An Obama perspective on the transition to Trump, courtesy of the New Yorker

REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Barack Obama

I confess I fell off the gerbil wheel for most of last week. Yes, I had both my kids home for Thanksgiving, which is a rare treat. And, for one so fortunate as me, giving thanks for many blessings far beyond my just deserts felt like a full-time job, even more than the scribbling I compulsively do here.

In addition, certainly, I was gobsmacked by the election results. I’m still reading, thinking, seeking wisdom on what happened and what it portends, and will interrupt some future nap – of yours or mine or both – with the most honest and, I hope, useful insights I can dredge up.

I wasn’t even going to write for today, but then I read New Yorker Editor David Remnick’s piece, dated today and headed for inky publication soon I’m sure, but available online here, in which Remnick attempts to show us the recent events through the eyes of Barack Obama, who gave him a long interview, and others through the years. He also spoke to some others in the White House, who are quoted below, like David Simas, the White House political director.

I was blown away by how calm, smart and helpful the piece was, to me at least, and will offer only a few highlights, along with a recommendation to read the whole thing yourself. (If you do, and if you’re like me, you will be sadder than ever to see the current occupant of the Oval Office preparing to hand off power to the current president-elect.)

From the Remnick piece:

This is not the apocalypse,” Obama said [to the White House staff, and the remark reached Remnick}. “History does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward.”

 A couple of days later, when I asked the President about that consolation, he offered this: “I don’t believe in apocalyptic — until the apocalypse comes. I think nothing is the end of the world until the end of the world.”

How’s that for keeping things in perspective? Here’s more:

“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” [Obama political director David] Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago — about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women — his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices.

“Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.”


The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal — that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”

That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.”

As we rode toward the airport, Obama talked about Trump. “We’ve seen this coming,” he said. “Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails. There were no governing principles, there was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ But we’ve seen it for eight years, even with reasonable people like John Boehner, who, when push came to shove, wouldn’t push back against these currents.”

I asked about Trump’s capacity to eliminate serially a long string of Republican contenders.

“Donald Trump beating fifteen people said less about his skills and more about the lack of skills of the people he beat,” Obama said. “But, obviously, he tapped into something. He’s able to distill the anger and resentment and the sense of aggrievement. And he is skillful at challenging the conventions in a way that makes people feel something and that gives them some satisfaction.”

“What I’m suggesting is that the lens through which people understand politics and politicians is extraordinarily powerful. And Trump understands the new ecosystem, in which facts and truth don’t matter. You attract attention, rouse emotions, and then move on. You can surf those emotions. I’ve said it before, but if I watched Fox I wouldn’t vote for me!”

Obama: “I have complete confidence in the American people — that if I can have a conversation with them they’ll choose what’s right. At an emotional level, they want to do the right thing if they have the information.” And yet in an age of filter bubbles and social-media silos, he knew, the “information” that reached people was increasingly shaped by what they wanted to be true. And that was no longer in his hands or anyone else’s.

This next passage, obviously, starts with Remnick speaking in his own voice:

Obama is a patriot and an optimist of a particular kind. He hoped to be the liberal Reagan, a progressive of consequence, but there are crucial differences. For one thing, Obama does not believe in the simplistic form of American exceptionalism which insists that Americans are more talented and virtuous than everyone else, that they are blessed by a patriotic God with a special mission.

America is a country that was established on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers and improved upon not merely by legislation but also by social movements: this, to Obama, is the real nature of its exceptionalism.

Last year, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, and defined American exceptionalism as embodied by its heroes, its freedom fighters: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, John Lewis, the “gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York”; its Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo code-talkers, its 9/11 volunteers and G.I.s, and its immigrants — Holocaust survivors, Lost Boys of Sudan, and the “hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande.”


It’s a long piece, but I would have read more. Here’s the ending, in which Obama is talking, at first, about the men and women of the military. The passages in quotes are all from Obama, with Remnick narrating in between, and the last paragraph is all Remnick:

“It’s the example of the single most diverse institution in our country—soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coastguardsmen who represent every corner of our country, every shade of humanity, immigrant and native-born, Christian, Muslim, Jew, and nonbeliever alike, all forged into common service.” His sober cadences gave resonance to words that could have been rote. So did the awareness that just seventy days remained of his Presidency.

Here was the hopeful vision of diversity and dignity that Obama had made his own, and hearing these words I couldn’t help remembering how he began his victory speech eight years ago. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” he said, “tonight is your answer.”

 A very different answer arrived this Election Day. America is indeed a place where all things are possible: that is its greatest promise and, perhaps, its gravest peril. 

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/28/2016 - 07:50 pm.

