Two Excerpts from Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and the Politics of Appeasement
BY PAUL STREET
What matters is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.
– Franz Fanon
Introduction: A Dark Irony Amidst Pandemo-Fascist Horror
“The horror,” reads the flattering and (if I might say so) perfectly crafted (in September) back-cover description of my new short volume Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and the Politics of Appeasement, “is all around us. It proliferates our daily news. It dominates social media. The economy is in shambles. The COVID pandemic is spreading like wildfire while we face the strangest US election in modern history. If you want to make sense of it all, Hollow Resistance is required reading. In CounterPunch’s latest book, radical historian Paul Street recounts the Democrats’ culpability in the rise of Trump and explains how his neofascist horrors took root during the Obama years, and will live on even if Joe Biden is victorious in November.”
Well, Biden, Obama’s candidate, has won and the neo-/pandemo-fascist horrors most definitely live on. There’s big evil afoot. The coronavirus is raging across the land, beckoning accelerated mass death and poverty while the malignant, orange-brushed anti-president refuses to concede defeat. His long- shot constitutional and extra-constitutional coup plans are still not dead, causing anxiety in the highest reaches of financial and military power.
Trump’s pathological herd-immunitarian radiologist of a fake “coronavirus advisor” Scott Alas tells white nationalist militia and other lunatics to “rise up” against basic public health protections in Michigan, where far-right maniacs recently plotted the kidnap and murder of the state’s Democratic governor. Atlas shrugs over the prospect of grandparents being infected over Thanksgiving, explaining that old people are near death anyway.
The president plays golf and continues to blow-off coronavirus briefings, restricting his public comments to bizarre claims to have been denied victory by a giant election fraud for which no evidence exists. He has no plan to crush the virus that crushed his re-election. He never did, even though he was privately aware of the disease’s lethality early on.
Deluded backers of the anti-science Trump death cult spend their last moments denying that they’ve been killed by the virus their president told them was no big deal and would go away soon. A friend’s family was recently assaulted by a raging Trumpenvolk member and his police buddies in the Illinois countryside because they had the audacity to wear masks at a gas station.
These angry Amerikaners were no doubt among the 73 Americans who voted to give a second term to a president that the nation’s leading intellectual Noam Chomsky rightly described as “the most dangerous criminal in human history.”
Consistent with that description, Trump is blocking the transition, holding up critical information the Biden team would need to start running in the effort to save lives when and if Biden’s presidency begins. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will needlessly die before their time because of this vicious insanity, which is a perfect expression of Trump’s underlying instinctual fascism.
Trump has recently asked his military officials to look into how to start a war with Iran, this after removing a Defense Secretary (Mark Esper) who provoked his ire by opposing the deployment of federal combat troops to crush domestic anti-racist civil and human rights protest last summer.
The likely incoming Biden administration, Clinton-Citigroup-Obamanist in nature, is dedicated both to appeasing the ever more racist, authoritarian, and eliminationist Republicans and to defeating those in their own party who represent majority progressive public opinion by advocating necessary programs like Single Payer health insurance and a Green New Deal.
Even if the center-right Biden-Harris administration is predisposed or successfully pressured to advance progressive measures, it will be hemmed in by persistent Republican control of the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court in a preposterous minority rule constitutional order that grossly and absurdly exaggerates the power of the nation’ s most reactionary regions, donors, and voters.
Into this perilous and evil moment comes Barack Obama not with bold proposals for building on the George Floyd Rebellion and the defeat of Trump to construct a great progressive movement to rise out of this crisis and promote the common good over and against the nation’s inequality and oppression structures but instead with the first of two giant and ponderous memoirs for which he has been paid many tens of millions of dollars – a big part of his delayed financial reward (see Chapter 4 of Hollow Resistance, titled “Playing and Cashing In”) for his eight years of dedicated presidential service to the rich and powerful.
How, well, narcissistic. I will not read the first volume of A Promised Land – Obama’s third book about Obama, soon to be followed by a fourth. Myself also (like Obama) the author of three books on Obama (including one that predicted the entire regressive neoliberal, imperialist, and objectively white-supremacist trajectory of the Obama presidency), I have read enough of the 44th president’s dreary, pedantic, fake-progressive, and fake-poetic prose to last a lifetime. No more, please.
But let me offer a prediction: the first volume, which stops midway through his time in the Oval Office, is a whitewash of Obama’s militantly neoliberal, imperialist, and objectively white-supremacist presidency, which helped preserve and further the ongoing rightward drift of American society and seeded the ground for the Trump nightmare.
