A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall: Obama Exits And Trump Takes Center Stage

After the election, I spoke to a group of thirteen year old Boy Scouts as credit for their merit badge in Global Citizenship. I urged them to complete the requirements before President Trump changed the badge to one for American Nationalism. Having followed the campaign on the Internet, the scouts wanted to know whether the Clinton Foundation had paid for Chelsea Clinton's wedding, and if there was a warrant out for Hillary Clinton's arrest.

At Occidental College, I moderated a post-election panel for an overflow crowd of worried students and staff. I also analyzed the election results at a luncheon for the consul generals in Los Angeles. I was analytical and diplomatic at these events, explaining that it was an election not a coup d'etat or a revolution, and that America's federal system of government is strong.

That's true, but it's wrong to be Pollyanish about the Trump presidency. Al Gore visiting Trump Tower to discuss climate change with the president-elect is a fool's errand. Trump telling the press that he likes Obama and welcomes his advice is a con. There is little doubt that the election has brought a very conservative Republican administration to power in Washington, D.C. Trump's outlandish style of social media communication and raucous victory rallies might seem populist, but serve a right wing policy agenda that will be pushed by conservative appointees and a conservative Republican


Vigilance is required, not wishful thinking. The Trump Show is reality and will run for the next four years.

During the campaign season, I spoke to university, business and government audiences in Europe, New Zealand, Canada and China, as well as around the U.S. I argued that this was the first American election in which globalization and its discontents played a defining role. Trump offered a right wing populist narrative -- attacking global elites, scapegoating minorities and immigrants, and promising punitive tariffs, a wall on the Mexico border, locking up opponents, and winking at far right conspiracy theories. His language was coarse and emotional; he stayed on a simple message -- Make America Great Again.

In the Democratic primary, self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders offered a left wing populist story -- blaming Wall Street, calling for a people's revolution, and championing expanded government programs in health, education, and business regulation. His message excited disaffected 60s liberals and millennial voters, but could not mobilize the minority base of the party.

Hillary Clinton had a less clear narrative and a more nuanced message. She ran on her record of service -- her identity as former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State; she was competent and experienced. Of necessity, she tied herself to the incumbent President Obama whom she served, and whose diverse coalition of upper income liberals, women, minorities, and gays she inherited. For much of the campaign, it looked as if this coalition which had produced victory twice for Barack Obama would elect Hillary Clinton the first woman president.

There were obvious perils for the Obama/Clinton coalition. Sexism was an unknown factor. Viewing the presidency as a man's job, many men might not vote for a women. It was erroneously assumed that more women would vote for Hillary than had voted for Obama. However, ideology transcended gender. Hillary got a majority of women voters, especially of minority women, but not a significant number of additional Republican or independent female voters. In addition, some working class men who'd voted for Obama did not want to vote for a woman -- and many of these same white working class men in mid-western swing states felt alienated by the Democratic Party's failure to improve their economic prospects and those of their children.

Unlike 1992 when Bill Clinton campaigned on a program of Putting People First focusing on the economy, there was no overarching economic message from Hillary Clinton's campaign. Her team produced a detailed program book, Stronger Together; her economic platform was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and a host of progressive economists. The problem wasn't the program, but that it got lost in the flack over Benghazi, the State Department emails, and the activities of the Clinton Foundation. Russian hackers contributed to the cacophony, providing Wikileaks with emails from the Democratic National Committee and the account of John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman. The Trump campaign aggressively exploited these issues to drown out Mrs. Clinton's programmatic message. Mass media coverage focused on both candidates' negatives, but this reporting hurt Hillary more because Trump voters were ready to excuse his boorish behavior. In addition, serious reporting was overrun by fake news, wild rumors, and conspiracy charges. The Boy Scouts and millions of others were not immune to this degraded campaign coverage.

Still, it was a close election. Had not FBI Director James Comey intervened in the final ten days, Hillary might have won both the electoral and the popular vote. Another reason it was a close election is that President Obama missed an historic opportunity to revive the Democratic Party's New Deal tradition and rebuild support among the working class. Obama deserves credit for pulling the country out of the worst economic downtown since the Depression, but he could have done much more than stabilize the economy. Instead of following James Carville's advice to "jail a few bankers," he appointed Wall Street veterans to key economic posts and steered a centrist course; few progressive economic thinkers were included in his administration.

