But what if the progressive champion they’re looking for is already sitting in the White House?
I know, I know. For some people, this is blasphemy. Yet one of the biggest ironies of Trump’s presidency is that he has become a more effective catalyst for progressive social change than Obama.
He has discredited core conservative beliefs, boosted the popularity of left-wing causes and caused millions of Americans to face ugly truths about racism and bigotry that they used to deny.
I never thought I’d say this. As an African-American man, I felt pride when Obama walked into the White House. I loved seeing how devoted he was to his family. I smiled when he broke into an Al Green song onstage. And I blinked away tears when I saw that Oval Office photograph of a five-year-old black boy reaching up to touch Obama’s hair just to see if it really felt like his.
And yet I wonder today if I and others drew the wrong lesson from his election. Maybe the deep, systemic changes that so many yearn for couldn’t come through his temperate, “No Drama Obama” approach. Maybe real change only comes through chaos and crisis — Trump’s leadership style.
I thought of what Dutch historian Rutger Bregman said when explaining why being a moderate isn’t good enough anymore when confronting issues like global warming and the highest level of income inequality since before the Great Depression. These types of challenges are only addressed by people who are first derided as “radical” or “utopian,” he said.
“We’re now in a time in American history and in world history where we cannot simply afford to be moderate,” said Bregman, whose call for the rich to stop dodging taxes at the World Economic Forum at Davos went viral.
“We can’t afford to just be tinkering around the edges,” he added. “If history teaches us anything is that change never starts in the center. But it always starts on the fringes with people who are first dismissed as crazy and unreasonable and ridiculous.”
Change works in even more mysterious ways. Trump is, in some ways, unintentionally doing what Obama was supposed to do.
You can already see this in several areas.
Trump has banished the ghost of Ronald Reagan
When Obama first ran for the Oval Office in 2008, he was widely criticized for saying he wanted to be a transformational president like Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s governing philosophy — slashing taxes for the wealthy, reducing government regulation, cutting social programs — has been the dominant political ideology for the last 30 years. Reagan distilled it in one memorable phrase: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
Some hoped that Obama would be the liberal version of Reagan and restore faith in the federal government. He did marshal government resources to save the nation from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He also sparked the longest economic expansion in US history.
Obama’s cultural impact is also incalculable. A generation of American children grew up thinking there was nothing strange about seeing a man of color in the Oval Office.
And yet Obama seemed to be afflicted by the same political disorder that still paralyzes some Democratic leaders: He was “haunted by the Reagan era.” He governed at times more like a Republican. He proposed cutting Social Security to ensure its long-term viability. He reduced government spending. He even included conservative ideas in his signature legislative achievement, Obamacare.
Then Trump came along.
His lesson: Don’t fear the Gipper.
He did this first as a candidate when he repudiated some of the core beliefs of Reaganomics. He said he would never cut Social Security “like every other Republican,” and vowed to raise taxes on wealthy people, like hedge fund managers. And he won with overwhelming Republican support, including moderates.
Trump’s successful campaign showed that even conservative voters wanted to raise taxes on the wealthy and cherished their big government spending programs — so long as it helped them and not racial minorities.
Then he did something else that Obama couldn’t do: He made Obamacare popular.
During his first year in office, Trump led a yearlong quest to replace Obamacare. It failed because of an unexpected backlash. People started cherishing their big government health program once Trump threatened to take it away.
Now a new generation of Democratic leaders is walking a path that Trump, in an odd way, helped clear. They are talking about raising taxes on the wealthy, expanding government programs like Medicare and Medicaid and creating a “Green New Deal.”
The public seems ready to follow. Public support for left-wing policy-making has reached a 60-year high.
“The very terrain of political and policy debate among Democrats in 2019 is a tacit admission that the Obama presidency was a wrong turn to a great degree,” Ryan Cooper wrote in an essay for The Week titled, “Democrats Need to Get Over Their Obama Nostalgia.”
The Democrats’ new presidential model is not Reagan but their greatest President: Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are embracing what one historian called a “Rooseveltian vision of activist government.”
Meanwhile, Trump has emboldened progressives in an even more counterintuitive way.
He’s triggered a ‘Trumplash’ against his own policies
A CNN commentator once coined a memorable phrase to describe why Trump was elected.
“This was a whitelash against a changing country,” Van Jones said on election night in 2016. “It was whitelash against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.”
Three years later the pain has led to something else: A “Trumplash,” a ferocious backlash against the President that’s boosted progressives and weakened conservatives in several ways.
Trump has operated at times like an Oval Office double agent — a conservative by virtue of his rhetoric, but one whose actions tend to hurt his cause.
He’s pushed more progressives to get involved in politics.
His denigration of women inadvertently helped inspire a record number of women running for the House in the 2018 midterms. And his anti-Muslim rhetoric helped inspire a record number of Muslim Americans to run for office.
He’s pushed voting blocs into the arms of Democrats.
His immigration policies ensure that Latinos, the nation’s second-largest ethnic group, now lean decisively toward the Democratic party. His attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census also appears to be turning Asian Americans into reliable Democratic voters.
He’s even damaged some powerful conservative interest groups.
The National Rifle Association has actually grown weaker in part because of a “Trump slump.” Gun sales have slowed dramatically because no one is worried about Obama taking their guns anymore, and Trump is seen as gun-friendly. And the religious right has lost credibility because of white evangelical Christians’ steadfast support for Trump.
Trump also helped do something else that Obama couldn’t. He revived the Obama Coalition, the group of young voters, women and racial minorities that first put Obama in office.
That coalition sat out the 2010 and 2014 midterms, leading to huge losses for the Democrats. They showed up, however, to oppose Trump and Republicans during the 2018 midterms. That election featured the highest voter turnout in a century, with young people voting in record numbers.
