Barack Obama Still Doesn’t Understand Donald Trump

In his most important speech since leaving office, the former president outlined a grand global theory of liberalism—one that can’t get past the ethnonationalist roadblock in its way.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Barack Obama doesn’t often mention Donald Trump. More than anything else, that has been a constant in his random assortment of public appearances and statements since he left the White House. Even when he has occasionally answered the call from Americans to show leadership during a Trumpian scandal or crisis, Obama has preferred magnanimity, issuing statements exhorting his countrymen to soldier on and praising the goodness of the institutions they must lean on to do so.

In a week featuring perhaps the gravest controversy of Trump’s young term, the fallout over his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama delivered the apotheosis of that post-presidency form. His speech Tuesday in Johannesburg, at South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, was the most important moment of his career as a not-so-elder statesman. It was a marathon address that outlined a grand theory of liberalism and skewered Trump’s recent moves without once saying the man’s name. But it also highlighted one of Obama’s most enduring weaknesses: that he still doesn’t really understand Trump, or the forces that elected him.

The stage couldn’t have been set more perfectly for Obama’s big moment. On Monday, Trump managed to create one of the biggest firestorms of his presidency during a press conference with Putin. In a barely coherent series of responses, Trump declined to say whether he trusted his own intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. After facing fierce criticism from even his Republican allies on the Hill, Trump spent Tuesday afternoon engaged in a semantic do-over, claiming he actually meant that he agreed with the intelligence assessment—although he said other actors might have been involved, too.

In between Trump’s blunders, Obama managed to show up the current president, displaying the oratory skills, humor, and vision that defined his term in office. “Do you remember that feeling?” he asked the crowd in Johannesburg, describing the time in the early 1990s after the South African apartheid government freed Mandela. “It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt, this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit—that all that was crumbling before our eyes.” With a flash, the old Obama that had lifted gymnasiums and conventions alike with a message of hope was back.

With that hope came a healthy dose of dire warnings. “In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism,” Obama said, in what could have been a direct rebuke to Trump’s manufactured border crisis and his travel ban. In a later portion of the lecture, he said that while border security is a legitimate issue, “that can’t be an excuse for immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity, or religion.” He also decried a global elite that makes decisions “without reference to notions of human solidarity—or a ground-level understanding of the consequences that will be felt by particular people in particular communities by the decisions that are made.”

Obama offered his trademark: a hopeful series of solutions. He encouraged “an inclusive market-based system,” criticizing both “unregulated, unbridled, unethical capitalism,” and socialism. He emphasized the role of youth, and the need for free speech and open democracies. He also chided opponents of white-nationalist regimes across the world. Taking familiar jabs at identity politics, the former president said that liberals can’t beat their opponents if they dismiss them out of concern that “because they’re white, or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling—that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”

None of these diagnoses or prescriptions is new from Obama. But that’s also part of why they seem inadequate: They come from a politician who, now infamously, didn’t give Trumpism a real shot at winning; who didn’t seem to understand its strength; and who chose not to interject at key junctures to try to stop it.

His prescription for the world’s economic state, which continues to see a robust recovery from the last recession, didn’t address why even in that recovery the forces of populism and racism still appear to be on the advance. It was flawed given the setting, too. His praise of a global, liberal, market-based economic framework is an incomplete take on the life and philosophy of Mandela, who led a Marxist party that might now be best described as social democratic, and whose major postapartheid challenge was unlocking the vast reserves of wealth held by a minority elite. Obama’s recommendations were in conflict with the words of Madiba himself, who said in a 1996 address: “We need to exert ourselves that much more, and break out of the vicious cycle of dependence imposed on us by the financially powerful: those in command of immense market power and those who dare to fashion the world in their own image.”

On the axis of race, Obama’s analysis also faltered, as it paid little attention to the role white voters play in building white nationalism, and never connected exactly why Trump’s message and conduct still seem to resonate with so many. Obama has often taken a somewhat hectoring tone when addressing young audiences and black audiences, and his lecture in Johannesburg was no different. He warned not just about white dominion over black people, but about black exploitation of black people. His comments seemed like an extension of his sermonizing in a 2013 address to graduates of Morehouse College in Atlanta, in which he repeatedly stressed that young black men had “no excuses,” and placed blame at the feet of absentee fathers. His aside about not dismissing white or male commentators was reminiscent of his partial agreement with Trump in 2016 that political correctness had gone too far.

Like many who make a living writing about political correctness, Obama presented a bit of a straw man: Popular movements against white-male-dominated power and nationalism don’t commonly bar white men from speaking. In South Africa and in the United States, many prominent voices in racially progressive circles have been, and are, white men. By invoking this argument, Obama again cedes ground to Trump, who has built his base on a foundation of allegedly marginalized white men, and who promises a return to a white-male-dominated order.

Those who advocate about the dangers of “political correctness”—in places as far apart as Berkeley, California; the University of Cape Town; and the University of Oxford—recommend a too-convenient path to equality for minorities: Be respectful to white men, and they will take their feet off your necks. This prescription does well in a hypothetical world where control over cultural institutions is indeed equitable—or perhaps even tilted toward global minorities. That’s a world that many moderate and conservative commentators who decry identity politics think is nigh. It’s a vision of the world that helps fuel Trumpism, and that most white Americans believe already exists. It’s also one in which discrimination by people of color against whites is just as prevalent as bigotry from white men. In perhaps the most extreme version of this false narrative, white-nationalist propaganda has presented South Africa as a racist caricature of creeping black dominion over hapless white citizens, uncomfortable context for Obama’s remarks.

In speeches like these, Obama often tries to play the role of a moderator attempting to set the terms of debate so that sides can reach each other in good faith. But this is a romantic view, and it does nothing to counter the obvious disregard Trumpism has for dialogue, mutual empathy, or facts. Nor is it supported by the real histories of freedom, struggle, and movement in both South Africa and the United States. South Africa’s black people overthrew their oppressors, and while careful debate was certainly a critical part of the process, so were shame, dispossession, and outright violence. Indeed, Mandela himself helped lead an armed sabotage campaign against the Afrikaner government, and later refused to pledge to renounce violence in order to secure an early release from prison.

White supremacy does not exist in good faith, and its opponents aren’t to blame for failing to change those who end up seduced by it. A lack of power among those opponents is the problem. Trump seems to have a better grasp on the primacy of power than Obama and his Democratic allies. That seems to be why so many of Trump’s maneuvers have involved consolidating power under the aegis of the White House, while endorsing policies such as voting restrictions and welfare cuts that disempower those who might oppose his agenda later. What Trump understands innately is that power is the most real institution, and that with it, most of the others can be disposed.

Power is the question, too. The real consideration for people in the developing world, for youth in South Africa, and for those in danger of political strongmen and ethnonationalism is how to gain that power in an ethical way without repeating the sins of oppressors. Barack Obama, one of the most beloved people across the African continent, and a sort of make-believe president in exile for political opposition in America, doesn’t have the answer to that question yet. He has no solution for when compromise, free speech, and even democracy itself fail to curtail threats to minorities. For what it’s worth, not many other people do, either. But Trump will be in power for a while yet, and Trumpism and white nationalism could hold sway much longer than that. There’ll be time.