In South Africa on Monday, former president Barack Obama warned that countries that follow a vision he would ascribe to current President Donald Trump find themselves in civil war. Amid growing unrest in the United States, Obama accused Trump of fostering identity politics, division, and outright deceit, ignoring his own contributions to the situation.
“We now stand at a crossroads, a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete,” Obama declared in his Nelson Mandela Lecture. He contrasted his own version of global cooperation with a caricature of Trump’s policies he described as “strongman politics.”
“Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration as nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history where might makes right and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races, where nations compete in a zero-sum game constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out?” Obama asked.
The former president suggested that his “liberal progressive” vision represented the era of history between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 2016 election, and hinted that only a return to his progressivism would avert another civil war in the United States.
“The world’s most prosperous and successful societies, the ones with the highest living standards, the highest levels of satisfaction among their people, happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal progressive ideal that we talk about,” Obama argued.
In the phrase “liberal progressive ideal,” he joined classical liberalism — the free markets and free trade that enabled unprecedented wealth and human progress — with Progressivism, a 20th century American political movement focused on government expansion that saw the rise of segregation in the White House and armed forces, the period of Japanese internment, and an ever-growing administrative state ballooning U.S. debt.
Against this vision, he pitted “authoritarian governments” that “breed corruption, because they’re not accountable, to repress their people, to lose touch eventually with reality.” Obama argued that these governments “engage in bigger and bigger lies that ultimately result in economic and political and cultural and scientific stagnation.”
Obama insisted that “countries which rely on rabid nationalism and xenophobia and doctrines of tribal, racial, or religious superiority as their main organizing principle — the thing that holds people together — eventually those countries find themselves consumed by civil war or external war. Check the history books.”
Broadly, this is true. Authoritarian governments do descend into corruption, lies, and stagnation. Tribalism does lead to civil war. However, throughout his speech, the former president attributed all these evils to Trump and denied his own involvement in splitting American politics.
Obama argued that because of new technology, “populations are going to be moving and environmental challenges are not going to be going away on their own.” He suggested that only international cooperation could handle these challenges.
By contrast, he warned about “the power of fear,” saying that “history shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on those who look different or worship God in a different way.”
In a particularly telling moment, Obama urged a “fundamental reimagining of our social and political arrangements to protect the economic security and dignity that comes with a job.” He suggested various solutions, including “a universal income.”
The former president rightly championed the western value of a common humanity and “that each individual has inherent dignity and worth.” He claimed that this truth is under attack today. “As we’re seeing in this recent drift of reactionary politics, this struggle for basic justice is never truly finished.”
Ironically, Obama championed the idea of working with and understanding political “enemies,” but then excused himself from ever having to engage in dialogue with people like Trump.
“Through the testing of ideas and the application of reason and proof it will be possible to arrive at a basis for common grounds,” Obama said. He warned, however, that “for this to work, we actually have to believe in an objective reality. This is another one of these things that I thought I didn’t have to lecture about.”
Mocking the Trump administration’s brief flirtation with “alternative facts,” Obama declared, “You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there’s no basis for cooperation. If I say this is a podium and you say this is an elephant it’s going to be hard for us to cooperate.”
He then directly mentioned the Paris Climate Accords, suggesting that he could “find common ground” with someone who said the accords would not work because countries might not agree or because “it’s more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor even if it means in the short term that there’s more pollution.”
“I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all the world’s scientists tell us it is,” Obama said. “If you start saying it’s an elaborate hoax, I don’t know what to … where do we start?”
This clearly referred to Trump’s bombastic declarations that the alleged “consensus” on man-made global warming is a “hoax.” Trump clearly overstated his case, but there is ample reason to doubt that human beings are the major force behind changing climate, and the “consensus” is not nearly as clear-cut as environmentalists claim.
Laughably, Obama went on to lament that “too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up.” The former president diagnosed an “utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and lie some more.”
“Let me just say, politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying, they’d say, ‘Oh man!’ Now, they just keep on lying,” the former president said.
Obama would know. After all, he won PolitiFact’s “lie of the year” in 2013 after claiming more than 36 times, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.”
Obama misled the American people on Benghazi, the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, the Iran deal, and much more.
Even so, in South Africa on Monday, Obama said, “Me just not completely lying to people, I think’s pretty basic.”
When it comes to dividing the country, Obama is similarly culpable. The former president championed divisive causes like Black Lives Matter, pushed the balkanization of America by encouraging minorities not to assimilate, and pushed political correctness to extremes. He also rewrote civil rights law to pander to transgender activists and unleashed a sex bureaucracy on college campuses.
Trump may have contributed to divisions in the country, but Trump himself is in many ways the legacy of Obama’s divisiveness and government expansion.
Obama may contrast his “vision” with that of “hostile competition between tribes and races,” but his presidency contributed to racial distrust and tribalism. Obama may rightly say “that government exists to serve the individual, not the other way around,” but his ever-expanding administrative state has created a host of problems that Trump is working overtime to reverse.
Furthermore, Obama’s suggestion that Trump’s administration resembles nothing more than a “strongman politics” only further undermines America’s teetering civility. So-called “anti-fascist” rioters claim the moral authority to terrorize and physically assault their political opponents because they consider these people evil and tyrannical. Obama has only stoked those flames.
At a time when Trump officials are harassed and kicked out of restaurants, and when Trump supporters are booted from Ubers, Americans can little afford Obama’s posing as the champion of “liberal progress” against the “strongman” Trump.