Obama, Trump, and the ungovernable nation
With 2016 at its gory end and Donald Trump soon to be sworn in as president, the age of Obama is about to pass into history. Despite this year’s Republican victory, America still has a liberal Reagan. A black FDR. A Washington for a new country. It’s crazy to think that 12 years ago most Americans couldn’t even pronounce his name. He went from state senator to president in four years, didn’t spend a full term in the United States Senate, and he did it all based on one convention speech about how there weren’t several Americas, but rather a singular experience. Though if there’s one thing that the Obama years have proven, it’s that even in times of successful, popular presidents, America exists within multiple different realities.
It’s easy to forget that in the euphoria of the 2008 Democratic sweep, the inauguration, and the half-lived supermajority, the storm that would envelop the presidency was already brewing. For every Obama victory, there were constant conspiracy theories and an intransigent opposition. Even after beating the hapless John McCain by 10 million votes, Republicans were convinced it was thanks to ACORN.
Whether it was based on race or the promise of liberal success, Republicans vowed to block anything Obama tried to accomplish. The president’s $787 billion stimulus package stopped the stock market crash, but that wasn’t enough to keep militias from marching on Washington and angry astroturfed white people from screaming at town halls and forming the Tea Party.
While the president fought with the Pentagon over troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq and finished the job George W. Bush never could and droned Al Qaeda into oblivion, Glenn Beck cried on Fox News about Muslim caliphates and FEMA camps. It wasn’t unfettered money in politics unleashed by the 2009 Supreme Court Citizens United decision that pissed off voters, but rumors of death panels spread by former Republican speakers and vice presidential candidates. After appointing two women to the Supreme Court, signing Wall Street regulations and health care reform, the public rewarded Obama by giving the Tea Party control of Congress in the 2010 election.
When 2010 ended with the ratification of the New START Treaty and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it was the last time Congress did anything worth a damn. Almost more dangerous than the gerrymandering that will allow Republicans to keep an iron grip on the House at least until 2020 were the running gunbattles House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor would have with Obama over the budget and debt ceiling.
Then, in 2011, like Chekov’s Gun, Trump spent the spring screaming conspiracy theories about the president’s birth certificate and shooting up in Republican presidential polls. April, 2011 ended with Obama releasing his birth certificate, humiliating Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and then killing Osama bin Laden the next day just for the hell of it.
By the fall of 2011, the leftist Occupy Wall Street movement offered a much needed and real populist counterpoint to the Koch-powered Tea Party, and it changed the national conversation from austerity to economic inequality just in time to kneecap Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Romney’s lies were as palatable to the country as his flip flops were to the increasingly rabid GOP base.
It was a joyless campaign, seemingly eons away from the hopeful days of 2008, yet still an innocent preview of the horror that would be 2016. Obama’s 2012 victory and second term honeymoon, well-earned as they may have been, were short-lived because of the school shooting in Sandy Hook. The massacre, committed with an AR-15 by the son of a gun-hoarding prepper, precipitated not only its own conspiracy theories but an early 2013, half-hearted Senate attempt at background checks that Second Amendment nutjobs billed as the great Obama gun-grab that wasn’t.
Four months later, the Tsarnaev brothers bombed the Boston Marathon perpetuating more conspiracy theories about false flag terrorism. Six months after that, freshman senator and probable Zodiac Killer, Ted Cruz, along with a drunken Congress, shut down the government in one last tantrum before Healthcare.gov went live. A year later, Republicans took the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections and increased their majorities in Congress to the strongest they had been in nearly a century, but not before taking out Eric Cantor.
With Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress, the president was reduced to symbolic half-measures and executive orders. Obama couldn’t even threaten to bomb Syria without some Americans thinking it was the beginning of World War III. In response to extrajudicial police killings of unarmed black men, 2015 also saw the third protest movement of Obama’s term with Black Lives Matter. From Ferguson to Baltimore, there were moments when what could have been Obama’s Great Society was so thick with racial animosity that it felt like the country was tearing itself apart. From a black church shooting in South Carolina to attacks on police in Dallas, the collective seething in the country offered the perfect stage onto which a racist demagogue to step.
Even as ISIS raged across Iraq, 2015 wasn’t all bad. Healthcare reform was again upheld by the Supreme Court, Confederate flags started coming down across state houses in the South even as they kept showing up at Trump campaign rallies, marriage equality finally became a reality, and DOMA was destroyed. The Obama Administration reopened Cuba, reached a historic climate accord with the Paris Agreement, and achieved an unthinkable diplomatic success in a landmark nuclear deal with Iran. Even Boehner threw in the towel.
Then came the 2016 election and Trump’s hostile takeover as the new cult leader of the zombie GOP. Even as Hillary Clinton bested socialist icon, fake Democrat, and sellout Bernie Sanders by three million votes and Trump rampaged over the feckless doofuses in the 2016 Republican field, Obama’s approval, which had always hovered in the mid-40s, spiked into the 50s and only got higher as the election neared.
