Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency is an unusually literal rebuke to his predecessor. Trump emerged as a national political figure by questioning Barack Obama’s legitimacy, leading a movement of “birthers” who longed for the first black president to be written out of American politics figuratively and literally.
Obama, by contrast, earned his prominence in national politics with the opposite message — exploding onto the scene with a speech insisting on the fundamental expansiveness of the American nation.
“There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America,” Barack Obama said in his career-defining speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston.
Obama’s America is diverse, forward-looking, and optimistic. It believes that people won’t all be the same and won’t all agree about fundamental questions, but will thrive and prosper — not despite that entrenched disagreement, but because of it. It’s the country that at its founding was confronted with the practical need to stitch a range of different strands of Protestant Christianity into a single polity and came away with the higher principle of religious tolerance — a principle that helped make the country infinitely stronger over the decades and centuries to come.
Trump’s victory reflects the reality that while inclusive visions of America have triumphed time and again, their victory has never been complete. Obama likes to speak of moral progress as following an “arc,” but the reality viewed from close up is more turbulent.
Backlash politics has won time and again in America, interrupted by spasms of hard-won progress that have driven the country forward still. Obama’s speech appealed to so many because it was so unusually brilliant and because people realize that an unusually brilliant politician is often what it takes for inclusive politics to win.
As Obama said in Boston, the hopeful vision of America is “the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too.”
That vision has never secured permanent dominance, but neither has it ever lost its relevance. The vision Obama articulated fell to defeat months after he delivered that speech, only to triumph four years later. But it was true when he said it, remains true today, and is likely to triumph over the long haul — the only viable path to a greater America is to continually forge a more open and inclusive one.
America is greater and stronger together
The central passage of Obama’s 2004 speech was one in which he directly confronted and debunked the central narrative about the interplay between American politics and society that has dominated media discussion since the 2000 election:
The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
Obama is, for starters, literally correct about this. You wouldn’t know it from the average longform exploration of “Trump Country,” but Trump got more votes in Los Angeles County than he got in West Virginia. Clinton got more votes in the Deep South than she got in Oregon.
His larger, more thematic point, however, is that the United States is simply too large, diverse, and weird to be any one thing. It became one of Obama’s signature themes over the years: that this lofty controversy over the nature of American identity has ground-level consequences for concrete aspects of public policy.
“If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read,” he said in 2004, “that matters to me, even if it’s not my child.”
He returned to this theme in an even more pointed way in his farewell address: “If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children.”
This point is rarely put so squarely but it is in many ways a central theme of American history. When and where the United States has managed to open its doors to more people and to muster their strength, it has triumphed.
The Union mobilized black soldiers to win the Civil War. Immigrants and their children deployed back to Europe to win the First World War. Women entered factories to win the second. The Cold War offered the context for African Americans to successfully renew their demands for civil and legal equality. Nor is it a coincidence that those portions of the South that put aside Jim Crow more vigorously grew, over time, to be more prosperous. Or that today the metropolitan areas that welcome the most immigrants also have the most vigorous economies.
A country is made up of its people. A country that does not embrace, welcome, and invest in its people will not be able to win wars or sustain its Social Security programs. America’s immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, and feminists want a more forward-looking and inclusive future. But even though Trump’s older, whiter, nostalgia-drenched supporters do not, they will find that there is simply no way to build the America they want — a great nation that stands first in the world and takes care of its veterans and its senior citizens — without embracing more rather than fewer of its people.
Trump is as American as apple pie
The specter of Vladimir Putin and the European far right looms large over the liberal imagination these days. Some of this is warranted and important. But much of it exoticizes Trump in a misleading way. There is nothing new to our shores about racial backlash politics.
We saw it when George Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery gave way in the South to the “positive good” credo of John Calhoun and the Confederacy. We saw it in the rise of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1840s and ’50s. We saw it in the “redemption” of reconstructed Southern state governments in the decades following the Civil War.
Boston University’s William Keylor recounts that when Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated a hundred years ago, “Washington was flooded with revelers from the Old Confederacy, whose people had long dreamed of a return to the glory days of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, when southern gentlemen ran the country. Rebel yells and the strains of ‘Dixie’ reverberated throughout the city.”
World War II brought women into the factories, but the backlash politics of the postwar era sent them back to the kitchen. The revolutionary civil rights legislation of the 1960s led to the “law and order” politics of Richard Nixon and his Southern strategy. Before Trump promised to Make America Great Again, there was Ronald Reagan, who won in 1980 with a promise to, well, “make America great again.” In New York City, where I grew up, David Dinkins was succeeded by Rudy Giuliani, whose cynical manipulation of the politics of crime and police brutality proved a perfect template for national politics in the era of Black Lives Matter.
