OP-ED: Obama understated Trump’s threat to democracy

Francis Wilkinson
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
In this image from video, former President Barack Obama speaks during the third night of the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP)

The consensus is that former President Barack Obama pulled the fire alarm Wednesday night in delivering an unprecedented warning about the dangers posed by President Donald Trump. Obama made the case that “Trump is doing nothing less than undermining the American system,” wrote Ryan Lizza in Politico. At New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait wrote: “Here is an American president warning that American democracy may not survive his immediate successor.”

Obama’s warning may well be without precedent (though Herbert Hoover liberally dispensed fear and loathing of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt). It was also, characteristically for Obama, understatement.

Trump is not a threat to destroy American democracy if he wins in November. The tense is all wrong. Trump has been trashing democracy since 2016 — when, as the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed yet again this week, his campaign colluded with Russian intelligence agents to help get Trump elected. Trump’s campaign of democratic destruction accelerated in office, then hit full speed after Senate Republicans excused his blatant criminality in the Ukraine shakedown.

The institutions of American democracy — the executive branch and career professionals, Congress, the courts, the press and more — have failed to contain Trump’s threat to democracy and rule of law. The cancer continues to spread.

Obama undersold Trump’s threat not because he fails to recognize it. He did so because, paradoxically, he needs to convince young and disaffected voters that the U.S. is healthier than it looks.

Almost 63 million Americans voted for Trump in 2016. Very nearly that many will vote for him again in 2020, despite malicious negligence that has led to scores of thousands dead from COVID-19, a faltering economy and a lengthy list of his own former administration officials who say Trump is unfit for office.

Destroying democracy, and trashing the U.S. government along with it, may be viewed as unfortunate by millions of Trump voters. But they also see it as far preferable to ceding power, democratically, to the rainbow coalition of the Democratic Party, which some of them fear and detest.

The most delicate task of Obama’s speech was not his condemnation of Trump’s incompetence, corruption and pathology. It was his plea to young Americans that the damage is not already beyond repair.

To the young people who led us this summer, telling us we need to be better — in so many ways, you are this country’s dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth. For you, it’s a given — a conviction. And what I want you to know is that for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions. For all of us.

You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. You’re the missing ingredient — the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed.

This is an enormously subtle rhetorical turn — even for Obama, the most gifted political orator of this era. By identifying the moral outrage and disgust of American youth as the fruit of American democracy, rather than a reaction to its spreading rot, Obama is attempting to keep young people in the game, invested in a system that produced not only Trump but the bigotry, hypocrisy and hysteria that fuels Trumpism.

In his speech last night, Obama begged young people not to give up on the American experiment in its hour of peril. In his speech tonight, Joe Biden will undoubtedly repeat the warning. He and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, will need to inspire even the most justifiably disenchanted element of the Democratic presidential coalition — those who have come of age under Trump — to rally to save the republic.

— Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.