In a recent interview promoting the volume, Obama rightly if too mildly chides Donald Trump for man-childishly evading responsibility (ala “Richie Rich”) for fueling the spread of COVID-19 and other transgressions. But don’t look for Obama to take mature and manly responsibility for helping open the door for the orange-brushed fascist’s disastrous rise to power, still not fully cancelled. The Trump ascendancy was all just a big racist and “right-wing populist” misunderstanding and aberration, by Obama’s account, shared by most privileged liberals.
The historical reality is more complicated. That Trump and Trumpism are virulently racist at core is undeniable. But Trump and Trumpism are less “populist” than fascist (as Obama all too privately knew and knows). Trump was able to win the presidency simultaneously advancing racism, nativism, and sexism and posing as a “populist” thanks in no small part to the first technically Black U.S. president’s cringing and populace-demobilizing captivity and allegiance to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.
At the same time, Obama did little to defend Black Americans during his presidency even while his presence in the White House provoked an insidious white backlash seen first in the rise of the Tea Party and then in the Trump ascendancy. Worse, Obama helped feed the backlash not just by supposedly proving that Blacks were getting ahead of whites and that racism no longer posed serious barriers to Black advancement and equality but by continuing his long habit of lecturing poor Blacks on their alleged personal and cultural responsibility for their continuing presence at the bottom of the America’s steep class-race hierarchies.
Those interested in the harsh class and race reality of Obama’s presidency rather than the childish liberal fantasy of the deeply conservative Obama’s administrations (and post-presidency) are encouraged to read my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Routledge) and my new book Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump and the Politics of Appeasement. It’s guaranteed to be a much shorter, more entertaining, and read than A Promised Land (working on a merely 50,000-word manuscript. I had plenty time to fight Trump and racism in the streets, dodging tear gas, flash bombs, and rubber bullets while Obama grew wealthy and reflected endlessly on his own greatness on his multimillion-dollar estate on Martha’s Vineyard).
Below I have inserted two excepts from Hollow Resistance’s third chapter, titled “Barack Von Obombdenburg.” The first excerpt reflects on Obama’s dedicated and tragic presidential service to the rich and powerful – and on two episodes in which ex-president Obama threw that service down Orwell’s memory hole. The second excerpt focuses on the depressing ways in which Obama’s presidency betrayed Black Americans, many of whom saw his ascendancy as a great symbolic victory for their race. That betrayal was a significant factor in the pivotal depression of Black voter turnout that helped Trump win the key battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina in 2016.
While the lion’s share of Hollow Resistance covers Obama’s post-presidential years, during which Obama stayed amazingly and depressingly silent about the horror of a president he privately knew to be a fascist, these excerpts focus on Obama’s presidency thanks to the subject matter of Obama’s first volume. As you read them, keep in mind one of the great ironies of Obama’s post-presidency, now poised to enter an undeserved golden age under his handpicked neoliberal successor and former vice president Joe “Nothing Will Fundamentally Change” Biden: Obama is the most popular political figure in the nation today, his acclaim driven largely by the dystopian yet real-life awfulness of Trump, who Obama helped create and usher into power, Weimar-like. Obama’s image is burnished by the monster he did a lot to hatch. Trump has worked out very nicely for Barockstar Obomber.
Excerpt 1 (pp. 85-95): “It Doesn’t Take Courage to Aid Those Who Are Already Powerful”
There’s an old working-class maxim worth keeping in mind when contemplating two of Barack Obama’s most stealthily audacious comments during Trump’s first year in office: “Don’t piss down my back and tell it’s raining.”
“You Have to Tend to This Garden of Democracy”
Fewer than five months after handing off the “baton” of freedom to a semi-human oligarch (a “feral wild animal” in the words of one of Trump’s most distinguished biographers) who he privately knew to be a “fascist,” and who he couldn’t bring himself to forthrightly oppose in public, Obama received a “Profiles in Courage” award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston.
“We live,” Obama said in his acceptance speech at the Kennedy Library, “in a time of great cynicism about our institutions…It’s a cynicism that’s most corrosive when it comes to our system of self-government, that clouds our history of jagged, sometimes tentative but ultimately forward progress, that impedes our children’s ability to see in the noisy and often too trivial pursuits of politics the possibility of our democracy doing big things.”
