On Friday, former President Barack Obama gave a speech at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The central conceit of the speech was that President Donald Trump had broken American politics. And the central lie of the speech is that time began on November 8, 2016 – that the collapse of America’s social fabric and civic institutions had nothing to do with Barack Obama. The reality of the situation, of course, is that Trump is a symptom of the slow-rolling collapse of those institutions, brought about in large part by the disingenuous gaslighting in which Obama engaged for a decade: promoting a better discourse while engaging identity politics, championing supposed honesty in politics while simultaneously presiding over an administration rife with malfeasance, and demonizing opponents while claiming to fly above the fray.
Now, Obama is back – just in time to run in front of the presumed Democratic 2018 victory parade. Obama watched his party crash and burn during his two terms, losing the House, the Senate, and finally the White House – but now he’s back to offer moral guidance to the country he castigated throughout his tenure in office.
As President Trump put it, Obama is indeed “very good. Very good for sleeping.” Or at least, for rallying the Republican base driven mad by Obama’s preening scorn for Americans who don’t agree with him.
Obama began by laying out the idea that America exists without a ruling class:
The point Washington made, the point that is essential to American democracy, is that in a government of and by and for the people, there should be no permanent ruling class. There are only citizens, who through their elected and temporary representatives, determine our course and determine our character.
This, coming from Obama, is rich. This is the president who declared he would rule with pen and phone, whose 2012 DNC proclaimed that government is the only thing we all share, who expanded executive authority to draconian new heights. But according to Obama, Trump is the big problem.
This is a common theme from Obama: everything was great until Trump. Obama explained that America has “operated under some common assumptions about who we are and what we stand for.” He simply suggested that big government liberalism was the founding ideology, and that we all agreed on it (we didn’t). He said that we all agreed on foreign policy (we didn’t). He suggested we all agree on the “collective responsibility” for health care and the need for heavy environmental regulation and government hiring programs (we don’t).
But Obama ignored all the real disunity to suggest that Trump is to blame for everything wrong with the country:
I’m here today because this is one of those pivotal moments when every one of us as citizens of the United States need to determine just who it is that we are. Just what it is that we stand for. And as a fellow citizen — not as an ex-president, but as a fellow citizen — I’m here to deliver a simple message, and that is that you need to vote because our democracy depends on it.
Obama declared 2016 the most important election of our lifetimes, too. But this one is different. Why?
The status quo pushes back. Sometimes the backlash comes from people who are genuinely, if wrongly, fearful of change. More often it’s manufactured by the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical because it helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege. And you happen to be coming of age during one of those moments. It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, a fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but it’s also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes.
Again, the gaslighting runs strong in Obama. Obama suggests he’s for a better politics, but everyone who disagrees with him is “fearful of change.” Politicians who oppose him are corrupt – but not Obama, who would never want to keep us “divided” or “angry.” Not Obama, who called his opponents “bitter clingers” and whose hand-chosen successor labeled her opponents “deplorables.”
Obama was a big part of the problem. But Obama can’t recognize that. Over and over in this speech, Obama avoided blame for problems he gravely exacerbated.
Here’s Obama on the economy:
So we pulled the economy out of crisis, but to this day, too many people who once felt solidly middle class still feel very real and very personal economic insecurity.
Whose fault is that? The Republicans, of course. But the economic growth statistics with a Republican Congress? He gets the credit.
Here’s Obama on foreign policy:
Even though we took out bin Laden and wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, got Iran to halt its nuclear program, the world’s still full of threats and disorder that come streaming through people’s televisions every single day.
Well, actually, Obama’s policies increased those threats and radically contributed to that disorder. But whose fault is it really? Republicans, of course.
Here’s Obama on political division:
And even though your generation is the most diverse in history with a greater acceptance and celebration of our differences than ever before, those are the kinds of conditions that are ripe for exploitation by politicians who have no compunction and no shame about tapping into America’s dark history of racial and ethnic and religious division. Appealing to tribe, appealing to fear, pitting one group against another, telling people that order and security will be restored if it weren’t for those who don’t look like us or don’t sound like us or don’t pray like we do, that’s an old playbook. It’s as old as time.
This from the president who tut-tutted actual riots, who suggested without evidence that police departments across America were systemically racist, who declared that a slain black teenager could have been his son, who deployed his vice president to say that Mitt Romney wanted to put black people “back in chains.” But the problem, as ever, is Republicans.
Here’s Obama on America’s broader problems:
A politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment takes hold and demagogues promise simple fixes to complex problems. No promise to fight for the little guy, even as they cater to the wealthiest and most powerful. No promise to clean up corruption and then plunder away. They start undermining norms that ensure accountability and try to change the rules to entrench their power further.
