WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama put the American people on notice Tuesday night that a dark future awaited U.S. democracy if they didn't begin to come together rather than retreat into ethnic or religious corners.
In describing what one Republican senator called an "apocalyptic future," Obama laid out a possible path the country could take away from democracy and toward what sounded like an American version of fascism.
"I remember thinking it's kind of a dreadful prediction for our future," Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told HuffPost. "He was very optimistic about America, but then he laid out a very almost apocalyptic future."
Obama warned that if people lose hope and let cynicism take over, dark forces will surge. "If we give up now, then we forsake a better future," he said, warning of war, the rise of racism and the loss of voting rights.
"Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure," he added. "As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background."
Of course, there are already "those" who are urging just that, namely Donald Trump, who tweeted, just as Obama was issuing his warning, how bored he was.
"We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world," Obama added.
"It seemed as though he'd been listening to too many Donald Trump speeches," Portman offered.
Maybe so, and surely we all have been. But the direct statement appearing in what is historically an uplifting speech will either be remembered as political-junkie trivia (Who was that real estate heir with the toupee who flashed in the pan that one time?) or perhaps as a prescient warning that the tree of liberty was awfully sick before it died.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) recently returned from the Middle East, which is having its own fragile, gingerly experiment with limited democracy here and there. He wanted to be clear that he wasn't responding specifically to the president's remarks, but warned that, in general, democracy can be vulnerable.
"Not in reference to the speech, I think democracy is something that we do have to protect and there are times when people can in fact play on weakness," Corker told HuffPost, adding that his trips have shown him how difficult it is to build institutions of democracy. "We've seen it happen throughout history, right? ... I'm constantly in the [Mideast] region; I was just there last week. Even though ours is a very mature democracy, especially in new democracies, it can be very difficult. When those are weak, certainly it's very easy for a strong man or woman to come in and take advantage of the situation."
Obama punctuated his speech with direct reminders that America is not in decline, not a victim and not beset by weakness.
"The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world."
"Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction."
"I told you earlier all the talk of America’s economic decline is political hot air. Well, so is all the rhetoric you hear about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close."
Obama then added a line that wasn't in his written remarks: "It's useful to level-set here, otherwise we make bad decisions."
Despite the apocalyptic warning, Obama does seem to believe that the cause of justice and democracy can win out, if only because of the strength of the people themselves.
"That’s the America I know," he said. "That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. Because of you. I believe in you."
Trump's backers, however -- and it's the support for Trump that is the cause of Obama's alarm, not Trump himself -- are unlikely to take the president's word that things are going their direction, certainly not as wages have been largely flat for several decades. American workers who could suffer through their daily lives with the hope that their children might have a better shot are losing that dream as the cost of education skyrockets.
It's time to find some brown people to blame. Robert O. Paxton, one of the world's leading scholars of fascism, describes the phenomenon in his 2004 The Anatomy of Fascism. "Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal constraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion," he writes.
For Obama, the warning comes from a deeply felt place. "This part is the speech he most wanted to give," said a person familiar with Obama's thinking, when asked about the section of the address condemning fascism.
Of course, just as Obama was warning about our poisonous politics, he couldn't help himself from taking a few ad-libbed digs at the Republicans in the chamber. They left a mark.
"Pollsters tell us he's the most polarizing president in history," Portman said. "You saw some of it tonight, where he did some lecturing at us, while he was also talking about us coming together. It's almost like he has two competing parts to his own approach to governing and his personality. So he has to stick it to Republicans on some issues and then say, 'Why can't we work together?'"
Republicans gave it right back. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told HuffPost that he's not worried about a future dictator when we already have a lawless leader.
"He used the words 'the rule of law,' but if you look at many of the president's unilateral actions, he hasn't at all himself respected the statement that he made," Gardner said. "So I hope that over the coming year we don't see a president who will continue end-running Congress and acting unilaterally. Our Constitution is designed as three separate but equal branches and this president hasn't treated us as such."
So Obama is as bad as it could get?
"I don't know," Gardner said.
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