No one remembers who spoke at their graduation, that seems a minor matter on the big day, but there was that graduation at West Point thirty years ago this June. Colin Powell spoke – that year it was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ turn – and he explained what was what. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and we had no enemies now. In fact, our idea of how societies should be organized had won. Our form of democracy was the only thing that actually worked. Francis Fukuyama had called this The End of History – the hot one big idea at the time – but Powell argued that we would still need a military, and need thoughtful military leaders, to keep the peace and manage things and inspire others. And those young men and women were amazing – Duty, Honor, Country – the real deal. They could pull off that new task. That was his message.
Everyone should attend a graduation at West Point. They’re cool, but of course Powell and Fukuyama were wrong. Saddam Hussein soon tried to grab Kuwait and had to be tossed out of there, and then September 11 happened and we had our endless wars almost everywhere, large and small, and the world is still a mess. And the graduate just retired after many tours everywhere and many key planning and operations positions, the Colonel who ended up as Director of Theater Strategy at the Army War College. Powell said we needed thoughtful military leaders. He listened. He put in his thirty years.
But who really listens to graduation speakers? And what if there’s no graduation ceremony at all? This year there were none. The nation was locked down – no large gatherings – no small gatherings either. Those were too dangerous, but this was sad. Everyone graduating this year needs a bit of inspiration with eighty thousand dead, so far, and the economy collapsing, and a good chance the nation will never be the same again, if it’s still here in ten years. Someone needed to say it might be all right one day, somehow.
The president spoke to no one graduating from anything this year. No one complained. He sneers and mocks and boasts, and whines about how no one appreciates him, they just lie and lie and lie, and he’s very angry about that, and everyone else should be angry about that too. People are being mean to him! America should be outraged! This has to stop!
What can anyone do with that? Someone had to step up and speak about the world as it now is and what those upset and disoriented new graduates can do about it. So someone stepped up:
Without the springtime rituals of traditional graduation ceremonies, former President Barack Obama delivered two virtual commencement addresses on Saturday, urging millions of high school and college graduates to fearlessly carve a path and “to seize the initiative” at a time when he says the nation’s leaders have fumbled the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In short, the world as it is doesn’t have to be as it is. Do something about it. And learn from what is right in front of your eyes:
The speeches, aired hours apart, combined the inspirational advice given to graduates – build community, do what is right, be a leader – with pointed criticism of the handling of an outbreak that has killed more than 87,000 Americans and crippled much of the economy.
“More than anything, this pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” Mr. Obama said in his first address, directed at graduates of historically black colleges and universities. “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
So, do the opposite:
In speeches that spoke to social inequities, Mr. Obama said the pandemic was a wake-up call for young adults, showing them the importance of good leadership and that “the old ways of doing things just don’t work.”
“Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy, that’s how little kids think,” he said during a prime time special for high school seniors. “Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way – which is why things are so screwed up. I hope that instead, you decide to ground yourself in values that last, like honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, and respect for others.”
It couldn’t hurt, but of course it’s an election year:
Mr. Obama called the current administration’s response to the pandemic “anemic and spotty” in a private call last week with thousands of supporters who had worked for him.
And in recent days Mr. Trump has unleashed tirades against Mr. Obama on Twitter and on television, resurrecting unfounded claims that his predecessor tried to bring him down by manufacturing the Russia investigation.
The graduates got caught up in that ongoing unpleasantness, but honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others, and also respect for actual facts and real science, are pretty nifty on their own. Donald Trump may sneer at those things, but others, or at last Obama, swear by them.
But there was the backlash:
President Donald Trump on Sunday dismissed his predecessor as “grossly incompetent,” a day after former President Barack Obama said leaders weren’t “even pretending to be in charge” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked about Obama’s comments, Trump first told a pool of reporters at the White House that administration officials “had a great weekend” during a working trip to Camp David.
“We did a lot of terrific meetings, tremendous progress is being made on many fronts, including coming up with a cure for this horrible plague that has beset our country,” he said.
When pressed further, Trump added: “Look, he was an incompetent president. That’s all I can say. Grossly incompetent.”
And that was that. He says he doesn’t have to explain that. Everyone knows Obama was an incompetent president. Everyone hated him. Why else is he, Donald Trump, president? He tweeted that later, a few times, but no one should have been surprised:
Trump calling his predecessor incompetent is not new. He has railed against inheriting what he has called an ineffective and “broken” system when he came into office. He has said he won’t be asking former presidents for help because he wasn’t “going to learn much.” And in 2013, before his presidential aspirations were in the picture, Trump tweeted: “Who thinks that President Obama is totally incompetent?”
This has been going on for years, and now it escalates:
On Sunday morning, White House economic adviser Peter Navarro also had a strongly worded defense of the administration’s handling of pandemic mitigation.
“I’m glad Mr. Obama has a new job as Joe Biden’s press secretary,” Navarro said on ABC’s This Week, referring to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. “As far as I’m concerned, his administration was a Kumbaya of incompetence in which we saw millions of manufacturing jobs go off to China.”
