Columnist: Obama and the ascent of Trump
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
— Sen. Barack Obama speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco, April 11, 2008.
Senator Obama later apologized for his words (quoted above); but they speak to his elitism and give validation for the allegation that left-wing Democrats have lost touch with blue collar workers. The Democratic Party of 50 years ago, which then represented lower and middle-income Americans, has morphed into a party that represents an odd mixture of coastal elites, Hollywood and Silicon Valley bigwigs, minorities, academics, unionized government employees and a host of aging baby-boomers who grew up in the heady days of civil and women’s rights.
What they no longer represent are the working-class families that were once the backbone of the American economy. They have become a party with a supercilious, near-religious belief in the righteousness of themselves, their opinions and their mission.
Donald Trump did not emerge from the sea like Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Neither did he rise from the ashes like a Phoenix, nor did he appear Genie-like, as Aladdin rubbed his lamp. He and his message are a result of a number of causes: He is a consequence of what the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter termed “creative destruction” — that technological advancements displace old ones, causing worker dislocation; that and a failure of the administration to encourage private-sector job creation through tax and regulatory reform.
He is a product of a political system that has become strident in its divisiveness, a system in which cronyism and corruption have become more prevalent. He is the reaction to a Washington that has become elitist, and distanced from the people it represents. He is the result of college campuses that, instead of teaching tolerance and welcoming diversity in ideas, have become incubators for those on the left who shut down conservative speakers.
He is a consequence of the 2007-2009 financial crisis, abetted by government, that surfaced on Wall Street and damaged Main Street.
There are those who believe Trump’s ascension is due to an inborn proclivity toward authoritarianism. Amanda Taub, a former human rights lawyer and writer for Vox.com, recently published an essay, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” in which she concluded that Trump’s ascent is the natural outcome of the preference for traditionalism in parenting among conservative segments of our society — a first step, in her opinion, toward authoritarianism.
While I believe such tendencies do exist, I suspect they cross party and ideological lines — and I am skeptical regarding the role of parenting. We do, however, see yearnings for “strong leaders.”
Law and order is associated with the right. A president who “gets things done,” even if he must use executive orders to bypass Congress, is preferred by the left. Keep in mind, regardless of party, in today’s presidential politics, power is the goal; ideology is simply the means.
At a press conference last week, the president commented that the “tone” of political discourse has become nastier over the past seven and a half years. But, in a remarkable, defensive and almost incoherent response, Mr. Obama cast himself as victim, while absolving himself of responsibility: “But I also have to say … that objectively it’s fair to say that the Republican political elites and many of the information outlets, social media and news stations, talk-radio and television stations have been feeding the Republican base for the last seven years that everything I do is to be opposed, that cooperation or compromise is somehow betrayal, that maximalist, absolutist positions on issues are politically advantageous, that there is a ‘them’ out there and an ‘us’ and that the ‘them’ are the folks that are causing whatever problems you are experiencing and the tone of that politics, which I certainly have not contributed to.”
Is Mr. Obama so removed from reality that he actually believes what he said? Does he not realize that his vain personae and arrogant words have served to split further an already divided country? Does he really think that he has played no role in the lack of civility that has encouraged the “bad-ass” politics that define this era?
Whatever the cause, though, and no matter who or what is responsible, the facts are that people are angry and the country has turned pessimistic and inward. They see an EPA that has been focused on solar panels and wind mills, while it has ignored the problem of lead water pipes in schools and towns. President Obama bears the brunt of the responsibility.
He promised “hope and change” and a “purple” America. Yet “blues” have become bluer and “reds” redder. He said he would “transform America.” That he has done, but not in the manner expected.
Mr. Obama bankrupted the coal industry, putting tens of thousands out of work. He bankrolled, with taxpayer funds, some of his largest financial backers in “green” industries — providing substance to the accusation of cronyism. He pushed through a Democratic Congress a health plan with not one vote from the opposition.
With an accommodating Fed, he has taken federal debt to dangerous levels. When John McCain challenged his tax plan in January 2009, Mr. Obama’s arrogant response was abrupt: “I won. Deal with it.”
He signed an $850 billion stimulus bill that did not stimulate. Subsequent to re-election in 2012, in a bid for his legacy, he made a nuclear pact with Iran, a country that has vowed to annihilate Israel, and he re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, a country without due process and which imprisons those who criticize its government.
Many of the problems we have predate Mr. Obama. The “imperial” presidency goes back to at least Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and the “nanny” state owes its origins to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” But he has not provided a solution.
Inequality, a signature cause of his, has risen over the past seven years. Middle class workers in small Midwestern factory towns are rightfully as bitter today as they were in 2008. Incomes have been stagnant and the percent of the labor force in full-time jobs remains at the lowest level since the 1970s.
Wall Street banks, which Mr. Obama blamed for the financial crisis, have grown even bigger. Government, which the president sees as the “solution” has lost the trust of the people.
Overseas, our enemies have been cajoled, while our friends have been ignored or belittled. Edward Luce wrote last week in the Financial Times of a “rising culture of nihilism.” Mr. Obama sees himself as a victim of history, not one of its creators and not responsible for the actions he took when they didn’t work out.
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a fascinating, in-depth portrayal of Mr. Obama in last month’s Atlantic. His interview revealed a petulant man who blamed everyone but himself for the sorry state of the world, while taking credit for successes like killing Osama bin Laden.
He was disdainful toward the U.S. and Washington’s “foreign policy establishment,” whom he blamed for the failure of the “Arab Spring.” He was dismissive of any misunderstanding of his “red line” regarding Syria and blamed Hillary Clinton for the failed state that is Libya. A dysfunctional Iraq and the rise of ISIS today is the fault of George W. Bush.
And now we have Donald Trump, a man whose narcissism may exceed that of Mr. Obama. He is a man whose promise, “I will make America great again!” is uttered without explanation as to how.
His ascension, according to the president, has nothing to do with him, patronizing Democrats, or the discordant political environment, of which Mr. Obama has been the chief architect and engineer. It has nothing to do with an economy that has had the slowest rate of growth in the past seventy years, nor does it reflect a pessimistic and alienated electorate. The blame, according to Mr. Obama, is Republican elitism and dissonance — at least that is his story, and he’s sticking to it!
The rest of us are stuck with the consequences.