Saturday, June 23, 2018

Not What Leadership Looks Like

You got that right, Osita.

Writing in Slate, Osita Nwanevu has former President Barack Obama pegged. He writes

As Obama no doubt expected himself, Donald Trump has not fostered unity, a sense of inclusion, or respect for American institutions and the rule of law in post-“scrimmage” action. He has been true to the American way of life only in his revival of strains of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and open corruption that many assumed, before his rise, would not return to our national politics.

And that's why it's particularly disappointing- albeit not surprising- that the former President's statement on Facebook Wednesday about World Refugee Day was one medium-sized meaningless platitude. "Part of what makes us human," Obama wrote, is "our ability to imagine ourselves in the shoes of others." He came up terribly small in a time of great moral crisis.

Nwanevu cites Gizmodo Media's John Cook's tweet "I think that when the history of this presidency is written, Barack Obama's strategic and willful silence in the face of a national crisis will be seen as a shameful error, "  "This statement," Nwanevu realizes, " could have been made in reference to any number of events since Trump's inauguration that the former president has avoided commenting on publicly."

Noting "defenders of Obama's reticence generally argue that he richly deserves a long respite from his time spent at the front lines of national politics," Nwanevu explains

They’re wrong. The medically trained person is obligated to run to the collapsed man in the street. It doesn’t matter how rough their day has been, or how much abuse they have endured in their career. They have an ethical responsibility to help in any way they can—to, at the very least, see and say what might be done by others, if not themselves. They cannot simply walk by. Barack Obama is the most gifted political orator in at least a generation, a man who commands the respect and instant attention of half the country. He cannot opt out entirely of a public life that he chose, not at a moment in our history that so obviously demands political leadership and moral clarity.

Nwanevu recalls that the morning after the presidential election, President Obama released a statement reading in part

everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we're actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We're not Democrats first. We're not Republicans first. We are Americans first. We're patriots first.

That was shades of Senator Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention in which Democrats were enthralled by "We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America." That was eleven years before candidate Donald Trump: remarked that tortured prisoner-of-war John McCain was no hero; twelve years before candidate Trump urged Russia to conduct cyber-espionage against hispolitical opponent and stated that Vladimir Putin "has been a leader farmore than our President has been;" thirteen years before President Trump gave confidential information to Russian officials in the Oval Office; and twelve years before Trump started turning the White House into a vehicle for personal and family profit, while lying to the American public nearly daily.

It has been fourteen years since Barack Obama brought the crowd to its feet with soaring rhetoric which most of us assumed expressed the Senator's hope, a vision of what he thought the nation could be.  We didn't realize at the time that he believed it was a portrait of America and that he would, after eight years as President, still believe it.

Maybe he doesn't; it's hard to believe anyone could be that naive. Still, Nwanevu observes

Barack Obama is personally committed to the realization of the civic American dream—an America where all are united by a common interest in the well-being of all, despite our differences. He believes that this dream can be realized without bitter political conflict. It cannot. He believes that the Republican Party can be shamed by the indignation its actions arouse in Democrats and the majority of the public into changing. It will not.

The Republican Party should be destroyed. It should go the way of the Whigs. With any luck, historians will record that after a madness took hold within the GOP from the mid-1970s through the first part of the 21st century, the American people, led by the Democratic Party, rallied to put it down forever—as it became clear that beyond its attempts to undermine the right to vote, its work to immiserate the already struggling and enrich the already wealthy, its unwillingness to address open public violence, its willingness to countenance the sexual abuse of women and children, and its frustration of efforts to address an ecological crisis that poses an existential threat to civilization itself, the Republican Party would additionally, by openly embracing racial and religious persecution, march the country toward fascism if left unchecked.

The Democratic Party should be working to erode the power of the Republican Party at least as successfully as the Republican Party has eroded its power. This would require both a long-term electoral vision and ambitious structural reforms, some of which Democrats can pass as soon as they next hold Congress and the presidency. But making the case for this is beyond the capacities of a man who sees heightened political rhetoric and political conflict itself as nothing more than cheap emotional catharsis.

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