Obama’s Amer­ica drove many into Trump’s arms

The US had not changed enough – or, for some, had changed too much – un­der Obama

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW -

The email ar­rived the af­ter­noon af­ter Don­ald Trump was elected pres­i­dent of the United States. “Life is never a straight ar­row!” its sender wrote in the sub­ject line. The body of the email was blank, save for his name and ti­tle. He was an Ir­ish­man with a se­nior role in the Trump organisation. We had be­come friends much ear­lier in my four-year stint as Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent for The Ir­ish Times, and we ex­changed emails f rom t i me and t i me. As Trump’s po­lit­i­cal star kept ris­ing he gra­ciously helped get me into the can­di­date’s cam­paign events. He was my man on the in­side.

The sub­ject line of his email was ac­cu­rate. Some­times his­tory zigzags, as Barack Obama’s aide Ben Rhodes also wrote, in an email to the out­go­ing pres­i­dent just af­ter the elec­tion.

Cer­tainly few pre­dicted Trump’s elec­tion, al­though, see­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton’s un­pop­u­lar­ity in Penn­syl­va­nia, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio in the run- in to the elec­tion, a year ago, I knew Obama’s coali­tion had well and truly frac­tured. She was in trou­ble.

Many op­po­nents of Trump and the Repub­li­can Party have been un­pick­ing the elec­tion re­sult ever since, try­ing to un­der­stand his stun­ning vic­tory, like sur­geons dis­sect­ing a ca­daver in search of a mys­te­ri­ous lethal ail­ment. It has been, and will be, a long au­topsy.

What Hap­pened, Clin­ton’s an­gry memoir, was clouded by her rush to blame, for the most part, oth­ers: the Rus­sians, Wik­iLeaks, the for­mer FBI di­rec­tor James Comey et al. A more use­ful post­mortem may be to con­sider last year’s elec­tion as an­other swing of the pen­du­lum from left to right, al­though the change was a lit­tle wilder this time, from the an­a­lyt­i­cal Obama to the er­ratic Trump, from the metic­u­lous, pol­icy- driven gov­er­nance of the 44th US pres­i­dent to the rat­ings- driven pro­nounce­ments of the 45th.

Af­ter eight years of No Drama Obama came Tem­pes­tu­ous Trump. Af­ter two terms of a White House that was free from scan­dal, Wash­ing­ton, DC, has a soap opera with a lead char­ac­ter in­tent on con­trol­ling the TV rat­ings by, it seems, what­ever means nec­es­sary. He judges suc­cess­ful lead­er­ship not in leg­isla­tive achieve­ments but in his dom­i­nance of the 24-hour news cy­cle.

In that pen­du­lum- swing­ing se­quence of change in US pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics Trump’s elec­tion vic­tory makes more sense: he is the po­lar op­po­site of what came be­fore him. In pres­i­den­tial elec­tions where the in­cum­bent is not stand­ing again, vot­ers value in a can­di­date the qual­i­ties seen as lack­ing in the out­go­ing chief. In Trump’s case his ad­van­tage as an out­sider was mag­ni­fied in a cli­mate where both par­ties were per­ceived to have failed the peo­ple and the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment was so de­spised.

Past swings

Stumped by Trump’s ap­peal early in the elec­tion cam­paign, Obama’s for­mer chief strate­gist David Ax­el­rod car­ried out a use­ful ex­er­cise: he traced past swings in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, from the grand­fa­therly Dwight D Eisen­hower to the youth­ful, en­er­getic John F Kennedy, from the larger- than- life Ron­ald Reagan to the charisma- free Ge­orge HW Bush, right up to the most re­cent elec­tion.

In an ar­ti­cle i n the New York Times i n Jan­uary 2016 Ax­el­rod sketched the stark con­trasts be­tween Obama and Trump that pre­sented the lat­ter as an at­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive to a frus­trated elec­torate with an over­whelm­ing de­sire for change. Obama’s “call for tol­er­ance and pas­sion­ate em­brace of Amer­ica’s grow­ing diver­sity in­flame many in the Repub­li­can base, who view with sus­pi­cion and anger the rapidly chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics of Amer­ica”, he wrote. “The pres­i­dent’s em­pha­sis on diplo­macy is viewed as ap- pease­ment. So who among the Repub­li­cans is more the an­tithe­sis of Mr Obama than the trash-talk­ing, au­thor­i­tar­ian, give- no- quar­ter Mr Trump?”