Those particular manufacturing jobs were already long gone, long before Obama, but arguing about that is for forensic statisticians, if there are such people, not those in the here and now. Something else is going on here. This might be a job for forensic psychology, not that there is such a thing.
There ought to be such a thing. David Smith is the Guardian’s Washington bureau chief and he offers this:
President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump once sat together in the Oval Office. “I was immediately struck by Trump’s body language,” wrote journalist Jon Karl in his memoir Front Row at The Trump Show. “I was seeing a side of him I had never seen. He seemed – believe it or not – humbled.”
It was November 2016 and, just for once, Trump was not in charge of the room, Karl recalls. Obama was still president, directing the action and setting the tone. His successor “seemed a little dazed” and “a little freaked out”. What the two men discussed in their meeting that day, only they know.
But what became clear in the next three and a half years is that Obama remains something of an obsession for Trump; the subject of a political and personal inferiority complex.
That’s the diagnosis, and here is the etiology, the cause and origin, of the condition:
Observers point to a mix of anti-intellectualism, racism, vengeance and primitive envy over everything from Obama’s Nobel peace prize to the scale of his inauguration crowd and social media following.
Ben Rhodes, a former Obama national security aide, tweeted this week: “Trump’s fact-free fixation on Obama dating back to birtherism is so absurd and stupid that it would be comic if it wasn’t so tragic.”
There was a lot of that going around:
“Birtherism” was a conspiracy theory that Trump started pushing in 2011 (“He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one but there is something on that birth certificate – maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim, I don’t know.”). Nine years later, he has come full circle with “Obamagate”, which accuses his predecessor of working in league with the “deep state” to frame Trump for colluding with Russia to win the 2016 election.
There is zero evidence for this claim. Indeed, a case could be made that the supposed “deep state” did more to help Trump than hurt him when the FBI reopened an investigation into his opponent, Hillary Clinton, just before Election Day.
Yes, none of this makes much sense:
When questioned by reporters, Trump himself has struggled to articulate what “Obamagate” means. Ned Price, a former CIA analyst, dubbed it “a hashtag in search of a scandal”.
But his allies in the Republican Party and conservative media are stepping up to build a parallel universe where this is the big story and Obama is at the center of it. Sean Hannity, a host on Fox News, demanded: “What did Barack Obama know and when did he know it?” Over the past week, the channel’s primetime shows have devoted more coverage to the bogus crimes of “Barack Hussein Obama” than to the coronavirus pandemic…
This is why people end up watching ten-year-old baseball games instead, but this makes some psychological sense:
Tara Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, said: “Donald Trump always needs a foil. This riles up his base because they cling to anything that diverges responsibility for anything from Donald Trump over to someone else. And in this case Barack Obama is the boogeyman of the month.”
But who else cares? This is Trump’s obsession:
Beyond political expediency, there is a more profound antipathy at work. From the Iran nuclear deal to the Trans Pacific Partnership, from environmental regulations to the Affordable Care Act, Trump has always seemed to be on a mission to erase his predecessor’s legacy. With few deep convictions of his own, Trump found a negative reference point in Obama. Between 22 November 2010 and 14 May 2020, he tweeted about Obama 2,933 times, according to the Trump Twitter Archive.
His thumbs must be sore by now. Setmayer thinks she knows what is going on here:
“First off, Donald Trump has a problem where I think he’s just jealous of the fact that President Obama is still so admired. Number two, I think he has a problem with people of color who are in authority that don’t do the kind of song and dance that he wants them to do.”
“Barack Obama is not a ‘shuck and jive’ person of color, and those are the kinds of people that Donald Trump seems to be attracted to if you look at who he surrounds himself with as far as minorities are concerned.”
Third, Setmayer points to the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where Trump sat stony-faced and humiliated as Obama lampooned the Celebrity Apprentice host’s nascent political ambitions. Obama even pointed to a Photoshopped image of a Trump White House with hotel, casino, golf course and gold columns.
“A lot of people think that this is where this all started,” Setmayer continued. “President Trump does not have a sense of humor, he’s not self-deprecating, and the White House correspondents’ dinner is a fun event where people make fun of each other, especially in politics.”
That’s quite an array of symptoms. And add this to the mix:
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a civil rights advocacy group, said: “This obsession, of course, is absolutely rooted in racism. Some of the accusations have been deeply racialized, from the questioning of Obama’s intelligence to talking about how much basketball he plays to questioning his birthplace and citizenship.”
And then there’s Michael Flynn:
Trump has described Flynn as a wronged “hero” and argued that Obama and his vice-president, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for November’s election, should “pay a big price” for supposedly derailing the retired general’s career. Critics suggest that the president is seeking to weaponize the justice department for electoral gain.
Matthew Miller, a former director of the office of public affairs at the department, said: “In terms of any real action against Barack Obama, he obviously doesn’t have anything to worry about. But when you look at what’s happened at the justice department with the complete politicization of that department, I think it’s quite possible that they’re going to be coming after people from the Obama administration, using the criminal justice process any way they can.”