That progressive wave is expected to spill into the 2020 presidential election. Voter turnout in 2020 is expected to reach its highest level in decades — some say since 1908.
He’s sparked a more enduring form of hope
Trump also has done something even stranger: He’s arguably brought more hope than Obama did, and here’s why.
The hope of the Obama era became centered on one charismatic figure. That doesn’t last. The legacy of great presidents outlives them. Franklin Roosevelt forged a New Deal Coalition that lasted for at least 30 years after his death. The Reagan coalition also lasted long after his term ended.
Obama’s coalition evaporated after he left office.
The hope sparked by the Trumplash though, isn’t centered on a charismatic figure. The anti-Trump “resistance” is built on the backs of ordinary citizens who have mobilized. That is a more durable form of hope.
It’s not as if Obama didn’t know about the limits of charismatic leadership. He was a former community organizer who said in his farewell address, “Change only happens when ordinary people get involved… and come together to demand it.”
Yet somehow during his presidency he became this messianic figure who was going to lead a “glorious dance into a shining new era.”
“Yes we can” became “He’s got this.”
That’s not how lasting change occurs, said Kevin Kruse, a historian at Princeton University.
“There was the old Green Lantern theory of the presidency that people had in the Obama years. We elected Obama and he’s going to solve all our problems,” Kruse told me. “There’s been an awareness that this kind of approach, putting all of that trust in a top figure, can be a huge problem when Obama gets replaced by Trump.
“But also, that’s just not how change works. You got to provide the pressure and actually do some of the heavy lifting yourself.”
He’s removed the veneer that hid America’s racism
There was one problem, though, that even Obama wouldn’t even dare try to solve.
Remember when people used the phrase, “post-racial?” It was the notion that the US had somehow left behind its racist past because it had elected its first black president.
Then Trump came along.
He called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” referred to African nations as “sh*thole countries” and said there “were very fine people” who marched with white supremacists at a 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump was also widely condemned last month after he dispatched a series of racist tweets telling four nonwhite Democratic congresswomen that they should “go back” to the “crime infested places” where they came from, even though three of the four were born in the US and the fourth is a naturalized citizen.
Few are saying the US is post-racial now.
Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has done what Obama couldn’t do because of his skin color — convince countless white Americans that racism is still pervasive in our country.
Here is a hard truth about Obama’s presidency. The nation’s first black president couldn’t be too black. He couldn’t talk too bluntly about racism, because some white Americans just couldn’t handle it. Remember how Obama was widely criticized for simply showing compassion for Trayvon Martin after the unarmed black teenager was killed by a neighborhood watch captain?
Trump, though, has performed a public service. He has removed what one scholar calls “the heartbeat of racism” — white denial.
In the Trump era, we have to talk about racism.
Kehinde Andrews, a historian and author of “Black-to-Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century,” has said that Trump is a better president for black America than Obama because he shows how deeply embedded racism is in America’s DNA.
Obama couldn’t do that because people would point to his success as evidence that racism was no longer a problem.
“It doesn’t make any difference what color the president is,” Andrews told me. “Malcolm X could have been elected president and racism would have continued just the same.”
Trump’s racial rhetoric has even inspired a conversion experience among some conservative white commentators like Joe Scarborough and Max Boot.
Boot wrote after Trump’s racist tweets: “It is as blatant example of racism and xenophobia as we have seen in our politics in my lifetime… I am ashamed to have spent most of my life as a Republican.”
That conversion has trickled down to many ordinary white Americans. According to one poll, racial prejudice has actually declined because Trump’s racially inflammatory rhetoric has “pushed the majority of white Americans in the opposite direction.”
Fewer media organizations now are contorting language to avoid calling Trump’s words racist. No more “racially infused” or “racially charged” phrases. They’re calling it as they hear it — it’s just racist.
In this way Trump has taken away one of the most effective weapons used by racists — plausible deniability, Kruse told me.
“Racist policies work better when they don’t seem to be racist,” Kruse said. “If you could give voters in the middle some plausible deniability that this isn’t about race — ‘I don’t believe in segregation, I believe in neighborhood schools; it’s not voter suppression, it’s voter integrity’ — If you put a more positive spin on it, it invites more people in who don’t see this policy as racist.
“Once the veneer comes off, a lot of people in the middle will shy away,” he added. “Trump has taken away the veneer.”
Staring into the abyss: America faces two possible futures
What many see beyond this veneer, though, is frightening. There’s a growing sense that Americans are struck in a “hideous loop of hate.” One commentator says the US is on the verge of a “political civil war.”
Obama and Trump represent two visions of this country. One looks to the past; another forward. Yet this Brown New America is coming; whether we like it or not. By next year, the majority of all Americans under 18 will be non-white.
“The US faces two possible futures: a thriving nation that embraces its new demographic makeup, or an escalation of fighting, racism and xenophobia,” one commentator said recently.
So which future will we choose? I really don’t know. There’s no law that says we deserve a happy ending. Democracies die all the time. Tragedy is part of history.
But so many people hoped that Obama’s election would be different. People talked about it in religious terms, as if his ascension meant we were getting closer to the promised land.
Maybe we expected too much.
It was hard enough for some white Americans to accept a black president. Accepting one who also pushed through dramatic, systemic political change may have been impossible.
The Trumplash, though, has forced us to face questions about ourselves that we can no longer avoid. Pundits say the nation’s “essence” and “soul” are now at stake. One said
the sight of Trump “leading a white mob in a chant about sending a black congresswoman ‘home’ will be featured in history books for decades to come.”
But maybe it’s such chilling scenes that will cause us to turn away from the abyss. We won’t wait anymore for some messianic figure from the left or right to fix it for us.
Instead we will decide that “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
That’s the only hope and change I believe in now.