Trump was “the perfect coun­ter­point” to Obama, he wrote. To un­der­stand the prop­erty ty­coon’s ap­peal to some of his vot­ers, Ax­el­rod could have added that Trump was white.

Elec­tion anger

Yet when the peo­ple came to cast their bal­lots Obama’s ap­proval rat­ing hit a near- record high of 56 per cent, just a point shy of his score shortly be­fore his re- elec­tion, in 2012. In hind­sight Ax­el­rod was wrong. It was Obama’s United States, not Obama him­self, that drove the anger that elected Trump. The bil­lion­aire celebrity sold him­self as the agent of change, just as Obama had done in 2008. But the coun­try had not changed enough – or, for some, had changed too much – un­der Obama.

Many of the vot­ers who bought into Obama’s hope-and-change agenda would later shop at Trump’s counter. The num­ber of coun­ties that voted for Obama twice and then flipped to Trump last year was enough to turn key blue states red and seal the

Tru‘ In mp’s case his ad­van­tage as an out­sider was mag­ni­fied in a cli­mate where both par­ties were per­ceived to have failed the peo­ple and the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment was so de­spised

busi­ness­man’s vic­tory. The eco­nomic re­cov­ery that Obama boasted about was not felt widely enough. The prom­ise of change these vot­ers once liked in Obama fell short, and they took a punt on the other guy, who was of­fer­ing a far less com­pli­cated prom­ise: to make Amer­ica great again. Many mid­dle- ground vot­ers ap­peared to have taken se­ri­ously Trump’s ques­tion “What have you got to lose?”

The coun­try t hat Obama be­queathed to Trump now seems like a dis­tant land. The rapidly chang­ing so­cial norms and eth­nic diver­sity Obama cham­pi­oned as a pro­gres­sive force for good are seen as un­set­tling dis­rup­tions to Trump and his sup­port­ers, who align them with the coun­try’s long- term eco­nomic de­cline and un­cer­tain fu­ture. If the spate of racially pro­filed killings dur­ing the Obama years did not punc­ture the myth that his elec­tion marked a post- racial United States, Trump’s in­flam­ing of racial ten­sions un­doubt­edly has.

A pen­du­lum? This last swing in US pol­i­tics feels far more like a wreck­ing ball, just as Trump would have wanted.

Si­mon Car­swell was Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent of The Ir­ish Times from 2013 un­til 2017, cov­er­ing Barack Obama’s sec­ond term in the White House and the 2016 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion

JULY 31st

Scara­mucci re­signs as com­mu­ni­ca­tions chief fol­low­ing ex­ple­tive-rid­den rant about for­mer chief of staff Reince Priebus to a New Yorker jour­nal­ist. AU­GUST 8th

Trump says that any threat from North Korea will be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” dra­mat­i­cally in­creas­ing ten­sion with the nu­clear state. AU­GUST 9th

Py­ongyang threat­ens to strike the US ter­ri­tory of Guam in the Pa­cific, warn­ing that any US at­tempt to at­tack the North would pro­voke “all-out war” AU­GUST 15th

Trump sug­gests that both sides are to blame for a neo-Nazi demon­stra­tion in Char­lottesville, Con­vened to op­pose the re­moval of a con­fed­er­ate statue and which left one woman dead. His re­marks are crit­i­cised across the po­lit­i­cal di­vide. AU­GUST 18th

Trump’s chief strate­gist, Steve Ban­non, re­signs, the latest in a series of high-pro­file de­par­tures from the West Wing. He im­me­di­ately re­turns to Bre­it­bart News, the right-wing web­site he edited be­fore the elec­tion. AU­GUST 29th

North Korea launches a mis­sile over Ja­pan, prompt­ing sirens and gov­ern­ment warn­ings across the coun­try, and rep­re­sent­ing a sig­nif­i­cant es­ca­la­tion in ten­sions in the re­gion.

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