Obama’s legacy: the rise of Donald Trump

Regardless of who prevails, though, there are plenty of reasons to worry for the democratic future of America and, consequently, the Western world.

November 7, 2016 21:26
4 minute read.
Obama Trump

Obama and Trump. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Today’s vote in the US will bring an end to one of the most atypical presidential races the US has ever witnessed.

Finally we will know who is going to make it to the Oval Office and become the world’s most powerful person.

On one hand the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, with nearly unparalleled experience in American politics but a background dotted by occasional gaffes, gossip and a troubling inclination to secrecy and lack of transparency. On the other, a tycoon and former television star with no political experience and a disturbing record of scandals, who is presenting himself as the standard-bearer of a movement against much-loathed political and financial elites.

Regardless of who prevails, though, there are plenty of reasons to worry for the democratic future of America and, consequently, the Western world.

If Trump wins, the United States – the world’s only superpower, and quintessential beacon of democracy – will have for the first time in its history a president who openly and shamelessly rejects some of the country’s most fundamental values.

Clinton’s victory, though, does not necessarily mean that the long-term effects of Trumpism will dissipate anytime soon – even if hurricane Trump is averted.

In fact, Trump himself is merely the symptom of a much wider and more troubling phenomenon – the rise of anti-establishment movements on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether we look – just to mention a few – at the US with Trump and, earlier, Bernie Sanders, at the UK (UKIP), France (Front National), Italy (Movimento Cinque Stelle) or Spain (Podemos), frustrated and disillusioned citizens are increasingly casting protest ballots in favor of parties and candidates calling for a rebellion against the system.

In the US – as in most of the these countries – the roots of the anti-establishment movement can be traced back to the ongoing economic stagnation that followed the financial crisis of 2008. Similarly, what is providing Trump’s constituency with arguments to fuel their protest is the failure of the government to offer convincing, long-lasting solutions for those – blue-collar workers, military veterans, pensioners, millennials, etc. – who are struggling to recover.

So here is what very few will dare to admit: the rise of Trump is a direct consequence of Obama’s failures.

In 2008 President Barack Obama used (and perhaps abused) the “hope card” to reach the White House. And it worked. He galvanized an entire country and obtained a landslide victory by presenting himself as some sort of messianic figure – the embodiment of change and of a brighter future for America and the world. Fast-forward eight years and things didn’t quite play out the way they were supposed to.

The middle and working classes are still suffering as wages are not growing; the racial divide has reached peaks we have not seen in decades; the number of victims of gun violence and mass shootings has been steadily increasing. Meanwhile ISIS is threatening new terrorist attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin is acting like a bully, the bloodbaths in Syria and Yemen seem unstoppable and Guantanamo is still open.

Of course, this is not only Obama’s fault – as powerful as an American president may be, he is not almighty. Yet, from someone who capitalized so much on the promise of change it was legitimate to expect more.

That is the tricky part when you play with people’s emotions: they are like a pendulum. The more you pull it to one side – making promises, building expectations, raising hope – the more it will swing to the opposite side when you fail to keep your commitments. And that is exactly where Donald Trump built his political fortune (alongside Bernie Sanders during the primaries season).

To her credit, Hillary Clinton set Obama’s visionary yet ephemeral promises aside.

Instead of hope, she placed unity at the center of her campaign. Her view of America is optimistic but nonetheless realistic.

Overall, she is incredibly more prepared to serve as president of the United States than Obama ever was.

Is this going to be enough to conquer the White House? Soon we will know.

Hypothetically, had Trump and Clinton competed in 2012, or in 2008, or in virtually any previous round of elections, the latter would have easily prevailed. But this is 2016 – the year of surprises. The year of Brexit – which suddenly deprived people of the cozy illusion that an illuminated, politically mature Western society could never do something so utterly “irrational” – and of the rejected peace accord in Colombia.

Ultimately though, if Clinton does end up prevailing, as president she shall remember her predecessor’s mistakes and do her best to fix them. Because if she does not, then Trumpism may not end tomorrow.

The author obtained a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University. Today he is an analyst for an international business consulting firm.

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