It felt like all the insanity of the Obama years was headed toward this — 2016 was like 1968 on meth. It was a year of dead heroes and icons. Democrats were circle-jerking and Republicans were filled with bloody intensity. With Antonin Scalia’s death in February and the unprecedented refusal by Senate Republicans to confirm Merrick Garland, the final battle with everything on the line was set. Even though Obama had governed over more mass shootings and record-breaking temperatures, deported more illegal immigrants and killed more terrorists than any president in the history of the country, the election was always lurching toward Trump. The multiple irreconcilable parallel realities and dimensions within America were converging into one place in history. As faith in institutions fell, the country, post-fact, post-truth, and post-dignity, selected a creature who had somehow slipped between the alternate realities.
We literally had anti-government militia members sitting under tarps with assault rifles in the middle of the street as North Korea tested nuclear weapons. The American public that feared clown attacks more than climate change and terrorism ended up picking an unqualified reality TV show host over a former secretary of state and senator. It’s as if, throughout the Obama years, the country was crying out for a dictator.
As Trump cut his way through the betas and cucks that made up the Republican field, the country experienced a sustained constitutional and character crisis not seen since the Nixon impeachment. It was an angry, bitter, troubling, and endlessly negative election, and it ended in a scorched-earth hail of sexual assault allegations against Trump and Bill Clinton, Wikileaks DNC emails, FBI and Russian meddling, rumored Trump N-bomb videos, and KGB sex tapes. There were even bullshit reports of devil worship, child sex rings, and cannibalism.
The entire political and media establishment got it wrong. So many American institutions had to fail for Trump’s election to happen, it’s almost stupefying. Like a uncoordinated, unconscious, conspiracy of system-wide suicide. Trump, who was already planning contingencies, didn’t expect to win, didn’t know what to do, and was genuinely shocked at the result. He was the only one who didn’t take his campaign seriously.
In the end, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million ballots, but she wasn’t able to hold the Obama coalition together in the states that decided the election. The Clintons have been utterly destroyed, with no legacy, no dynasty, and no future. Though Jill Stein and Gary Johnson did indeed end up pulling enough votes away from Clinton in enough states to cost her the election, her failure speaks to a profound complacency in the Democratic Party’s base as a whole.
To paraphrase Trump, the party got sick of winning. By 2016, the left had finally reached the same level of conspiratorial thinking, paranoia, and deluded self-involvement as the right. By the time they were done with Clinton, its Tea Party bunker-mentality had led the Democrats into its smallest minority in generations and elected the the ultimate neoliberal as president.
There may be no way of knowing how much the election was manipulated by Russian propaganda and fake news stories on Facebook. It’s not just that Clinton was a boring candidate, or that Democrats didn’t do enough to win the Midwest (indeed it was Obama’s auto bailout that saved the region); it means something is wrong in the country.
Russia saw a weak nation, so wrapped up in its own dysfunction that it made for an an easy mark. In a 50/50 race, hacker sniping and leaking could be enough to hobble Clinton just as much as her own shortcomings. Obama, whose squeaky clean administration knew about the Russian attempt to influence the public but didn’t want to appear to influence the election, preferred instead to let Clinton win or lose on her own and let history sort it out. Campaigning is one thing; saying a person with a 50% shot at the presidency is a Russia puppet is something else. Clinton could say it; Obama couldn’t. It was untenable and no one thought Trump would actually win. In politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent self-interest, and this may end up being Obama’s greatest misstep. But again, what could he realistically do?
It’s one of the greatest crimes ever committed against America, an unprecedented threat to the republic and its sovereignty, but it wouldn’t have succeeded if Clinton were a stronger candidate or if we weren’t such dupes. It’s a pretty dark joke that Trump called Obama’s election the greatest con in history and then became an actual Manchurian stooge for Russia, installing a crooked, corrupt-as-fuck cabinet bent or turning America into a busted out pop-up ad. Think about it: the Republican Party is being used as a tool by a foreign government to weaken America. It doesn’t get any clearer than that.
Hillary Clinton put on a perfect convention (especially compared to Trump’s), won every debate, had a more organized campaign, and was running on continuing the policies of a popular outgoing president —and the country still went with the pussy grabber. Something is broken. The axis upon which the country operates is off. It has been off for a while. We may no longer be able to tell the difference between success and failure and substance and style. There is no common language or agreement upon facts. The country is lost. A majority of Republican voters actually believe that Trump won the popular vote.
You have to wonder how much insanity and abuse the system can take. How constructive are political disruptors? How do we pick up the pieces from here? How do we trust polls and proceed as if everything is normal? Regardless of all the theories, citizens obviously lied to pollsters because they knew what they were about to do was wrong and are now about to reap the whirlwind.
The center has officially collapsed. It may be impossible for future presidents to govern enough of a consensus to win reelection. The gulf of hyper-partisanship may be too vast. The new president is the most disliked politician ever and he won while losing the popular vote. It will take someone very special to bring the country back together after this.
