Jamaica Gleaner / Barack Obama’s was the speech of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) – poetic, poignant, and profound. It has defined the terms of the United States presidential race and has sharply set out the hope vs fear, optimism vs pessimism divide that now polarises America.
The astute New Yorker political columnist John Cassidy, commenting on the Obama speech on Thursday, wrote: “Watching the president, you got the sense he had been waiting to deliver this speech for a long time. Yes, he was carrying out a political mission, but it was also personal. Trump hasn’t just insulted Obama personally: Trump’s entire candidacy represents an affront to everything Obama stands for and got elected on hope, inclusiveness, reason, and faith in a democratic political system … .”
Recalling his first speech at the DNC 12 years ago, Obama said he was a little nervous addressing such a big crowd. “But I was filled with faith. Faith in America – the generous, big-hearted, hopeful country that made my story, indeed all of our stories – possible.” It was that America that Donald Trump now threatens, leading Cassidy to title his New Yorker piece ‘Obama’s powerful message: Donald Trump is un-American’, a theme Hilary skilfully picked up in her historic acceptance speech last Thursday night.
CNN political correspondent John King said in 30 years of covering politics, he had never seen a Republican candidate cast as unpatriotic. The Democrats have turned the tables on the Republicans and have redefined the narrative. Indeed, this Republican Party has been hijacked, and as Obama has said, “What we heard in Cleveland last week (at the Republican convention) wasn’t particularly Republican – and it sure wasn’t conservative.”
Trump’s speech at his convention was laced with dystopia. It’s a message that he has honed over his campaign. When he began his Republican race, he said, “We got nothing but problems … . We’re dying. We’re dying. We need money … . We have losers. We have people that don’t have it. We have people that are morally corrupt. We have people that are selling this country down the drain … . The American dream is dead.”
Contrast that with Obama’s message last week: “The America I know is full of courage and optimism and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous.” Trump has pledged to “make America great again”, but Obama shot back last week: “America is already great. America is already strong.” This is a black man, echoing that historic America as a ‘shining city on a hill’ metaphor – American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. In contrast to the white man, Trump, proclaiming America’s loss of greatness.
But that is a great part of what has propelled Trump to where he is today. He represents the fear and existential anxieties of white folk who feel threatened by diversity, immigration, and multiculturalism. Their nativist sensibilities are deeply offended by the likes of Barack Obama who has violated the purity of their country by gaining entrance into the White House, which, to them, should be taken literally.
Trump is an egomaniac and narcissist, but he does not represent just himself. He was thrust into the Republican candidacy, trouncing 16 other contenders, because he represents a reactionary bloc determined to “take back America”.
American society is deeply divided. This election is no ordinary election for America and the world. Writing in the July 11 and 18 editions of the New Yorker , George Saunders says: “Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries. Left-land and Right-land, speaking different languages … . Not only do our two subcountries reason differently, they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems.”
Obama’s Shining City on a Hill metanarrative, where America acts as light bearer to the world, diverges from Trump’s isolationist America, which keeps its nose out of other people’s concerns, pulling back from international commitments and any democracy, human-rights promoting mission. America should not only stay at home and reduce its international engagements, it should increasingly close its borders to the world, particularly to Latinos, Muslims, and such irritants.
But that’ part of his problem, for the Latino share of the US population is already 17 per cent – almost doubling from nine per cent in 1990 (the African-American share of the population is 13 per cent). The brilliant political commentator Peter Beinart, writing in the July-August issue of The Atlantic , quoted a political theorist from New York University as saying, “Anti-immigrant rhetoric renders all Latinos immigrants. It creates a sense of vulnerability and outrage.”
But Trump’s support nationally still stands at about 40 per cent. That’s not insignificant. And it says something about how disenfranchised many white working- and middle-class Americans feel. Their problems are real, with the Great Recession having taken a great toll on their lives. Capitalism can prove to be not just wasteful economically, but catastrophic for hope, squandering people’s faith in the system and fuelling cynicism and alienation.
Focusing on Trump’s megalomania and asininity is one thing. Recognising that he is part of a larger phenomenon and, indeed, is a creation, politically, of that phenomenon, is where we need to turn our attention. Trump is symptomatic of the crisis of casino capitalism and of a globalisation that has victimised working-class people of all races. Obama was smart enough to freely acknowledge the problems and not paint a Pollyannaish picture. It was that balance that contributed to a great speech.
“Sure, we have real anxieties,” he conceded, “about paying bills, protecting our kids, caring for a sick parent … . We still have more work to do. More work for every American still in need of a good job or a raise, paid leave or decent retirement; for every child who needs a ladder out of poverty; for everyone who still hasn’t yet felt the progress of these past seven and a half years.”
Hillary also freely accepted that more still needed to be done and openly embraced a number of Bernie Sanders’ proposals. Indeed, the DNC last week showed how important it is for progressives to keep struggling and not give up. Who could have imagined a few years ago that an avowedly socialist candidate could have gone so far in America? And what schizophrenic trends in America: Hard-line populist Right along with strong socialist Left. Bernie Sanders did not win his party’s nomination – and leaked emails showed things were rigged against him as he himself had alleged before – but he got some of his big-ticket items acknowledged and approved by Hillary on Thursday night . A luta continua .
A clear message from the American electorate, Right and Left, is that Washington is broken, the system is not working for the masses, Wall Street has too much power, and too many traditional politicians are in the pockets of the one per cent. An interesting book I just finished reading is Listen Liberal ; Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016), written by prominent political commentator Thomas Frank, author of the best-selling What’s the Matter With Kansas? Frank shows that the Democratic Party has failed the people.
“This book has been a catalogue of the many ways the Democratic Party has failed to tackle the income inequality, even though that is the leading social issue of the times, and its many failures to get tough with the financial industry, even though Wall Street was the leading culprit in the global downturn. The larger message is what it looks like when a leftish party loses interest in working people.” Frank doesn’t hold out much hope for a Democratic presidency.
But with Ignoramus and Irascible Donald Trump as the alternative, rational Americans have no choice but to vote the Democratic Party. “Viewed in historical terms, a Trump presidency would pose an unusual risk to the country,” says Time magazine in its July 25 issue. “You want presidents to have sound judgement, modesty, personal self-assurance, an understanding of the constitutional and historical constraints, as well as the ability to decide who can give them the expertise and advice they need.”
It quotes historian Michael Beschloss as saying: “In the coming months, Clinton will repeatedly argue that Trump offers America neither the intellect nor the temperament required to lead the nation.” And so say all of us who are governed by our brains and not by prejudice and fear.