Nobody in the tuxedo- and evening gown-wearing crowd stood up to tell “Wall Street Barry” that the U.S. had no “system of self-government,” no real functioning democracy” to speak of. Nobody rose to observe that, as the mainstream political scientists Martine Gilens and Benjamin Page had shown six years into Obama’s presidency, the nation had for decades been “an oligarchy” where wealthy “elites” and their corporations “rule” and “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does.”
Obama inveighed against those in elected office who showed cowardice by serving the wealthy few instead of the common good. “It actually doesn’t take a lot of courage,” Obama observed, “to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential.”
Seven months later, Obama gave his first major public address since Trump’s election at the posh and corporate Economic Club of Chicago—a fitting setting, given how his political rise had depended on his connections with Chicago’s wealthy and powerful elite.
“You have,” Obama told his well-heeled business class audience during a Q&A after the talk, “to tend to this garden of democracy. Otherwise,” Obama warned, “things can fall apart fairly quickly.”
By “fall apart fairly quickly,” Obama meant, perhaps, that the country could descend into authoritarianism and even, though he did not use the word, fascism. The former president made a somewhat awkward and indirect but unmistakable reference to the rise of Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich. “We’ve seen societies where that happens,” Obama said, adding this: “Now, presumably there was a ballroom here in Vienna in the late 1920s or ’30s that looked pretty sophisticated and seemed as if it, filled with the music and art and literature that was emerging, would continue into perpetuity. And then 60 million people died. An entire world was plunged into chaos…So you got to pay attention—and vote!”
It was quite an historical reference, rendered more ominous by Obama saying “here in Vienna.” In his first major public appearance since Trump’s election, Obama made an analogy to Weimar Germany, which gave way to fascism when Germany’s President Paul Von Hindenburg appointed Adolph Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, Chancellor in January of 1933. Von Hindenburg would honor Hitler’s “advice” by issuing the “Reichstag Fire Decree” on February 28, 1933. The decree nullified key German civil liberties, providing the “legal basis” for the imprisonment of non- and anti-Nazis, the suppression of publications considered unfriendly to the fascist cause, and the broad establishment of a one-party Nazi state in Germany.
A Blunt Neo-Weimarian Lesson About Power
It is difficult for anyone familiar with the actual record of the militantly corporatist and Wall Street-friendly Obama administration to read these comments without a sense of Obama’s truly audacious and Orwellian chutzpah.
Did Obama seriously think that nobody in his Kennedy Library audience knew that his administration had engaged in precisely the conduct he was now criticizing by acting “to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential”?
“Tend to” the “garden” of American “democracy”? Is that what Obama expected his listeners in Chicago to think he did while in the White House? Seriously?
Beneath expertly crafted fake-progressive imagery and branding, Obama rose to power in Washington with remarkable, record-setting financial backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors. As Obama knew, cultivating the gardens of popular self-rule was not the mission behind their investment. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ report titled “Obama, Inc.” in the Fall of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”
An answer to the lobbyist’s question came less the three years later: priceless. In his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind told a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense. The leading financial institutions were vulnerable and on the defensive. The nation’s financial elite had driven the nation and world’s economy into an epic meltdown in the period since Silverstein’s essay was published, and millions knew it. Having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at the economic power elite’s staggering malfeasance, Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread, expecting that the new president would be angry at their monumental negligence and criminality, ready to initiate massive financial reform. Instead, they were pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. Rather than stand up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis—workers, minorities, and the poor—Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown.
“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama told the financial oligarchs. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” [Emphasis added.]
For the banking elite, who had destroyed millions of jobs and created junk mortgages that cost millions more their homes, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t—he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”
The massive taxpayer-funded bailout of the elite banking sector would be only the first chapter in an ongoing story of super fat-cats directing the Obama administration’s actions. In coming years, Obama would show his worth to those at the top by doling out numerous forms of corporate welfare to the parasitic rich and powerful. This largesse was unaccompanied by any serious effort to regulate the bankers’ conduct or by any remotely comparable bailout for the millions evicted from homes and left unemployed by the not-so invisible hand of the marketplace. No wonder ninety-five percent of national U.S. income gains went to the top 1% during Obama’s first term.