Throughout 2016, the election stubbornly refused to follow the contours of a normal race. For good or ill, Trump and Obama have changed the game and broken the mold. There’s no going back now. By knowing the country better than it knew itself, Trump and Obama have cracked the code, and an era of outsiders and disruptors may follow. They have definitely blown political fundraising wide open, even in the age of Citizens United. Just consider the names that have been thrown around for president in 2020: The Rock, Kanye West, Mark Cuban, Will Smith. There is no need for presidents to have any national political experience or show statewide viability. Anyone with charisma and a message can run. The only limit is your imagination.
And that’s the story so far. The American character is morally fluid. There are currents and epic sea changes. Tides you can see coming and others that seemingly spring from nowhere. They are savage and brutal, peaceful and reconciliatory. But always in conflict. The country’s heart just expands and contracts. It’s the force that holds sway over the razor blade pendulum that governs our lives.
On election night 2008, I wondered how much evil it took to feel such a purely positive moment. How bad did the Bush years need to get so that this could happen? How much wrong does it take for a small amount of right to be done? We’ll look back on the Obama years and never know how good we really had it. How close we came to perfection even though it was hard-fought and sometimes extraordinarily bitter. But there’s a flipside to that coin. How much good can be done until evil can no longer abide it? That’s what happened to conservatives in the Obama era. That process has now started over again with Trump.
The whole time Obama was warning the country to not fall for demagoguery, hyperbole, and extremism, and now it seems a cruel irony that he hands the country over to Trump. But the words he used were never really heard by those he ruled, and the country he’s leaving behind is sadly the one he found when he got here. A nation of people who don’t hold the door, won’t make eye contact, who would sooner kill each other than try to understand one another. Just a collection of grievances.
Obama’s time in office was spent tirelessly attempting to get America to do the right thing. To act right. To be decent. To see the best in each other. He was the moderate president of an extreme country. Begging an ungovernable nation to back away from the cliff. His place in history is locked in as a leader desperately trying to keep the people from tearing each other apart. He will always be the last sane man trying to hold a maddening, fraying country together.
Until Trump’s victory in 2016, Obama had lived a charmed if sometimes damned political existence. It was as if the universe just handed him his senate and presidential wins. He was a Democrat who fought like a Republican. A man of virtue but also one of vicious, calculating, sometimes ice cold determination. It wasn’t just his political genius, his ability to play the long game, and see around corners that served him well, but sometimes it felt like the universe itself was tipping the scales in his favor in order to ease the country toward its optimum trajectory.
The man just had God’s mandate to inch the country in the right direction. He was the right person at the right time and was able to shoulder history’s and Bush’s burden. Through liberal pragmatism and common sense, Obama was able to throttle the country away from its natural rightward inclination and back toward the left. He’ll now be leaving office with the highest approval ratings of his presidency. He won’t be the last black president, but it is bittersweet to be watching the end of the first black presidency.
And damned if he didn’t do exactly what he said he would. He cut unemployment in half, gave millions of people healthcare, saved the country from another Great Depression, killed America’s enemies, brought poverty down to its lowest levels in 30 years and stocks to their highest ever. And he did it all with grace, dignity, class, and supreme calm. No scandals, no corruption, no drama, and no bullshit. It cannot be denied that the country is infinitely better off as a result of his time in office. He’s simply, easily, one of the greatest and most successful presidents the country has ever elected.
And yet, we still chose his polar opposite to replace him. Even as his approval rating soared, so did the country’s irrationality. But don’t question the universe. It guided Obama and may, for all we know, have some divine justice in store for Trump. If there is such a thing as political evil, there surely is some elemental form of political redemption. We’ll see.
Obama, who won with two majorities, will now be sandwiched in history by two Republican presidents who did not win the popular vote. As disgusting as it is, Obama’s legacy will always have Trump attached to it and vice versa. One can no longer exist without the other. They are the dueling sides of the American character. After years of Trump questioning the place of his birth and a campaign where Obama called him unfit to serve and told him to stop whining about a rigged election, these two men will be forced to reckon and come to terms with each other. There’s something uniquely American about that.
With Obama staying in Washington for the next few years, the oddest courtship seems to be developing between the two temperamentally and diametrically opposed men; a momentary detente until 2020. Obama’s legacy will only grow over time, even as Trump and his new Republican majorities work to dismantle it. After an election that saw thousands marching in the streets to protest the horrific results, and hundreds of hate crimes committed in the name of the new president-elect, Obama realizes that he will now have to help and tutor Trump if the country is to succeed, meaning that the end of his reign is not the end of his involvement in national politics. His story doesn’t end here.
In the meantime, there’s a lot of presidential myth-building to be done surrounding Obama’s tenure. America’s multiple realities will need to be threaded back together. Legends, facts, and lies will be imprinted onto his time in office. Indeed, Obama’s history will be a lie agreed upon, made up of the ones told to sustain it at the time, the others used to attack it, and those repeated in the future to make it seem less caustic than it really was. History has a way of looking back on periods of extreme discord with rose-colored glasses. So in 30 years, when your grandchildren ask you about the grotesque politics that permeated the Obama years, tell them something pretty.
[photos: Getty, Pete Souza]