In the shock that followed the 2016 election, there was no moment more poignant to me than when the sitting president welcomed the president-elect to the White House. There was Barack Obama, who had conducted himself in office with unusual grace, class, and thoughtfulness, having to hand over the government not only to someone who had none of those qualities, but who had for years waged a racist campaign questioning his birthplace and academic qualifications. Of course, Obama was gracious and friendly when he and Donald Trump met, itself an act of almost superhuman restraint.
In an upcoming book, Obama adviser Ben Rhodes reveals that Obama was actually as dismayed as anyone by the results of the election, not just because of what it would mean for the next four years but because of what it said about America. The New York Times describes the story Rhodes tells:
"What if we were wrong?" he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.
He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. "Maybe we pushed too far," Mr. Obama said. "Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe."
His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. "Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early," he said. [The New York Times]
When he said "What if we were wrong?" Obama was speaking about the entire political project on which his career was based. In 2004, as a state senator running for a seat in the U.S. Senate, he gave that instantly iconic Democratic convention speech in which he proclaimed that "we are all connected as one people," and that "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." The idea, and the politician speaking those words, were so compelling that millions of people watched and said, "Holy cow, that guy's going to be president one day." And "one day" wasn't too long in coming.
Despite all that happened during his eight years in the White House, Obama never stopped arguing that we could overcome our differences and make America a place of unity and shared purpose. If you look at his most important speeches over the course of his time in office, you see this theme repeated again and again: America as a story of progress, of noble ideals articulated at the founding and then centuries of work and struggle to bring the country closer to what it wants to be, always moving forward. Here's a brief excerpt from the 2015 speech he gave in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday:
That's what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don't pine for the past. We don't fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That's why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march.
And that's what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you're ready to seize what ought to be. [Obama]
Then along came Donald Trump, who said in so many words: To hell with that.
Trump told Americans that their country had become a hellhole, that diversity was a scourge and not a strength, that a bright future could only be had by building walls, keeping out Muslims, and scapegoating anyone who looks different from you. He told them that they didn't have to keep their ugliest feelings about their fellow Americans bottled up anymore, that they could tell those jerks exactly what they thought of them, in the name of being politically incorrect. And in July of 2016, he tweeted this:
President Obama thinks the nation is not as divided as people think. He is living in a world of the make believe!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2016
If America wasn't yet divided enough, Trump would make it even more so. If Obama tried to describe the light and tell us we could reach it, Trump was an advocate for the dark, always telling his voters to cultivate what was worst in them: their fears, their resentments, their anger, their hatred.
Of course, Obama did win two elections, and pretty handily. The American electorate was eager to buy the more hopeful picture of their country that he painted. On the other hand, he was an unusually charismatic politician, and his first election came at a time of crisis.
But his aides were also right when they reminded him that the demographics of our country are moving inexorably in Democrats' direction. No matter how much Trump may hate the idea, America is growing more diverse with each passing year. Young people are even more disgusted with Trump than the rest of the population, and their values are much more in line with the Democrats than with the Republicans. It seems unlikely that another Republican will be able to become president running a campaign based only on mobilizing white voters; Trump was able to do it only with an Electoral College squeaker while losing the popular vote, and it will only get harder.
But for now, we seem more divided every day. Barack Obama's America is the one we hope for. Donald Trump's America is the one we're condemned to endure.