Barack Obama has chosen to help elect Democrats this November with a national get out the vote tour.
Democrats are thrilled to have Obama deploying his patented oratorical style, equal parts lecturing, hectoring, and know-it-all condescension.
But his debut speech, a familiar pastiche of revisionist history, aspirational bromides, and opinion-delivered-as-fact, raises many questions, not least of which is: Can the old master still conjure, or is he like Pharaoh’s magicians?
First, while liberals howl that President Trump is breaking “all the norms,” Obama is violating a norm established by the first president and respected by all others by stepping onto center stage.
In his farewell address, Washington warned of the danger of inflaming partisan passions. In his “I’m back speech,” Obama did his best to inflame them. He informed us he would like to retire, but the nation is in a “pivotal moment,” one that will determine “who it is that we are.” By elevating a partisan political difference into an existential threat to the Republic, Obama aggravated the very animosities, “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms” Washington said our people would be wise to restrain.
To make his case, Obama recapped (his version of) the history that brought us to this “pivotal moment”:
The post-New Deal administrative state and permanent military establishment established “a new economy, a 20th century economy,” though not all shared in the prosperity.
Then the civil rights movement “opened up the floodgates of opportunity for women and Americans with disabilities and LGBT Americans and others” as well as African-Americans.
The belief that everybody should be treated fairly “then extended beyond our borders. And from the wreckage of World War II, we built a post-war architecture . . . of alliances and institutions . . . to continually improve the prospects for people around the world. That’s the story of America.”
Get it—the globalist institutions established after World War II are the climax to “the story of America.”
Another of his familiar tropes presents policy choices as metaphysical inevitabilities.
He tells us, “Change has happened fast, faster than any time in human history” and it “upended people’s lives in profound ways.” Note that this “change” just “happened,” as he understands it. No human agency was involved.
This metaphysical “change” created a “new economy” that “wiped out your job,” offshored it to some cheap foreign labor haven and made middle class Americans “feel very real and very personal economic insecurity.” Remember: Washington and Wall Street had no hand in it whatsoever.
All this change “makes a lot of people feel like the fix is in and the game is rigged and nobody’s looking out for them,” Obama informs us. Of course, those lucky (and smart) enough to be able to understand his lecture know that no one rigged the system—all that “change” is a historical inevitability.
We hear Obama’s famous “bitter clinger” theme when he says all this inevitable “change” causes “those communities outside our big urban centers” who “feel like the fix is in” to give in to “fear and resentment,” tribalism, “racial and ethnic and religious division.”
But instead of replaying his remarks about guns and Bibles, Obama introduces the main theme of this speech: Blame all bad stuff on President Trump and Republicans.
He tells us “the politics of division and resentment and paranoia” have now “found a home” in the Republican Party. But what Professor Obama likes to present as incontestable fact—“settled law” in a phrase currently popular—is far more ambiguous.
He has no recognition that shutting down and labeling opponents as racist, sexist bigots could be perceived as sowing division. That judging all differences of individual outcomes as irrefutable evidence of group discrimination (and allowing no discussion of other possible explanations) could be seen as nurturing resentment, that finding white supremacists under every bed and constantly hearing dog whistles could be mistaken for symptoms of paranoia.
It is the Democratic Party, not the GOP, where such actors have “found a home,” and a comfortable one at that.
But, Obama is careful to point out, the enemy is not President Trump or even the Republican Party. No, the enemy is a familiar figure to consumers of popular liberal narratives: the “darker aspect to America’s story” that’s always been present, now resurgent and growing stronger every day Democrats are out of power.
While he never says the words “white supremacy,” he doesn’t need to. By repeatedly juxtaposing conservatives with “America’s dark history of racial and ethnic and religious division,” demagogues peddling “the politics of division and resentment and paranoia,” bigots, Nazis and white nationalists, he makes them interchangeable.
Social justice warriors and their fellow travelers in the media use this technique to make white supremacy the Moriarty menacing society today despite the fact that there are likely more Wiccans and Druids than white supremacists in the United States.
The alarmists have defined white supremacy down.
When actual, corporeal white supremacists never showed up for marquee neo-Nazi rallies, the New York Times said never mind, because
“What’s crucial for the fate of the alt-right is not the demonstrations,” said Thomas J. Main, a political scientist at Baruch College. . . . “[T]here are a lot of signs that their ideas continue to penetrate mainstream media and political culture.”
See, it’s about ideas, not flesh and blood neo-nazis. And what are these “ideas”?
Some policy issues the “far-right” has promoted, immigration restrictions, ending affirmative action, and instituting trade protections have been embraced by mainstream right-wing politicians and pundits.
Bad people have promoted these ideas, so anyone promoting these ideas is a bad person!
This is precisely what Southern segregationists said in the 1950s and ’60s: The Communist Party supports civil rights, ergo all civil rights activists are Communists.
Obama wants to boost voter turnout and his speech used a three-part formula to accomplish this.
One needs an enemy against which to fight, so he raised the specter of resurgent racism incarnated in the present regime.
One also needs something for which to fight, so he exalted the Democratic social justice agenda promising a new law to solve every problem (“not enough women are bosses in the workplace . . . That requires laws”).
And finally, he appealed to a sense of civic duty. In this, his lecturing turned to hectoring: “do not complain, don’t hashtag, don’t get anxious, don’t retreat, don’t binge on whatever it is you’re bingeing on, don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment, don’t put your head in the sand, don’t boo. Vote.” Only then can social democracy defeat darker angels.
Will it work?
President Trump was on to something when he said Obama’s speech put him to sleep.
Upon hearing the former president after a two-year break, what stood out was his cool, unemotional, intellectual demeanor.
Orwell observed that the energy that shapes the world springs from emotions—emotions “which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.”
We’ll see if No Drama Obama’s vision of universal social justice achieved through impersonal, technocratic government regulation will rouse people from their ironic detachment—or is the cause of it.
Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images