The consequences of the 2016 election have yet to unfold, although Donald Trump, having impatiently pushed his predecessor aside, is for all practical purposes already running the country.
We can say this much about it, though: it is payback for both the major political parties and goodbye to the politics of the past 50 years. The effect of those politics, embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike, has been to hollow out America’s middle class, crush its working class and usher in an era of rampant inequality — the likes of which the country hasn’t seen since the 1920s.
This effect will only worsen in the next four years.
It needs to be recalled that, largely owing to the Civil Rights movement, the momentum of New Deal reforms, stalled with the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was revived in the 1960s.
In addition to the push for desegregation and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and Medicare, Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty that, within a decade, had roughly halved the number of Americans living in poverty.
The renewed push to realize the socioeconomic goals of the New Deal didn’t last, though.
Vietnam divided the country, and ruined Johnson’s career. Its violence spilled over into America’s streets, and, with the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, the country seemed on the brink of civil war.
Repression and reaction followed. They never really retreated, from Kent State and Rodney King to Guantanamo and the present standoff in South Fork.
In spirit if not in the flesh, through the administrations of both parties, our president for the past nearly 50 years has been Richard Nixon.
You reap what you sow, and Vietnam was our harvest. We killed millions and lost much of our soul. A soulless country lost its compassion, for its own as well as others. The worst, as William Butler Yeats said of another time, were full of a passionate energy, and the best lacked conviction.
America, for all its faults, had never ceased trying to make itself better. That, and not mere prosperity, was its dream. With the 1970s, and despite noble exceptions, this was no longer the case.
Segregation crept back in. Poverty made a comeback. A productive economy gave way to financialization. An American president visited an SS cemetery. Another one gutted welfare and built supermax prisons. Another normalized torture and mass surveillance.
It came to a head in 2016.
An angry white populism swept aside professional Republican politicians and nominated a blustering demagogue to be president. A populism of the left strove to make a self-professed socialist the Democratic Party’s nominee.
The Democratic establishment beat back that effort, and, in a collective death wish, put up its least popular and least able candidate, who, in running an utterly tone-deaf campaign, enabled the demagogue to win the presidency.
Let’s not mistake that last point. It wasn’t the Democratic voters refusing to vote for Hillary Clinton who elected Donald Trump.
It was a Democratic Party that denied the popular will in a rigged primary system and put up instead the candidate who, more than any other, represented all that voters on both the right and the left were united in rejecting.
That would be, Barack Obama.
Obama, with his wife Michelle, were frequent and apparently popular surrogates on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton. At first glance, this was passing strange. The mutual antipathy of the Clintons and the Obamas during the 2008 primaries was notorious.
If Obama brought Hillary into his cabinet as Secretary of State upon winning the election that year, it was to honor the old adage about keeping your enemies in front of you.
The Clintons, for their part, loathed the man who had denied them their expected restoration. Implicitly, though, Bill and Hillary conceded Obama his eight years in office, in return for a job that kept Hillary in the limelight, and his support for her candidacy (assuming it to be worth anything) when 2016 rolled around.
As it turned out, that support appeared to be critical. As Obama’s term approached its end, and with the prospect of either of the two most unpopular candidates in presidential history poised to succeed him, his long-dampened approval ratings rose.
Hillary hitched her flailing campaign to Obama’s star, and promised to extend his legacy — that is, to offer voters four more years of the previous eight.
That was as catastrophic a decision as any candidate for the presidency has ever made, because if there was one thing the election of 2016 was about, it was the repudiation of Barack Obama.
The sentimental uptick in his personal approval was deceptive; the more-telling polls were the ones which indicated that upwards of three-quarters of the public felt the country was headed in the wrong direction.
Obama the man, a singularly anodyne personality, was not disliked; Obama the president was a rejected figure.
It did not take polls to make this clear: the success of Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign and the near-success of Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination conveyed this clearly enough.
People were roundly fed up, fed up enough to go with a self-proclaimed socialist or an unprincipled demagogue. You couldn’t run the storm warnings up any higher than that.
Kim McKinney Cohen, a liberal Colorado activist, cast her ballot for Donald Trump. When asked why, she replied: “I wanted to shake people up. Last time, the Democrats got the White House, the Senate, and the House, and did nothing.”
David Murray, an Ohio voter, complained that Clinton seemed “just another four years of what Obama has done for my area, which is nothing.”
The operative word here is nothing.
It’s easily forgotten now that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was greeted with more hope and expectation than for any other in memory.
It was a moment of crisis. Obama inherited an economy in freefall, a pair of failed wars that continued to bleed American blood and treasure and a nation whose world reputation was at its lowest ebb in a century. It was thus a moment that called for political and moral renewal.
Obama failed the country in virtually every respect.
His underwhelming economic stimulus, little if any different from what a John McCain administration would have produced, put Wall Street on its feet again while allowing millions of main street Americans to be thrown out of their homes as well as their jobs, failed to extricate us from the morass of our Middle East wars and failed to clean our political and economic house: not a single official who had lied us into war and not a single banker who had crashed the economy was held to account.
Not a single torturer; not a single crook. Instead, Chelsea Manning went to jail, for the crime of telling us the truth.
I don’t mean to say that Barack Obama didn’t accomplish anything.
He presided over the largest surveillance state ever erected, and the most lopsided transfer of wealth into the hands of the rich in generations. He rebuilt the Republican Party from a smoking ruin to a now-thriving franchise that now owns the government on both the state and federal level.
He left a substantial part of the electorate in such a condition of frustration and rage that it was willing to embrace the demagogue who, instead of completing the destruction of the GOP — not altogether unfittingly described by Noam Chomsky as “the most dangerous organization in world history” — has once again raised it from the dead.
“Nothing” is a very polite description for an administration that has heaped such negative blessings on us.
At the end of the campaign, Obama, acknowledging that it had become a referendum on his own tenure, told black audiences in particular that he would take it as a personal insult if they did not turn out to vote for his designated successor.
This was the same audience whose votes Donald Trump had solicited by pointedly asking, “What have you got to lose?” After Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Cleveland and Chicago, there was no one to make reply.
The first African American president had left African Americans themselves, their communities raddled by violence and despair, more vulnerable than ever to the racial backlash with which he is ending his term.
African Americans didn’t turn out to vindicate the leader who had betrayed them. Angry whites, their own resentments stoked by the nakedest appeals to bigotry in 50 years, came out instead.
Barack Obama then welcomed the demagogue who had questioned his birthright to the White House and described him for us, after a friendly conversation, as a “pragmatist.”
We already know, of course, what he means by this term, since in his own lexicon it indicates what he himself has been for the past eight years: a man without principle or conviction, and with no interest beyond personal aggrandizement and political survival.
Hillary Clinton turns out to have been the pawn in this tragedy. The election of 2016 was all about Barack Obama.
Very shortly, the emptiest suit in American political history will exit the stage. His legacy is the man who succeeds him.