Rather than seeing Trump as an importation of European xenophobic politics into the United States, it would be better to see today’s European far-right parties as an exported version of racial politics that has been deeply entrenched in American life since the beginning of the republic.
In politics, action produces reaction. Some hoped, naively, that the election of the first black president would create a new era of “postracial” politics. Social justice advocates knew better, and used the opportunity of Obama’s election to press for more. LGBTQ couples won the right to marry, and transgender rights came on the national political radar for the first time ever. Immigrants sought — and received — protection from deportation. For the first time in a generation, steps were taken to reverse the catastrophe of mass incarceration. Large, visible, nationwide protests demanded that Democratic Party politicians begin to pay attention to racial inequities in policing.
Expectations were raised, and people began to hope audaciously. When you do that, you achieve big things. But you also court the possibility of defeat, just as every previous successful movement for social inclusion has, eventually, met its match.
The point of historical perspective is not to say that “it will all be okay.”
George W. Bush’s presidency, for example, was not “okay.” The country suffered a devastating terrorist attack. It launched a pointless invasion of Iraq that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Poor supervision of financial markets led to the collapse of the global economy. Precious time that could have been used to move the country and the world to a low-carbon economy was squandered in pursuit of drill, baby, drill.
Ronald Reagan supported horrific regimes in Central America while presiding over explosions in poverty, homelessness, and incarceration.
Politics is a high-stakes game, and outcomes drive the lives of millions if not billions of people. But Trump takes office with a weak hand.
His approval ratings are abysmally low, and he is walled in by a morass of inconsistent promises. Racial backlash and nostalgia politics were not nearly enough to win the supermajority of white working-class votes that Trump needed to secure victory in the Midwest. He had to add promises to protect Social Security and Medicare from cuts and to replace Affordable Care Act plans with something that provides “terrific” coverage to everyone.
Meanwhile, to consolidate support of the institutional Republican Party, he needed to promise the usual doses of tax cuts and military spending hikes. He has promised to bring back coal mining but also to unleash natural gas fracking.
His Cabinet’s confirmation hearings have been a mishmash of contradictions, full of promises to make the dollar stronger and weaker, to privatize Fannie Mae and to preserve its role, to slash taxes and preserve programs.
On the campaign trail, Trump literally promised that he could fulfill “every dream you ever dreamed.”
Obama’s vision is the only path to greatness
Power is attractive, and electoral victories have a poisonous tendency to serve as public validation of the slogans that produced them.
The facts, however, are what they are. Throughout the ebbs and flows of American history, there has only ever been one path to national greatness. A country that was once small and weak became big and strong by adding new people to the mix, by investing in them and providing them with opportunities, and by incorporating them into the political and social community.
There is no magic “dealmaking” — not with Russia, not with NATO allies, not with the World Trade Organization — that will preserve American preeminence in the face of growth in China and India.
- We are going to have to take advantage of the fact that hardworking and talented people around the world would like to move to the United States to live and work by letting many of them do so.
- We are going to have to take advantage of having a network of colleges and universities that is the envy of the world by investing in them, and expanding the number of people who are able to attend and graduate from them.
- We are going to have to do more, not less, to fully incorporate African Americans into the American social and economic mainstream.
- We are going to have to cope with the medical needs of an aging population by making taxes on the affluent higher rather than lower.
- We are going to have to do more, not less, to empower women to succeed at the highest levels of business and politics.
It’s conceivable, of course, that America will simply turn its back on greatness. Throughout America’s history, the politics of a place like Mississippi have successfully prioritized upholding white supremacy over trying to transform the state into a dynamic and thriving place. But that side of the trade-off has never won out nationally in the long run before, and there is little reason to believe it will today. Trump speaks of national greatness because it matters to most Americans that the country as a whole thrive. What he has offered as a path to greatness caters to the wishful thinking of a minority of Americans.
There are no political guarantees governing what will happen when his approach fails, but his approach certainly will fail, just as previous waves of reaction have likewise failed to deliver on their promises. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. But my best guess is that sooner rather than later someone else will come around capable of articulating the shared conviction of Obama — and of Lincoln, Douglass, Roosevelt, Johnson, and King — that only a bigger, broader conception of America will allow the country to rise to new heights of greatness.