It was a critical moment. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S. But no such policy initiatives issued from the White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans, Greider wrote, “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’—a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”
Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single-payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb. Originally drafted by the deeply conservative Heritage Foundation and first carried out in MA by the arch-One Percenter Mitt Romney, the ACA was passed in Congress thanks to Obama’s leverage. And then “Wall Street Barry” further demonstrated his “dollar value” by offering the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for, as part of his “Grand Bargain” extended during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was at this point that hundreds of thousands of mostly young Americans demonstrated that they had had enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power.” They formed the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than through corporate-captive electoral politics.
We will never know how far Occupy might have gone. It was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that was jointly administered by the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments—even as the Democrats selectively appropriated Occupy’s rhetoric for use against the plutocratic Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans in 2012.
Obama closed out his presidency by steadily but unsuccessfully working to pass the corporate-globalist Trans-Pacific Partnership, a classically neoliberal and so-called free trade agreement that had been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and corporatist government officials for at least a decade.
How was that for some “progressive neoliberalism?” How Weimar-Germanic and democracy-canceling was that?
In his brilliant 2008 book Democracy Incorporated: Corporate-Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, published just half a year before Obama was elected, the Princeton philosopher Sheldon Wolin laid out what was to come. “Should Democrats somehow be elected,” Wolin prophesied, they would do nothing to “alter significantly the direction of society” or “substantially revers[e] the drift rightwards…The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts,” Wolin wrote, “points to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class and anti-corporatists there is no opposition party working on their behalf.” The corporatist Democrats would work to “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.”
These were prescient words. Later that year, a nominal Democrat was elected president, and Democrats comprised the majorities of both houses of Congress. What followed under Obama (as under his Democratic presidential predecessor Bill Clinton) was the standard “elite” corporate and financial manipulation of campaign populism and identity politics in service to the reigning big-money bankrollers and their global empire. The nation’s first Black president advanced Wall Street’s control of Washington and the related imperial agenda of the ‘Pentagon System’ more effectively than stiff and wealthy white Republicans like John McCain or Mitt Romney could have done. The reigning U.S. system of corporate and imperial “inverted totalitarianism” (Wolin) received a deadly, fake-democratic re-branding. The underlying “rightward drift” sharpened, fed by a widespread sense of popular abandonment and betrayal, which Republicans promptly exploited as the Democrats depressed and demobilized their own purported popular base.
How Fascist Liars Get to Look “Authentic”
What does any of this have to do with the rise of Donald Trump? Quite a bit. In his important 2018 book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley demonstrated how Trump and a broad range of far-right political leaders around the world were using and subverting “democratic” electoral politics to gain power. Many American Democrats certainly read Stanley’s book with a sense of self-satisfied validation over his description of Trump and his party as fascists. This was a bad mistake. Not content merely to describe fascist politics, Stanley also explained the prerequisites essential to its success. Fascism’s taproot, Stanley argued, was harsh socioeconomic disparity:
“Ever since Plato and Aristotle wrote on the topic, political theorists have known that democracy cannot flourish on soil poisoned by inequality…the resentments bred by such divisions are tempting targets for demagogues…Dramatic inequality poses a mortal danger to the shared reality required for a healthy liberal democracy…[such] inequality breeds delusions that mask reality, undermining the possibility of joint deliberation to sole society’s divisions (pp.76-77)…Under conditions of stark economic inequality, when the benefits of liberal education, and the exposure to diverse cultures and norms are available only to the wealthy few, liberal tolerance can be smoothly represented as elite privilege. Stark economic inequality creates conditions richly conducive to fascist demagoguery. It is a fantasy to think that liberal democratic norms can flourish under such conditions. (p. 185)”
Particularly perceptive is Stanley’s intimate reflection on how the political culture of pseudo-democratic duplicity and disingenuousness that is generated by modern capitalist inequality and plutocracy creates space for fascist-style politicians who “appear to be sincere” and “signal authenticity” by “standing for division and conflict without apology.” As Stanley writes, “Such a candidate might openly side with Christians over Muslims and atheists, or native-born [white] Americans over immigrants, or whites over blacks…They might openly and brazenly lie…[and] signal authenticity by openly and explicitly rejecting what are presumed to be sacrosanct political values….Such politicians,” Stanley argues, come off to many jaded voters as “a breath of fresh air in a political culture that seems dominated by real and imagined hypocrisy.” Fascist politicos’ “open rejection of democratic values” is “taken as political bravery, as a signal of authenticity.”
That describes the jaded conditions that opened the door to malevolent far-right figures at home and abroad. The opening is provided by neo-“liberals” (in the U.S) and neoliberal social democrats and “socialists” (in Europe and elsewhere) whose claims to speak on behalf of the popular majority and democracy are repeatedly discredited by an underlying commitment to capitalist social hierarchies and oppression structures.