White House messaging on his major initiatives was tepid. He took little credit for the public money he spent, and let Republicans effectively demonize his health care initiative as evil Obamacare. Unlike FDR's New Deal, the accomplishments of the stimulus package went unbranded, allowing Tea Party Republicans to characterize Obama's economic recovery package as a bailout of Wall Street. To many working class voters, especially whites, it appeared that black lives or gays right to marry mattered more to the president, to the Democrats, and to Hillary, than working class livelihoods. The Trump campaign exploited this perception.

Given Trump's hard right conservative team, his world wide business interests, and the influence that lobbyists and Wall Street billionaires will exert, it is a safe bet that there will be scandals. There will also be push back from communities and groups affected by the Trump administration's policies. Democratic politicians on both coasts and in major cities will defend minorities and immigrants. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, Kamala Harris and others will call out Trump's hypocrisy. It will not be a peaceful time.

America's soft power -- a nation's image abroad and the ability to influence by civic and cultural example -- took a big hit in the election. If the world could have voted, Mrs. Clinton would easily have been elected. Instead, Trump's victory encourages right wing nationalist groups in Europe and Asia.

Most likely, Trump's foreign policy message to the world will be one of America First economics, increased military spending, an expanded war on Islam, conflict with Iran, accommodation of Putin's Russia, with reliance on military responses to international conflict -- perhaps, in the South China Sea. Given his choice of former military leaders for key national security positions, diplomacy will not be the watchword. Conduct of American foreign policy via Twitter will be scary.

President Obama should not go quietly into post presidency memoir writing and speech giving. He is still president for more than a month, and he should speak out much as departing President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex. He should preserve the Senate's full report on torture, and discuss at a press conference the findings of the White House study on Russia hacking. As former president, I hope that he will remain engaged in issues of race. An important book -- The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein -- on how the U.S. made segregation a legal reality will be out in the spring and cause a stir. Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Kerner Commission which recognized the separate and unequal realities of black and white America. Foundations or wealthy individuals might fund the Obama Commission on Racial Equality, if he is willing to devote time to the task.

On the international front, we will need Justin Trudeau of Canada and Angela Merkel of Germany to play strong leadership roles and not leave the global stage to Trump, Xi and Putin. The new secretary general of the UN, Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal, will have his work cut out for him to convince Trump's foreign policy team that the UN matters.

In the past, I've included a list of favorite books in my year end piece, but I'm skipping that this year. My faith in the value of rational communication -- in facts and the lessons of history has been shaken by Trump's success and what it means for the country. Many of my friends' terrific non-fiction books on Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, the Spanish Civil War, U.S.-China relations, U.S.-Iran negotiations, and other worthy subjects were published this year. Reading them provided a bit of solace -- but the most relevant books I read were science fiction: Europe in Winter by David Hutchinson which posits a future Europe divided into mini-nationalist states, and Ben H. Waters' disturbing novel Underground Airlines which depicts an America where slavery is still legal in southern states and runaway slaves get returned by the north.

I skipped having a birthday party this month, not feeling in a celebratory mood. Instead, my wife and I had lunch at the beach, then caught an early movie (at senior rates), followed by Mexican food with our daughter and grandson. We saw Arrival in which the sudden appearance of alien ships in numerous countries highlights the issue of cooperation versus military response. The ability of an American woman scientist to speak Chinese and be able to call China's military leader plays a pivotal role in the plot. I doubt that aliens will arrive during the Trump administration to bring us together across national boundaries. At least, my grandson Viggo is learning to speak Chinese in a mandarin immersion program in the L.A. schools. He also plays hockey on weekends. Our granddaughter Jasmine scored a career high fifteen points for her school basketball team this week. Both grand kids are at home in the diverse social ecology of greater Los Angeles. I assure their parents that living in a state in the West Coast Liberated Zone is a good place to ride out the coming storm.

To lift our spirits, my wife Sue has already put up Christmas decorations. Over the holidays, we will watch our favorite feel good movies like Love Actually, About A Boy, The Zero Effect and Aloha. In honor of Bob Dylan's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (even if he didn't show up to receive it, Patti Smith sang "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" at the ceremony), we are playing his classic holiday album, Christmas in the Heart, and fortifying ourselves for the hard rain that's coming.