obvious bid for the votes of progressives, Kevin Alexander Gray cites a passage in Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, that could “tumble out of the mouth of [Reagan’s Secretary of Education] William Bennett” (Gray 10):
Many of the social or cultural factors that negatively affect black people, for example, simply mirror in exaggerated form problems that afflict America as a whole: too much television (the average black house hold has the television on more than eleven hours per day), too much consumption of poisons (blacks smoke more and eat more fast food), and a lack of emphasis on educational achievement. Then there’s the collapse of the two-parent black household, a phenomenon that is occurring at such an alarming rate when compared to the rest of American society that what was once a difference in degree has become a difference in kind, a phenomenon that reflects a casualness toward sex and child rearing among black men that renders black children more vulnerable—and for which there is simply no excuse. Taken together, these factors impede progress (Obama).