    If only…

    So Simas said that 8 years ago everyone would have denounced Trump and he wouldn’t have found the way around it. But wasn’t Obama the one who used the Internet to his advantage? In fact, it is not the way that Trump could reach people; it is that those people were now reachable because they were insulted and accused enough by Obama and the media of the things they were not guilty: Racism, white privilege, sexism, xenophobia, etc. Those things got so much worse in the last 8 years and combined with high expectations of racial harmony after Obama’s election, they brought us Trump.

    There was time when 99% of scientists agreed that the Earth was flat… Anyway, it is not the theory of global warming or even insistence that it is man-made that makes people upset but the fact that those who disagree are called deniers and ignorant and evil who want to destroy the Earth… and insistence that this is the major threat to all of us when hundreds of thousands are killed in the Middle East and thousands are killed in the West…

    How about another shot at Fox News… The question is: why do people watch it?

    Obama: “I have complete confidence in the American people — that if I can have a conversation with them they’ll choose what’s right.” How does he know that he is always right? And didn’t he have plenty of time to have a conversation with American people? I mean, 8 years…

    And finally, to this: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” [Obama] said [in his victory speech], “tonight is your answer.” If only he followed through on this…

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/29/2016 - 09:57 am.

      Shocker # 1:Racism was

      Shocker # 1:

      Racism was present before, during and will still be present after Obama’s presidency. Oddly enough, a black president aroused people who felt “their” country was being taken away from them and then they made it their primary goal to obstruct from day 1 of his administration. Racism was not invented, it was uncovered,

      Shocker # 2:

      Global climate change doesn’t give a damn about me or you, or the Democratic or Republican party, or the belief or denial of the science that describes the change. And, oddly enough, given that it is “global”, it will affect everyone on the globe, not just the hundreds of thousands you speak of. Denial of the proven and increasingly obvious is “denial”–is there really some other word that is more accurate or preferable ?

  2. Submitted by joe smith on 11/28/2016 - 09:13 pm.

    Obama seems to suffering from the same

    delusions most liberals are believing after Trump beats HRC. He thinks it has been the culmination 15-20 years of republican policies “jumping the rails” . Welll, Obama is half right, the middle class was abandoned by Bush for 8 years the totally ignored by Obama for the next 8. It had nothing to do with TEA party, Koch brothers or assorted other liberal booggy men from the right, it had to do with JOBS. Not minimum wage jobs but jobs where a person can raise a family and plan for a future. As a famous Democrat once said “it’s the economy stupid”. Accurate then accurate now. Amazingly the folks closest to the dysfunction (DC elites & insiders) can’t see it. Sometimes you truly can’t see the forest for the trees!

    • Submitted by Roy Everson on 11/29/2016 - 10:03 am.

      Just asking

      Great, regrow the middle class without unions or a minimum wage or a labor-friendly government. Interested to know where this has been done before.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/29/2016 - 12:56 pm.

        It’s easy

        Just redefine ‘middle class’ as people earning over $200,000 a year.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 11/29/2016 - 01:36 pm.

        How did that labor friendly administration

        of Obama do for the middle class…Govt can’t make lower class folks into middle class by taxing the rich, Obama tried and Hillary got swamped in the rust belt with that worn out thinking. Govt can however impliment lower corporate taxes on businesses, reduce regulations and red tape to help businesses open and expand allowing folks opportunity to work. Then and only then will lower class folks be able to move into the middle class. Good paying jobs make for a vibrant middle class not a huge overgrown Government. Labor friendly govt has been an oxymoron for decades maybe an outsider can change that.

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/29/2016 - 06:32 pm.

          Get it straight, labor-friendly president, labor-hostile Congress.

          Dismantle labor protections, remove laws restricting predatory practices, give tax breaks to wealthy and corporations—seems a rather unusual route to making any other than the wealthy wealthy.

          Given that more wealth has continually concentrated into fewer hands, how do you even believe that giving them more money will make the lives of others better ? Making the servant class more of a possibility?

          • Submitted by joe smith on 11/29/2016 - 11:24 pm.

            How is giving more money to the Government

            creating jobs? How is a burdensum 35% tax on businesses create jobs? Obama was a jobs friendly President, let’s see shut down coal, taxed manufacturing out of the country, no oil drilling on Fedreral land, no logging on federal land, threw numerous regulations on small businesses and the topper the 30 hour work week due to Obamacare. Wow, that is a workers President for sure!

      • Submitted by Jon Lord on 11/29/2016 - 07:06 pm.

        Indeed Roy E.

        It’s not going to happen now either. There won’t be many protections for the middle class on down which will add to a costly 4 years for them. It’s funny how many people don’t understand the Legislative branch and it what it does and what it can affect during any administration. Couple that with a like minded President (elect) and the middle class on down is in deep trouble. Most middle class Trump supporters I know indicated to me that their biggest concern was ‘the wall’ and Muslims. Next it was “people on welfare should just get a job” then “there are no jobs available for us American’s”! Ouch!

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