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The “Obama Inspiration Syndrome”

It will take more than inspiring speeches to save democracy.

Former US President Barack Obama addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention on August 19, 2020. (Photo: PBS News/YouTube Screengrab)

Former US President Barack Obama addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention on August 19, 2020. (Photo: PBS News/YouTube Screengrab)

In the midst of a global pandemic and anti-racist insurrection, the 2020 Democratic National Convention has captured the nation's imagination. Despite being held virtually, key political figures such as Michelle and Barack Obama have delivered electrifying speeches. They have brought in even "moderate" Republicans to show this is no ordinary election but a concerted and collective defense of democracy in the face of Far-Right fascism. 

Yet after the applause has died down, an unsettling reality begins to re-emerge. There is a troubling moral and political hypocrisy to these proceedings. How can a Party who is nominating the architect of the nation's mass incarceration claim to be the last best defense of its democracy? How can former Presidents who governed more for Wall Street than "Main Street" proclaim that they are our popular protectors? How can a Party that celebrates its military aggression around the world credibly portray themselves as deliverers of peace?

The answer may be the often repeated mantra that the Democrats are ultimately the "lesser evil". And confronted with Trump and his white nationalism this is a profound greater evil indeed. Yet the danger of these inspiring speeches goes beyond mere hypocrisy—behind their glittering words are a legitimate threat to democracy and progress.

Empty Democratic Rhetoric

The Democratic convention has been filled with soaring rhetoric about the existential dangers of Trump to US democracy. In a speech already being lauded as one for all times, former President Barack Obama gave a full throttled defense of the Republic while forcefully maintaining that it was uniquely under threat. He proclaimed, that while “we should also expect a president to be the custodian of this democracy” Trump represents “Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”

"In place of an actual shared politics to resist the rapidly increasing creep of fascism at home and abroad, we are offered empty rhetoric and a history of broken progressive promises." Almost completely unnoticed though was that the vast majority of these offenses either occurred or were started in his administration. It was Obama who authorized putting families in privately profitable cages. It was Hillary Clinton who first publicly suggested separating families at the border to discourage would-be immigrants and asylum seekers. And lest not forget that this humanitarian crisis was largely caused by the Obama administration's support for an anti-democratic right-wing coup in Honduras. Or that he did little to stop the brutal repression of BLM protestors when they first arose in Ferguson. Or that he joked about the need to potentially privatize the post office and even unsuccessfully tried to appoint two officials to the USPS to do so.  And the list goes on, so it goes.

Highlighting these similarities is not meant to downplay the danger of Trump and the movement he represents. Rather, it is to point out that the modern rise of authoritarian capitalism has been a bipartisan effort in the extreme. Even scarier, it is the supposed high mindedness and inspiring words that make this Democratic threat to democracy so hard to identify and effectively challenge.

In place of an actual shared politics to resist the rapidly increasing creep of fascism at home and abroad, we are offered empty rhetoric and a history of broken progressive promises. These stirring words may stave off the disaster of the Trump election in the short term but will little to ultimately save 21st-century democracy and may even put it in further jeopardy in the long run.

The "Obama Inspiration Syndrome"

The immediate response to these charges is the understandable desire to focus on defeating the urgent threat of Trump before dealing with the less pressing danger posed by the Democrats.  And indeed, as a strategy, it is perhaps a legitimate though short-sighted one. The problem arises when we allow the inspiring rhetoric of these "moderates" to trick us into thinking they are part of the democratic solution to our systemic ills.

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The risk is placing all our collective energy in stopping Trump and the Far Right. The mantra "anyone but Trump" reinforces the belief that he and his administration are solely and completely to blame for growing political repression and economic precarity. It is a perfect example of the right-wing originated but tragically accurate "Trump Derangement Syndrome". All the issues of racial capitalism are reduced to the flaws and faults of one evil man.

Yet this almost pathological hatred, however legitimate, is now mixed with a worrying case of "Obama Inspiration Syndrome". Here the former President is the epitome of all that is still good in our politics, nation, and world. He is the defender of our worsening climate, the protector of our decaying economy, the guardian of our crumbling democracy.  No amount of evidence can seemingly convince his most fervent supporters that he and his Democratic establishment colleagues are anything but ethical and righteous. If Trump can do no right, then Obama can do no wrong.

What this "Democratic" demagoguery leads to is a bolstering of the very neoliberal corporate status quo that gave birth to Trump and his brand of twitter fuelled fascism in the first place.  It is not surprising that the Convention was filled with "acceptable" Republicans. Or that only recently the Obama family has been seen cozying up to their friends in the Bush family. Suddenly, all that proceeded Trump—the Iraq War, the legalized torture policies, the Wall Street created financial crisis, the "prison-industrial" complex—are acceptable parts of a democratic society.

Going deeper, this plays into the broader attempt of Democrats to weaponize the threat of domestic fascism in support of global imperialism and militarism. The new "red scare" against Putin—whatever its facts or actual threat—is being used to re-legitimize the "deep state" NSA and CIA who are ironically responsible for subverting and overthrowing so many democracies around the world.

Inspiring Reaction

The Democrat's greatest fear, it seems, besides Trump are actual progressives. Instead of being embraced this growing diverse coalition of young people, working-class people, activists, and academics are constantly ridiculed and marginalized.  Obama and Trump are thus each in their own ways inspiring reaction against the prospect of real systemic change that could reinvigorate and truly save our democracy.

"Obama and Trump are thus each in their own ways inspiring reaction against the prospect of real systemic change that could reinvigorate and truly save our democracy." The virulent combination of "The Trump Derangement Syndrome" and the "Obama Inspiration Syndrome"  are different parts of the same political disease killing US democracy. The valorization of all things Democrat is the snake oil in place of a real cure. It is the sweet-sounding and emotionally rousing placebo that makes us feel better about the condition of our liberty and rights as they continue to pass away.

It is telling, therefore, in this age of supposed "cancel culture" and "political correctness" how Obama and his even more morally troubling predecessor Bill Clinton continue to be not only tolerated but downright celebrated. It is hard to imagine how drone bombing and actually presiding over a decrease in black wealth can be considered "woke" or even allowable. While Obama's words do not explicitly advocate racism or prejudice, they should be considered dangerous speech precisely for how they cover over and distract from his administration and Party's actual record.

The fundamental concern is that it is exactly this inspiring but dangerous speech that will make it difficult if not impossible to hold these "lesser evil" options politically accountable. Biden is already stepping back from his progressive concessions around health care and fossil fuels. He has stated that he too would deal harshly with left-wing protesters as well as proposing to actually increase funding for the police. And it was mere months ago that a majority of Democratic legislators approved once again massive military spending.

Democracy in the US and around the world is imperiled both by its proclaimed enemies and its supposed friends. The authoritarian of Trump is overt and must be resisted at all costs. However, in doing so, we should not be lulled into ignoring the subtler threats of those who are slowly destroying democracy even while singing its praises and pretending to be its greatest defenders. We must never forget, that it will take much more than inspiring speeches to save and expand our democracy. 

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Dr. Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organizations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st-century democracy, politics, and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation, and Common Dreams. His books include Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization and Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits released in November 2016.

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