This from the president who used executive privilege to shield his “wingman” attorney general from the consequences of gunrunning to Mexican drug cartels, whose IRS was weaponized against conservatives, whose EPA and HHS and DOJ were rife with corruption, who promised dozens of times not to rewrite immigration law unilaterally but did so anyway, who lied about the Iran deal and Obamacare at whim. But the problem, of course, is Trump.
Here’s Obama on how every problem is the fault of Republicans:
But over the past few decades, the politics of division and resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican party. This Congress has championed the unwinding of campaign finance laws to give billionaires outside influence over our politics. Systematically attacked voting rights to make it harder for young people and minorities and the poor to vote. Handed out tax cuts without regard to deficits. Slashed the safety net wherever it could, cast dozens of votes to take away health insurance from ordinary Americans, embraced wild conspiracy theories like those surrounding Benghazi or my birth certificate, rejected science, rejected facts on things like climate change, embraced a rising absolutism from a willingness to default on America’s debt by not paying our bills to a refusal to even meet much less consider a qualified nominee for the supreme court because he happened to be nominated by a Democratic president.
Yes, division and resentment and paranoia are the fault of those conservatives, who are behind every problem! That’s not divisive or resentful or paranoid in the slightest, apparently. It’s not divisive to link together those who questioned why the Obama administration lied about the causes of Benghazi with idiots who questioned where Obama was born. It’s not divisive to lump together First Amendment advocates with corporate cronies. It’s not divisive to blame America’s debt on Republicans while ignoring your own spending habits. It's not resentful to blame the wealthy for the problems of the country, to threaten bank CEO's with "pitchforks." It's not paranoid to blame Republicans for every failure of your own programs.
But according to Obama, the problem is everyone Obama dislikes. All we have to do is agree with Obama, and voila! Problem solved. According to Obama, conservatism should be ackshually agreeing with him.
Unfortunately, Obama explained, conservatism has been corrupted, says the most powerful Leftist leader of this generation. Conservatism now means “allowing dishonest lenders to take advantage” of people, says the man who presided over the creation of a legal regime that endorses “too big to fail.” Conservatism now means failing to pay for programs, says the man who blew out the deficit. Conservatism now means “undermining our alliances, cozying up to Russia,” says the president who destroyed an alliance with Israel on behalf of kowtowing to Iran, who handed over Syria to Putin, who insulted Mitt Romney’s anti-Russian foreign policy as the policy of the 1980s, who pledged Putin’s agents “flexibility” in return for kind treatment for the 2012 election, who undercut the defense capabilities of Eastern European nations so as to ensure a “reset” with Putin. Conservatism means ensuring people have health insurance, says the president who lied about keeping your doctor and your insurance program.
No, said Obama, conservatism is the problem.
And then Obama got to his own new program – a supposed unity program that could provide for a better America. What was this program? Higher minimum wage; Medicare for all (no, he wasn’t lying in the slightest when he stated that Obamacare wasn’t a first step toward nationalized health care); forcing corporate boards to include workers; reversing tax cuts; cap and trade; opposition to walls (“Walls don’t keep out threats like terrorism,” Obama states, ignoring that Israel’s wall has done just that).
His unity program, it turns out, is just Leftism.
But he’s unifying, don’t you understand. Because, in the end, if you disagree with his policies, you should vote Democrat anyway. Why? Because “you should still be concerned with our current course and should still want to see a restoration of honesty and decency and lawfulness in our government.”
Except that Obama wasn’t honest, decent, or lawful. Obama states in this speech that we should be nonpartisan in our support for freedom of the press, and says that he never threatened to shut down opposing outlets; but Obama targeted James Rosen of Fox News and bugged the Associated Press. Obama states in this speech that we should not “pressure the attorney general”; but Eric Holder called himself Obama’s “wingman.” Obama says we’re supposed to stand up against discrimination; but he went to Jeremiah Wright’s church for decades, took photos with Louis Farrakhan, and had Al Sharpton as a regular White House guest.
So, what makes Obama unifying? That he doesn’t want to fight “fire with fire, say whatever works, make up stuff about the other.” Except he’s done that for his entire political career. Obama says, “We need cooperation among people of different political persuasions,” but can’t name a single major bipartisan initiative he promoted. Obama says we “won’t win people over by calling them names or dismissing entire chunks of the country as racist or sexist or homophobic” – after doing just that for much of his career, including in this speech. Obama says we don’t need a messiah after playing one on television (remember his infamous remarks after the Iowa 2008 primary in which he predicted that history would see that as the moment the oceans began to recede?).
Obama’s demagoguery predated Trump’s demagoguery, and contributed to Trump’s rise. To say otherwise is to promote full-scale ignorance of history and politics. Obama drove the Right mad. Now Trump has driven the Left mad.
No wonder, in the words of Charlton Heston in Planet of Apes, it’s a madhouse.