After a long trip back from Okinawa, I returned to my apartment, uncorked a bottle of smooth, deep California syrah, leaned back on the ample couch and turned on the news. The departing president was giving his final speech.
In the age of constant conflict, I had forgotten how soothing it is to focus on the words of a good speech. And a good speech it was.
Speaking from Chicago, Obama said, “It’s good to be home.” Took the words right out of my mouth.
The theme was the state of our democracy, facing five threats from within and without.
He talked about the social compact – it needs some serious fixing. As the economic cycles shred old norms of work, we must find a new deal. He talked about race, where progress has been made and more needs to come. “Hearts must change.”
Democracy is a battle of ideas, he reminded, a notion weakened by the echo chambers we can put ourselves into via the internet and social media, hearing only from those who think and look as we do.
Abroad, the world is turning away from government based on faith in reason, primacy of law and a free exchange of ideas through the press, and that turning away is another threat to our democracy.
And last, before the thank yous, he talked about the threat from not giving a damn.
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift,” he said. “But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning.”
The ideas he was hitting on were articles of faith to me, the basic beliefs I grew up with and that I think have been largely abandoned in current public discourse.
So it was with a deep and pleasant focus that I sank into the couch and drank slowly from my wine glass as I listened to the last speech.
What is coming in just a couple days will be altogether different, and for many, that is why the president-elect won. But it is almost inconceivable that the incoming president would give a nearly hour-long speech on the state of our democracy. It’s not his thing.
Twitter is his thing, with a character limit.
One of our reporters asked me shortly after his election if we should be paying attention to Trump’s Twitter rants. Of course, I said, it is a remarkably clear path into the mind of the incoming president, still the most powerful job on earth.
I do not necessarily share the outrage of many columnists at what Trump expresses so clearly. There had been no disguising of who he was, no careful calibrations of what would sound politic, no illusions about the emperor’s intellectual clothing.
Setting aside, and these are no small things to set aside, the FBI director’s negligent intervention during the waning days of the campaign and the influence of the Russians, the election reflects a fundamental trend in national politics that has been evident for a few years now. It has culminated with both houses of Congress in the hand of the hard right.
That reflects the state of our democracy and the thinking of the people as much or more than one extraordinarily high-profile presidential contest. The people have bought the philosophy of the right.
Which brings me ‘round to my main point.
Trump, as much a wild man as he is, was never the problem for those who share the basic principles reflected in Obama’s last speech. From the night of Trump’s election, the problem was that all roadblocks were removed from the radicals in Congress. As a writer for the New Yorker put it on CNN – finally – and put it absolutely correctly, Trump is “a pen.”
He will sign whatever the rads wreak in Congress.
That’s the dread that Trump inspires; not for what he will do, for what he will let the business-paid Republicans in Congress do. The fact that he is still being undermined by his own party only makes it more certain, rendering him unlikely to chart an independent path.
There are now no barriers to a hard-right swing in the nation’s law which will have one overriding purpose: reducing taxes for the wealthy elites while cutting as many public benefits as possible. The citizens of our nation will become more unequal in every way, the powerful more powerful, the weak weaker.
That is the sixth and most fundamental threat to our democracy that Obama, in his grace, did not mention.