It would be one of the gravest consequences of Trump’s Obama obsession. Miller added: “There’s some racism there but, most of all, it’s driven by the fact that Obama has the thing that Trump has always craved but never achieved, and that’s respect. I’ve always thought that the respect that Barack Obama gets from people in this country and around the world is something that just eats Trump alive inside.”
David Smith sees where this is going:
The 2020 election could yet turn into a final showdown between Obama and Trump, even if only one of their names is on the ballot.
It will be a clash of opposites: one a mixed-race cerebral lawyer who has been married to the same woman for nearly three decades and publishes annual lists of his favorite books; the other a white billionaire and reality TV star who has wed three times and measures success in TV ratings. Where one is renowned for elegant turns of phrase and shedding tears after mass shootings, the other serves up jumbled word salads and schoolboy spelling errors and has struggled to show empathy for the coronavirus dead.
That may be why no one asked Trump to speak at any graduation, virtual or not. He’d only start talking about how Obama done did him wrong. And he won’t stop. That’s what the Washington bureau chief for the British newspaper sees.
The quite American New York Times columnist Charles Blow sees that same thing:
Trump’s run for president was in part triggered by his enmity for Obama, his desire to one-up him, and he has performed his presidency as a singularly focused attempt at Obama erasure, dismantling what he can of what Obama built and undoing policies Obama instituted.
And he had to do that:
Obama is everything that Trump is not: intellectual, articulate, adroit, contemplative and cool. He also happens to be a black man. The fact that he could not only ascend to the height of power but also the heights of celebrity and adoration vexed Trump.
Trump set about to demonstrate that none of that mattered, none of it could supersede the talents of a confident counterfeit. He convinced himself that Obama was the convenient recipient of affirmative action adulation from a world thirsty for racial recompense, an assuaging of white guilt.
And again, this predated Trump’s run for office by many years:
Trump has held this view well before anyone heard the name Barack Obama. In 1989, Trump said in an NBC News interview, “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white, in terms of the job market.” Trump went so far as to say that “I’ve said on occasion, even about myself, if I was starting off today I would love to be a well-educated black because I really believe they do have an actual advantage today.”
This was not a compliment. Trump adheres to the theory of unearned black privileges at the expense of white effort, that there is a hand-me-out meritocracy specifically for black people, a form of cultural welfare.
This made Obama an early target for Trump. He questioned Obama’s birth and his heritage, his abilities and educational pedigree. He questioned his leadership and his work ethic. Trump knew the terrible legions of flaws he possessed and was incredulous that this black man could be devoid of any.
So, he feverishly searched for error, sometimes inventing it, moreover projecting his own error onto Obama.
That’s a theory, but supported by Trump’s own words over the years, and the man did meet his moment:
Obama became Trump’s foil for personal reasons of racial and cultural insecurity. But Trump’s view of him perfectly aligned with a larger phenomenon: A significant swath of white America grated at the uppityness of this black man who would set the tone for how Americans should behave, and his black wife who would lecture them about what to eat.
Obama wasn’t on the ballot in 2016, but in a way he was. Trump wasn’t only running against Hillary Clinton – whom conservatives revile, whom Vladimir Putin reviles, whom the patriarchy reviles – he was also running against the black shadow of a black man.
These voters chose the opposite of Obama, they chose the moral and intellectual antithesis, someone who could arrest the advance that Obama represented: the ascension of multicultural power and a coming erasure of white advantage and the dominance of white culture, all of which establishment forces had either allowed or encouraged.
Trump was elected to restore the cultural narrative of the primacy of whiteness.
And that might work. Biden might be a traitor to his race because he worked for a black man, a black boss, for eight years. Where’s his pride? Has he no self-respect? Trump might not say that. He might not go that far. He might not need to. That’s in the air already, but Blow says this is more likely:
Trump has tried for months to do what he has always done: invent an alternate reality, lie, blame and brag, deny responsibility and claim victory. But that simply doesn’t work as well when the coronavirus has claimed more American lives in a few months than the Vietnam War claimed in a decade. It doesn’t work when tens of millions of Americans are out of work and the economy is teetering on a depression.
So, Trump is reaching past Joe Biden in his basement for an opponent who evokes a more visceral disdain from his base: Obama.
He has cooked up an Obamagate conspiracy, claiming that the former president committed “the biggest political crime in American history, by far!”
Of course, there are no crimes other than the ones Trump himself has committed. But, this is a familiar territory for Trump, projection and deflection. By using sleight of hand to turn the focus to Obama on a phony scandal, he hopes to make people look away from the mountain of dead bodies on which he is now perched.
But he will attack Obama:
Trump is trying to make Obama his Willie Horton, the black criminal George Bush successfully used as a racial cudgel in his race against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Trump believes that there is a seesaw mechanism to his political fortunes: If he can drag someone down, it will lift him up.
For now, that person is Obama, the man who lives in Trump’s head, who stalks his dreams, the countervailing symbol to Trump’s deficiencies.
And now he’s back and now quite real. He’s telling the anxious and despairing new graduates, the future, that honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others, and also respect for actual facts and real science, are good things. Donald Trump may sneer at those things, but others swear by them. Maybe the world isn’t ending. That was the graduation speech, the best graduation speech.