He did not say so, but Stanley surely knew that the corporate (“neoliberal”) Democratic Party of the late 20th and early 21st centuries partnered with Republicans to create a New Gilded Age characterized by extreme class disparity, which has further undermined democracy and encouraged intolerance among a large swath of Americans. For decades, the Democrats have participated in the richly bipartisan crafting of plutocratic policies that have shifted wealth and income so far upward that three absurdly rich people (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos) now possess as much combined wealth as the poorest half of Americans. By the end of Obama’s second term in office, the top tenth of the upper One Percent had accumulated as much wealth as the nation’s bottom ninety percent.
This savage inequality has been administered with daunting doses of soul-numbing hypocrisy within the Democratic Party as well as within the Republican Party. Both parties/fundraising platforms have embodied the cold and disingenuous “manipulation of populism by elitism” that Christopher Hitchens aptly called, in a 1999 study of Bill and Hillary Clinton, “the essence of American politics.” Obama staffed his White House with representatives from the banking and corporate world and crafted policy in dutiful accord with the dictates of the nation’s big financial institutions. So had Bill Clinton, whose key campaign watchwords of “hope” and “change” as well as his strategies of running on “the economy, stupid” and the promise of universal health care were stealthily pilfered by Obama in 2007 and 2008.
Then came Hillary Clinton’s Obama-backed 2016 Goldman Sachs campaign, poisoned by the disconnect between her transparent allegiance to the nation’s top financial institutions and her admittedly tepid populist pretense. Clinton’s pretense was undermined further when she got caught calling Trump’s “flyover country” Republican supporters a “basket of” racist and sexist “deplorables” in a sneering commentary she delivered to rich Manhattan campaign donors. (Here, Clinton gave Trump something like the campaign gift that Romney provided Obama in 2012, when the Republican contender was heard telling rich donors that forty-seven percent of the country were lazy moochers).
This kind of disingenuous corporate-driven Democratic politics did a great deal to bring widely hated Republicans into the White House in both 2001 and 2017. The elitist fake-progressivism of neo-Weimar-liberals like the Clintons, Al Gore, and Barack Obama opened the door for hideous monsters like George W. Bush (who claimed to believe that God told him to invade Iraq) and the more genuinely fascistic Trump. These transparently inauthentic liberals made Republican candidates look comparatively authentic and served, too, to demobilize the Democrats’ more authentically progressive popular base—the latter a point which Stanley misses. In fact, deeply uninspired by Hillary Clinton’s tepid, elitist, and dismissive campaign, non-voting on the part of traditionally Democratic segments of the electorate was more critical to Trump’s victory than any imagined big wave of white working-class Trump votes.
True, no U.S. president has ever lied as voluminously and pathologically as the fascist Trump. A brazen practitioner of the totalitarian “permanent lie” (which Hannah Arendt defined as “the consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth”), Trump is off the historical charts when it comes to barefaced falsification. Still, the totalitarian would not have gotten into office without the more sophisticated establishmentarian disingenuousness of the party Wolin aptly called the “Inauthentic Opposition”—the dismal, demobilizing, depressing, and dollar-drenched Democrats.
Except 2: Blaming Black Victims of Racism (pp. 105-108)
Given Obama’s much ballyhooed status as the nation’s first Black president, one of the models of presidential conduct that Obama helped pass on to the racist Trump is profoundly ironic: a tendency to downplay the role of systemic racism and to emphasize the role of Black personal and cultural responsibility in the creation of the nation’s stark racial inequalities. As the Black scholar William A. Darity, Jr. noted in an incisive December 2016 essay titled “How Barack Obama Failed Black Americans,” President Obama trafficked heavily in the culturally white-supremacist claim that Blacks’ economic difficulties were largely the result of Blacks’ own “self-defeating or dysfunctional behavior.” In one of many examples of this recurrent Obama narrative, Obama told the 2013 graduates of historically Black Morehouse College that young Black men had “no excuses,” and placed blame for Black difficulties in America at the feet of absentee fathers. Darity wrote with barely concealed disgust about what he had seen and heard from a Black president who refused to advance policy solutions to the numerous and interrelated barriers to Black advancement and equality, barriers which were upheld by the nation’s deeply embedded structural and institutional racism: “It has been damaging to have Barack Obama, a black man speaking from the authoritative platform of the presidency, reinforce the widely held belief that racial inequality in the United States is, in large measure, the direct responsibility of black folk. This has been the deal breaker for me: not merely a silence on white physical and emotional violence directed against black Americans, but the denial of the centrality of American racism in explaining sustained black-white disparity.” Darity also noted the deep irony of the one and only Obama program designed specifically for Black Americans—a program rooted in the idea that racial disparity is largely about Black behavior:
“There is one major initiative that the Obama administration has inaugurated that is black-specific, but it is the exception that proves the rule. It exposes all the issues at play. My Brother’s Keeper is a program premised on the view that young black men constitute a social problem and need interventions that will alter their outlook and actions. The focus is on reforming young men rather than directly increasing the resources possessed by them and their families and removing the constraints they face. Again, the underlying ideological motivation is the belief in black cultural deficiency, and, again, this type of initiative is another expression of failure to pursue bold policies that confront the fundamental causes of racial disparity in American society.”
