I have a thesis I’ve been developing lately. Conventional DC wisdom is that Donald Trump is the most “divisive” president in decades, perhaps even a century. My counter-thesis: Barack Obama is the most partisan and divisive American president in at least the last 50 years.
Obama recently had occasion to remind me of why. In an appearance late last month on The Breakfast Club radio show based out of New York City, he said:
People were surprised about a lot of Hispanic folks who voted for Trump, but there’s a lot of evangelical Hispanics who, the fact that Trump says racist things about Mexicans, or puts undocumented workers in cages, they think that’s less important than the fact that he supports their views on gay marriage or abortion.
Never mind the fact that the “cages” were built during the Obama administration (and used for similar purposes). The Trump administration, we should also be clear, didn’t (as Obama makes it sound) round up undocumented workers across the U.S. and ‘put them in cages.’ The detention facilities at the border were used to deal with a surge of illegal border crossings and detentions facilitated by, among other horrors, Mexican drug cartels expanding their burgeoning child-smuggling business to take advantage of misguided American refugee policies and an under-staffed border security system that predated Trump. While Trump can at times be rhetorically infelicitous by today’s “presidential” standards (you should definitely regard those as scare quotes), he’s only “racist” by the shifting and tendentious standards of today’s academic left—a milieu in which Barack Obama came of age and whose language and ideological manipulations he long ago internalized. Trump did much more for the real wages of the lower middle and working class, including Hispanics and Blacks, than Barack Obama ever did.
Now, we should be clear: Obama is a skilled and mellifluous demagogue. He is a very adept bullsh**ter, a master of the eminently-reasonable-sounding speech or dialogue that nonetheless is a dagger aimed at the legitimacy and patriotism of his partisan enemies. This skillset makes dissecting and disentangling his rhetorical obfuscations quite a bit of work. In this he has some peers ranging back to Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, and Franklin Roosevelt.
In his 1944 Annual Message to Congress, FDR alluded to critics of his internationalist plans as “people who burrow through our Nation like unseeing moles;” he spoke of interest groups who disagreed with his war plans as “pests;” and towards the end of his speech he took vicious aim at the party he vanquished in 1932: “Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”
Harry Truman, speaking four years later in Chicago, implied that the business interests opposed to his administration’s approach to monetary policy were a stepping-stone on the way to an American Hitler, Mussolini, or Tojo. Truman had more than mere policy disagreements with the Republican Congress that opposed his plans: “The actions of the Republican 80th Congress opened the gate to forces that would destroy our democracy.” Coming after his earlier warnings in the speech, he was accusing the 80th GOP-controlled Congress of facilitating the rise of a fascist dictatorship.
And don’t forget LBJ’s most famous 1964 campaign advertising message against Barry Goldwater, which boiled down to, “He’ll Nuke Your Children.” Former CA Governor Jerry Brown’s father Pat Brown, himself CA governor at the time, said that the “the stench of fascism is in the air” after hearing Barry Goldwater’s 1964 GOP convention acceptance speech.
The fuller case laying out Obama’s skilled and tutored (and very ambitious) divisiveness still needs to be made. A good place to start is my colleague Charles Kesler’s 2012 book, Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism; re-released in paperback with a new post-re-election preface in 2013 as Barack Obama and the Future of Liberalism. Obama only turns 60 next year. He will no doubt find new—and newly disingenuous—ways to help his party continue to divide and conquer Americans and undermine the American way of life.