Earlier this month, two icons of the liberal arts gave a pair of heralded addresses to a rapt audience. Both speeches implicitly repudiated the incoming president while appealing to our better angels. In the first, the consensus candidate for greatest screen performer of our time spoke in moving terms about the country’s diversity and tolerance. A few days later, our country’s greatest living orator acknowledged the coming storm but assured the nation that its inner exceptionalism did, could, and would prevail. Together, the two speeches acknowledged our collective horror unbowed, offering the distraught a life-raft of hope. Yes, Meryl Streep and Barack Obama served up two heaping bowls of chicken soup to listless liberals hungering for reassurance. But it was just more empty calories.
Streep’s speech was particularly clueless. Not because—as some suggested—that any exhortation from Hollywood would turn off the rural, blue-collar folk from La Crosse. To the contrary, any high-profile, on-message treatise on the corrosive corruption of the incoming administration and its big lies on healthcare and jobs for the middle class are value added. Rather, the speech was a head-scratching bust because it underscored the very reasons that otherwise decent people used to justify the irresponsibility of their Trump vote. The American people are extremely well aware that Donald Trump is vulgar, childish, insensitive, and threatening. What many came to believe was that Trump—at least in contrast to Hillary Clinton—would put them, and America, first.
To those people, Streep offered nothing other than Clinton’s “Stronger Together” message but without her eloquence, experience, credibility, and equalizing policy agenda. Streep’s primary rhetorical device was to go around the room and pick out the talented, gracious immigrants from the audience and remark that building a wall would keep those handsome people out of the pictures. Then she sprinkled in a bit of gratuitous culture warring, giving this warning about the Trump immigration stance’s potential effect on her beloved, multi-cultural Hollywood: “if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.” And in her emotional crescendo—in her best case against the new administration—Streep chose to underscore one of Trump’s small cruelties: the “moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter,” more than a year ago. While that act was unquestionably a grotesque spectacle, it is a trifling matter compared to the threats the President-Elect presents to our country’s political system. It does not make the top 30. To cite it as the central proposition of Trump’s illegitimacy is to so degrade the case against him as to make it meaningless.
Trump is not a typical Republican with typically bad policies and typically tone deaf to the needs of America’s downtrodden. He is acting consciously to deplete the pillars of western democracy at home and abroad, who colluded with a geopolitical adversary to gain power, who intends to use that power to enrich himself at the expense of the national interest, who will violate the constitution’s prohibitions on foreign influence and corruption on his first day in office, and who flouts the universal norms that sustain us as an exceptional and just nation. That is why Trump is to be opposed at every turn. Streep’s speech articulated none of that. In other words, her immigration appeal amounted to an argument that a slew of rich, famous foreigners who worked glamorously in the movie industry would be forced to return to their home countries, leaving Americans with only the NFL playoffs to watch instead of the latest critically-acclaimed flick out of Cannes. It was perhaps the most persuasive case for Trumpism to date.
President Obama’s charge was admittedly more nuanced, and his responsibilities as a sitting, and soon to be former, president were greater. And in his typically incisive way, Obama did lay out the grave challenges which now confront us. He was always at his best when diagnosing a problem and speaking forcefully for what was right. He will be sorely missed.
Yet, Mr. Obama’s legacy (and it will be a great one) will be forever marked in part by how his administration came to a close. That despite his resounding policy triumphs, he will leave office with the Democratic Party holding fewer seats in Congress and in statehouses than at any point in modern history, powerless to stop the rise of a vicious authoritarian. Like it or not, Trump’s electoral victory is as much a repudiation of Obama the person as Obama the president. For if anything, the 44th president will be remembered as thoughtful, tempered, and optimistic, while the 45th is none of those things. Indeed, Trump’s defining features are quite clearly the exact opposite.
So, while it was lovely to hear Obama speak passionately and eloquently about the future one last time as president, the decision to bring his message of hope and change full-circle was sorely out of place. His summation was disjointed from its historical context: “I leave this stage tonight even more optimistic about this country than when we started. Because I know our work has not only helped so many Americans, it has inspired so many Americans — especially so many young people out there — to believe that you can make a difference — (applause) — to hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves… I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.” That would have been a fine final note were Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office on Friday, or for that matter even if one of Trump’s school bus full of Republican rivals were soon to assume the presidency. Instead, however, Obama’s reassurances of national decency rang hollow in the context of what just happened, and were poorly suited to the task at hand.
To be fair, Obama’s address was level-headed and clear-eyed about the threats to American Democracy. And as a sitting president, there’s only so much he can say about his successor without endangering the vital political norm of the peaceful transition of power. But a speech on threats to our free and democratic society that neglects to name those threats is severely wanting. If Mr. Obama could not call out Trump directly, how about Mitch McConnell? Where was the discussion of Republican hypocrisy on infrastructure—an issue congressional Republicans stonewalled when it was central to Obama’s American Jobs Act but which now is on the table (deficits be damned) with Trump in the White House? How about a shout out to Merrick Garland?
More importantly, Obama chose not to grapple with the harrowing realities of the election. Instead, the president simply reinforced liberals’ greatest weakness: their optimistic naiveté that just a touch more logic and reason (accompanied by a dash of oratory) will change hearts and sway minds. There is a time for boundless optimism and a time for steely resolve. Trump’s opposition will need much more of the latter than the former. Yet, Obama was stuck in 2008, intent on fitting “yes we can” into the age of “no we won’t.”
A day later Donald Trump held his press conference and smashed it all to bits. He threatened the free press, he lied about the qualifications of his nominees and the consequence of his policies, and he acted out a perverse dog, pony, and lawyer show to obscure the unprecedented ethics violations he will commit on Day One. High-minded appeals and easy reassurances will not save the republic. American exceptionalism is not inevitable. It will persist only if a committed opposition demands that its leaders, and the public that elected them, uphold the reasons it was ever so to begin with. The time for speeches is over.