Obama’s failure to fight meaningfully for Black equality and racial justice beyond the symbolic fact of his own technically Black presence in the White House was all the more depressing in light of the unpleasant fact that his simple presence sparked a white racist backlash that could be counted on to target Black Americans who did not share the Obamas’ elevated economic status and protections. Obama did nothing, or close to it, to advance or protect Black Americans while setting them up for intensified hatred and assault from whites who sadly but predictably took Obama’s presidency to mean that Blacks and other non-whites were “taking over the country.” That was an absurd belief that Donald Trump was more than happy to fan and exploit.
“He Put in His Eight Years of Service” (to Rich Whites)
Obama’s role in the creation of the Trump presidency has been missed even by some who have properly criticized his quiescence on the Trump presidency from the portside. Read, for instance, the opening paragraph of David Magary’s understandably bitter 2020 rant, “Where the Hell is Barack Obama?” (quoted at length in the previous chapter):
“My patience with Barack Obama’s patience is at an end. Since leaving office at the beginning of 2017, the former president made it his priority to lay low. Under normal circumstances, no one could begrudge him that choice. He had just been president for eight years. He was tired. His family was tired. He had more than earned the right to fuck off and enjoy himself, especially given the endless stream of bullshit he had to endure as our first black president….These are far beyond normal circumstances and he no longer has that right.”
What Magary failed to grasp here was that Trump’s “abnormal” and apocalyptic presidency was to no small extent Obama’s production.
The same omission was evident in a May 2018 The Root article in which the angry bourgeois-identitarian Monique Judge argued that it was essentially racist for anyone to simultaneously be white and think it was incumbent on Obama to speak up against the Trump nightmare. “Obama,” Judge actually titled her foul-mouthed essay, “Doesn’t Owe This Country Shit.” By Judge’s judgement:
“Obama is doing exactly what he wants, and there is nothing wrong with that. He spent eight years serving the will of the American people. Now he gets to do what Barack wants…. His life is about him. We don’t own him. We aren’t entitled to him. You don’t own him. You aren’t entitled to him. The days of America benefiting off the free labor of black folks are long over. Obama did his time. He put in his eight years of service in the White House. He endured the criticism. He withstood the abuse lobbed at his wife and daughters. He smiled and waved and hugged and kissed babies and was the picture of dignity the entire time he was in office. He did his time, and he moved on. When he left, America voted in an ignorant, xenophobic, racist egomaniac who has spent his entire time in office doing everything in his power to tear down Obama’s legacy. And this country is sitting by and letting him do it. Obama is supposed to care about this country? Man, fuck this country. Obama doesn’t owe this country shit.”
Judge’s bitter assessment neglected to mention that Obama enjoys a $200,000 lifetime pension, free taxpayer-funded travel and business expenses, and the right to cash in on his many years of policymaking on behalf of the rich by becoming fabulously wealthy himself. As Judge also failed to note, Obama spent his eight years in the White House not “serving the will of the American people,” but serving the will of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire in ways that helped open the door and hand the key of fascistic rule to Trump. The following chapter turns to the rewards that ex-president Obama has reaped for his service to the American ruling class—compensation granted and enjoyed as the nation descended into the fascist apocalypse he told his staffers and David Remnick wasn’t happening after Trump was elected.
It seems that no small portion of American “democracy” was already “falling apart” before Trump took charge. And Obama, along with his predecessors, had much to do with the demolition project that set the stage for Trump. Thanks, Obama!
Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.