Watch any five minutes of President Trump’s State of the Union Speech on YouTube, and you’ll agree that he channeled Mussolini for the entire address. From the fixed, jutting chin and upturned head, to the arrogant nodding to his own xenophobic lines, to the hideous, degenerate mouth, to his hollow clapping throughout the speech, the clownish Trump aped the clownish Mussolini. It was evil reincarnate. America, which once “lit up the entire world,” now darkens it beyond measure.
Trump called for not only keeping Guantanamo open, but for sending more “non-combatant terrorists” there. No new prisoners have been sent to Guantanamo since 2008. Since this small, ugly man, who wants to Make America Hate Again, is advocating taking us back to the torture and rendition of Bush-Cheney, I’m republishing a column I wrote almost a decade ago, entitled, “How Obama Can Win.” I’d forgotten it, and its prescience frightens even me.
Since defeating the Clintons earlier this summer, Barack Obama has dropped Martin Luther King’s poetic and compelling phrase, “the fierce urgency of now.” Lately Obama often speaks prosaically of the imperative of “fundamental change.” That seemingly small shift encapsulates what is going wrong with the Obama campaign.
In America, individualism has produced a moribund culture and country, which the Republicans in turn exploit with a patina of patriotism. Clinging to a construct they subconsciously know is already history, the throwbacks at the Republican Convention annoyingly and cloyingly put “America First.” Once again the strategy is working.
Patriotism is the ‘third rail’ that Barack Obama cannot touch. What the Obama campaign does not realize however is that unlike during the Clinton years, rational appeals to economic self-interest won’t work. The majority of Americans want collective inspiration, not reminders of their individual perspiration. That’s what Obama can supply and McCain most certainly cannot.
In other words, as scary and weird as the global economy has gotten, it’s neither “the economy, stupid,” nor is it 9.11, seven years following the visible sign of the collapse of the old USA.
The Obama campaign has calculated that appeals to the self-interest of people’s pocketbooks will trump appeals to patriotism by the Republican Scoundrels’ Party in power. That’s a bad bet. What won Obama the Democratic nomination was his ability to get Americans to look beyond parochialism in all its forms. But his campaign decided that inspirational appeal wouldn’t win in the general election, and now his ‘change’ message has been usurped by an ‘exciting’ female appendage to McCain, “Pit Bull Palin.”
The harder Obama tries to convince Americans that he’s a true blue American, the more un-American
Republicans are able to paint him. The more Obama tries to focus on the economy, the more the Republicans run over him with their patriotic steam engine. Obama represents a different world-view, and the more he runs away from it, the more he plays into Republican hands.
Indeed, the Obama campaign has allowed the Republicans to once again turn a Democrat’s strength into a weakness by portraying his gift to inspire as empty-suited celebrity.
There is an inescapable bandwagon effect in politics. By shifting his focus from an appeal to the hope of the heart to the economics of the head, Obama lost the wave.
What does “fundamental change” really mean? To my mind it means one thing above all: To emotionally perceive the world as a human being, rather than as a member of any ethnic, religious or national group. After thousands of years of civilization, humans are still tribal creatures, and it is that fundamental feature of human nature that can and must change.
Obama doesn’t need to be impolitic about the patriotism issue; but he can’t keep trying to change the subject either. Rather, he needs to do what he does best—recast and redefine patriotism in a new context and in a new way.
Tribalistic mentality takes many forms. In America, a regressive veneer of glorified tribalism is painted over the rot that individualism has wrought. If America is to reverse its decline however, and contribute to the advancement of human civilization again, it has to move beyond regressive individualistic nationalism into a new way of being and seeing the world.
Great leaders reach beyond their tribe and times for their insights and ideas. They do so by reaching back and recasting the perennial truths of the human condition. Examples in American history include Jefferson and Lincoln. Both strove to articulate and actualize truths greater than ‘my country.’ Their stamp is what gave America whatever greatness it formerly had.
When America was a young nation, its worldview was defined by the untamed wilderness of an unexplored continent. Though many crimes were committed against indigenous peoples and the earth, people came together during westward expansion to democratically decide what and where and how to build the new country.
The messy march of human civilization is no longer driven by the opportunities inherent in ‘conquering’ a new continent. That’s a lesson that Aussies and Kiwis, who came after us, have learned before us.
Individualism is the dynamo powering economic expansion now, even in places like China and India. But individualism is not the ‘enlightened self-interest’ that was the core philosophical precept of America’s Founders. Rather, it has degenerated into ignorant self-interest. And without articulating and inspiring a new way of seeing the world, Republican repackaging will Donald Trump the economic appeal to rational self-interest.
Even in China, the rise of middle class consumerism is generating American-style individualism. And although individualism may be an unfortunate stage in human development, it’s a stage humankind cannot stay stuck in for long.
If Obama is to win, and lead a “fundamental change” in America, he has to articulate and inspire Americans to play a role in meeting the immense challenges to human civilization. That requires a rhetoric that reflects neither “America First,” nor me first.