At a news conference in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama appeared to attack populist movements in Europe and America as being a threat to democracy.
The president never mentioned Donald Trump by name, but he inferred there was a danger to freedom if populists succeed in gaining power.
“Democracy is hard work,” Obama said at a news conference after meeting here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of his closest international partners. Ahead of their meeting, the pair had delivered a joint rebuttal to Trump’s populist pledges, calling in a joint newspaper op-ed for more transatlantic cooperation on everything from security and climate change to fighting intolerance.
Speaking to reporters, Obama tried to remain optimistic about the prospect of a Trump presidency, despite having sharply criticized him as temperamentally unfit for office during the long, bitter campaign. The president had mocked Trump as unworthy of being trusted with the nuclear codes, as he was someone who could be “baited with a tweet.”
Obama, without directly naming Trump, appeared critical of the political discourse in the United States, saying social media has made it easier “to make negative attacks and simplistic slogans than it is to communicate complex policies.”
“If we are not serious about the facts and what’s true and what’s not, particularly in the social media era when so many get information from sound bites and snippets off their phone, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” Obama said. He warned that if the two U.S. political parties remain wedded to “absolutist views” and refuse to compromise “then democracy will break down.”
On his last overseas trip as president, Obama met with Merkel, a centrist leader whom observers see as the heir apparent to his legacy as the leading global advocate of liberal democracy.
Ahead of a joint appearance later Thursday, the two penned an op-ed piece recognizing the painful side of freer trade along with a sober reality check.
“The future is upon us, and we will never return to a pre-globalization economy,” they wrote.
The two leaders never mentioned Trump by name. But their statements appeared to serve as a point-by-point rejection of some of the president-elect’s most contentious foreign policy pledges.
They defended aid for refugees “because we know it is our treatment of those most vulnerable that determines the true strength of our values.” They hailed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — from which Trump has threatened to pull back — as a cornerstone of peace. They presented the German-U.S. relationship as a symbol of shared progressive Western values.
“Our countries share a joint responsibility to protect and preserve our way of life,” the two leaders wrote in the German weekly Wirtschaftwoche. “It is in this spirit that we are working hard to ensure that international law and norms are respected around the globe — which remains a prerequisite for stability and prosperity.”
Trump’s anti-globalist, anti-elitist campaign resonated with ordinary people because no one ever asked them to give up their sovereignty or serve some higher purpose of free trade and give up their jobs. In Europe, the French still want to be French, the English still want to be English, and Germans still want to be Germans. This, despite the best efforts of Merkel and the socialist parties to equate sovereignty with nationalism — a buzz word that scares most Europeans into thinking of a return to Nazism.
The liberal elites are scrambling to find a way to deal with the reality that many Europeans like their nation states while maintaining their vision of a borderless society, but it isn’t working. And even against media opposition that is universal in its portrayal of populist parties as fascist, racist, and authoritarian, the right continues to make gains.
Obama’s warning to EU members about the fragility of democracy presupposes that Trump and right-wing parties in Europe threaten to bring “liberal democracy” down. You would have to be blind not to see the authoritarian tendencies in some populist politicians. But the resiliency of the American system has always been in the checks and balances that are built in as a firewall against extremism.
The concerns of Obama and the Euro-elites have more to do with salvaging their hold on power than any worries they have about democracy.