Why Obama Should Lead the Opposition to Trump

This article originally appeared on this site.

The crisis that erupted last week in Charlottesville is simply an extension of the one that began last summer, when the Republican Party, instead of opposing Donald Trump, decided to go all in on his side. It’s absurd now, for instance, to witness hand-wringing over what Charlottesville reveals about the extent or even the existence of Trump’s racism. Birtherism, Trump’s brutal cause, was the most overtly racist movement in contemporary American political life—an attempt to discredit the legitimacy of a black President by insisting not merely that he is not an American but that he is an African, as part of a script written often and deeply in every racist tract of our nation, in which Africans are the eternal Evil Other. It was an effort to symbolically stop and frisk a black man by suggesting that he was vulnerable as an “alien.”

With a patience wholly admirable and, in some ways, almost saintly, Barack Obama chose to ignore Trump’s attempt to delegitimize him by treating Trump, during the post-election transition, as if he might be a normal politician engaged in a normal exchange of power, apparently in the hope that acting as though it might be so would make it so. Since then, despite all attempts to pretend otherwise, Trump’s assault on the premises and the principles of democratic government has been ongoing, and Obama’s silence has been increasingly puzzling to many of his admirers, and not made better by his occasional appearance looking carefree on holiday. The appetite for Obama’s leadership is as real as ever, not merely among liberals but among Americans of many political stripes and sides; he left office, after all, with nearly record-high approval, and would almost certainly have been reëlected had the law allowed it. The extraordinary, historic retweeting—if one can now use the word “historic” about retweets—of Obama’s apropos quote from Nelson Mandela after Charlottesville, officially the most-liked tweet ever, is typical.

This truth raises a question that can’t be avoided: Will Obama step forward to help lead the opposition to Trump? His reluctance to act too hastily has honorable reasons. His hatred of drama leads him at times to underestimate moments when dramatic crises demand dramatic acts, and his love of and natural instinct for reason make it hard for him to fully credit the depth of unreason in others. This incapacity, as likable as it is at times almost pathological, led him to such errors of misplaced good faith as his nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, in what was clearly the sincere belief that a Justice pre-vetted by Republican worthies would actually have a chance of being treated seriously. (In retrospect, Obama missed an opportunity to nominate a candidate whose contemptuous rejection by the Republican Senate might have provided a more advantageous political lever.) And historians may speak critically, and perhaps worse than that, of his caution last year surrounding possible Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 election, and the role that members of the Trump campaign may have played in them.

Obama’s logic of self-restraint is sympathetic. He first of all clearly believes that one President should grant another a period of grace, as Presidents almost always do—George W. Bush, to his credit, lent a long one to him—and that is, in anything resembling a normal oscillation of political power, appropriate and correct. But this is not a normal time; it is a national emergency. Trump long ago disposed of the notion of normal constitutional courtesy when, without a shred of evidence or truth, he accused Obama of “wiretapping” him—i.e., committing a grave crime. To pretend, as Obama was almost visibly willing himself to do throughout the grim months of last November, December, and January, that Trump in any way resembles a normal, democratic-minded leader is folly.

Obama also doubtless thinks, with some wisdom, that his reappearance as a beacon to some would serve to make him once again a target to many. Much of Trump’s and the Republican Party’s program is no more than crude Obama-trolling, as in the departure from the Paris climate accord, or in the health-care fiasco, where the sole logic in putting forward a program that even Republicans hated was to placate the base by undoing what the black President had done. For Obama to make himself more visible would only supply a convenient enemy at a time when Trump and his followers seem to be self-destructing on their own. Obama may also believe that the crisis has not come yet—the real, full-blown constitutional crisis that may arrive when the special counsel, Robert Mueller, acts, or if Trump attempts to act against him, or if another terrorist incident happens, and a voice of reason is not only useful but existentially essential. Obama’s only hope of leading then is to depoliticize himself now. And both Barack and Michelle Obama would surely like a break from the relentless presence of politics in their lives; it has always been a sign of Obama’s essential sanity that the appetite for power seems to blow hot and cold in his life, rather than—as it must be said it seems to do for Bill and Hillary Clinton—as a perpetual propelling wind.

Against all this—as admirable and, in some ways, impeccably logical as it may be—is that national emergency, and the need for leadership among the coalition of leftists, liberals, independents, and conservatives of integrity who oppose Trump, especially as we move ever closer to the frightening possibility of continuing violent confrontations, a possibility that the catastrophic open-carry state laws have only made more likely. That the instigation of the violence in Charlottesville was exclusively at the hands of the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates does not alter the truth that, historically, one side’s violence produces another’s. Leftists, infatuated as they are sometimes tempted to be with a renewed rhetoric of “street action,” need to be reminded that such violence in American history has always worked to the advantage of the wrong side. As the political scientist Omar Wasow, of Princeton University, reminded us not long ago, it was, above all, the fear of street violence in the nineteen-sixties that got Richard Nixon elected—and then reëlected. In liberal democracies, non-violent mass protest can be an astonishingly efficient engine of reform; the threat or fact of violence empowers only its enemies.

What the dissenting, or “resisting,” side needs is exactly what Obama can help supply: principled leadership from as close to a universally respected figure as one could hope to find. At a moment when the leadership of the congressional Democrats is desperately uninspired, and the next generation of liberal voices has yet to emerge or remains uncertain of purpose, the opposition is in need of real leadership, meaning what real leadership always is: a voice of reason lit by passion.

No one wants, or expects, deliverance. The purpose of leadership is neither to be “messianic” or to encourage blind obedience. Good leaders don’t make followers; they make participants. Much needs to be done, but even more needs to be said. The window of meaning needs to be widened. One imagines Obama, with his usual rhetorical deftness, making the point that the neo-secessionists and the neo-Nazis are not merely extraneous, obnoxious fringe groups—they represent exactly the enemies whom Americans united to defeat in their two most consequential wars. We are not merely combatting the enemy within; we are reaffirming what unifies us in history by carrying the fight forward.

One can hear in one’s head—and even directly in one’s ear from impatient others—the objection that Obama’s is already a voice of the past. But history does not work with such relentless linear direction. Figures long dismissed arise to lead when necessary—Churchill being the most obvious example—and lights gone dark often reappear to illuminate a new time. Obviously, we need new generations of leaders and the ascent of newer voices. Yet coalitions of the kind that this emergency demands need voices capable of speaking to the many, not the few, articulating values held in common, not in contest. It could be that Barack Obama’s true historical moment will arrive, with an irony of a kind that American history specializes in, not during his Presidency but after it.