US President Barack Obama gestures during a meeting with American Jewish leaders.
(photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)
WASHINGTON -- Asked on Tuesday in Athens whether the election of Donald Trump was at all his fault, US President Barack Obama demurred.
Anger festering in America is not the result of his presidency, he argued, but of a recovery that has been slow for a working class fighting against an increasingly globalized world.
Speaking before the press, Obama characterized himself– and his defeated Democratic colleague, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton– as at a reasonable, moderate political center, embroiled in competing populist storms to his left and right.
"Last I checked, a pretty healthy majority of Americans agree with my worldview on a whole bunch of things," he said, acknowledging surprise at the election results as they filtered in last Tuesday night. But "people are less certain of their national identities or their place in the world," he added, "and there is no doubt that that has produced populist movements."
President-elect Trump ran against much of what Obama stands for, and over the course of the last week, he has vowed to repeal and replace several of the outgoing president's most cherished initiatives. But Obama argues the ascension of Trump was not a referendum specifically on his policies. It was, instead, driven by a desire for change by a mass movement of the frustrated and bereaved.
Still stunned by their loss, Clinton's former campaign leadership is circulating a social psychology book titled True Believer on the nature of these movements– a philosophy classic which earned its author, Eric Hoffer, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"Though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious. The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image," Hoffer wrote in his 1951 work.
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"When hopes and dreams are loose in the streets, it is well for the timid to lock doors, shutter windows and lie low until the wrath has passed. For there is often a monstrous incongruity between the hopes, however noble and tender, and the action which follows them."
While Republicans are operating with excitement on Capitol Hill at the prospect of a unified GOP government, Democrats are regrouping from a place of palpable fear. They see nationalist, nativist and populist movements on the rise across the Western world. And they worry that the Trump phenomenon has little to do with Obama, traditional conservatism, or typical partisan politics, so much as what Hoffer characterized as the "the frustrated favor for radical change."
He further quotes American philosopher Henry David Thoreau in his examination of this desire: "If anything ail a man so that he does not perform his functions," Thoreau wrote in Walden, "if he have a pain in his bowels even– for that is the seat of sympathy– he forthwith sets about reforming the world." The president and downed Democratic nominee see in defeat not a referendum on their worldview, but a backlash from a fanatical movement that– in its organic desire for change– overlooked divergences from fact and societal norms of decency.
"We are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity, or tribalism that is built around an us or a them," Obama said in Athens. "And I will never apologize for saying that the future of humanity and the future of the world is going to be defined by what we have in common as opposed to those things that separate us and lead us into conflict."
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