Barack Obama didn’t say the names of Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. But he condemned everything they stand for, everything about their paths to power, and the reorientation of the world order represented by Trump’s wrapping himself in deference to the Russian leader at their meeting in Helsinki.
In democracies, the former president said Tuesday during a lengthy speech in Johannesburg honoring the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, “government exists to serve the individual, and not the other way around.”
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Obama argued that the current alignment won’t last — as long as those who believe in liberal democracy continue to rise up. They also need to recognize where they went wrong in allowing the seeds for what he called “the world threatening to return to an older, a more dangerous, a more brutal way of doing business.”
But sketching out the anxiety that he and many of his supporters have felt since the morning after the 2016 election that so much of what they assumed was coming in the future was a fantasy being ripped away, he said the danger is real.
“We now stand at a crossroads,” Obama said in the most direct critique of the Trump presidency that he’s offered to date.
It’s up to the world to decide whether the new power alignment will be in led by authoritarian strongmen — a scenario that he said is more possible that he than he’d ever anticipated — or one of inclusivity, regulated capitalism and embracing the power of technology without falling victim to the hate and paranoia it has helped breed.
“Two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world,” Obama said. Invoking Mandela’s tribal name, he added, “How should we respond? Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with Madiba’s release from prison, from the Berlin Wall coming down? [Or] should we see that hope that we have as naive and misguided?
“Should we understand the last 25 years of global integration is nothing more than a detour from the previous inevitable cycle of history,” he continued, “where might makes right and politics is a hostile competition between tribes and races and religions? And nations compete in a zero sum game constantly teetering on the edge of conflict until full-blown war breaks out? Is that what we think?”
Obama was greeted as a hero. As he took the microphone, the stadium erupted in chants of “Yes We Can!” One of his introducers said the former president represents “a dream of a global future that people could aspire to.”
The other speakers didn’t mention Trump’s name, either, though they were clearly speaking about him as well.
“In [Obama], we found an American president concerned as much about the fate of humanity as the future of his own countrymen and countrywomen,” said new South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who in February took over after corrupt strongman Jacob Zuma was forced from power.
To Obama, who idolizes Mandela and dreams of his kind of global inspirational leadership that transcends politics, the day was a chance to speak at length about a broader vision of the world and where it’s going. He seized it, speaking for over an hour in his longest remarks since leaving the White House. He remarked on the “strange and uncertain times” full of “head-spinning and disturbing headlines” in America and all over the globe.
Clearly wound up to the point of going off script much more than he usually does — and acknowledging along the way that some of the ad libs were long and intense — Obama called the current fad of nationalist populism a fraud “cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on easing constraints on their business interests.” He said it went against the interests of the people it claims to fight for, preying on fears unleashed by the economic disparities that leaders had failed repeatedly to see, let alone address, for decades.
“So many missed signs of a brewing backlash, a backlash that arrived in so many forms and announced itself most violently with 9/11,” Obama said.
Among those who struggled with the changes to the world, he added, was “Russia, already humiliated by its reduced influence” and which disliked the democracies gaining hold on its borders. Russia “suddenly started reasserting authoritarian principles, and in some cases meddling with its neighbors,” Obama said.
Referring to unnamed “people” but never ambiguous about his target, he criticized Trump as a small-minded, insecure man.
“It would make me think that you’re a little insecure about your heritage if you’ve got to put someone else’s heritage down,” he said. “Don’t you get a sense sometimes that these people who are so intent on putting people down and pumping themselves up that they’re small-hearted, that there’s something they’re just afraid of?”
“For this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. This is another one of these things I didn’t think I’d have to lecture about: you have to believe in facts,” Obama said. “I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening when almost all the world’s scientists say that it is. I don’t know where to start talking to you about this. If you start saying it’s an elaborate hoax, I don’t know, where do we start?”
He went on, “We see the utter loss of shame of political leaders when they’re caught in a lie, and they just double down and lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be that if you caught them lying, they’d be like, “Aw man.’ Now they just keep on lying.”
But much of his speech was devoted to stressing an approach that he said too many people, including many wealthy people who see themselves as liberal, are lacking. People need to see themselves in each other, he said, not just for the sake of humanity, but for the sake of democracy. Part of that is inclusivity, he said, but part of that is about recognizing what’s gone wrong with the global economy and each wealthy person taking it as a personal mission to do more.
“There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it’s enough. You don’t have to take a vow of poverty just to say, ‘Well, let me help out and let a few of the other folks — let me look at that child out there who doesn’t have enough to eat or needs some school fees, let me help him out. I’ll pay a little more in taxes. It’s OK. I can afford it,’” Obama said. “I mean, it shows a poverty of ambition to just want to take more and more and more, instead of saying, ‘Wow, I’ve got so much. Who can I help? How can I give more and more and more?’ That’s ambition. That’s impact. That’s influence. What an amazing gift to be able to help people, not just yourself. Where was I? I ad-libbed. You get the point.”
The speech had been on the books for months, and is part of an extended trip through Africa Obama is in the middle of. Next up is a town hall with 200 young Africans recently selected for the Obama Foundation Leaders program. In a theme of his post-presidency, he cast himself, despite getting older, as a continued avatar and inspiration of young people around the world.
In that vein, Obama linked Mandela’s spirit to a famous line from his 2008 campaign.
“Keep believing, keep marching, keep building. Keep raising your voice. Every generation has the opportunity to remake the world. Mandela said, ‘Young people are capable when aroused of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom,’” Obama said.
“Now’s a good time to be aroused. Now’s a good time to be fired up.”