Donald Trump's politics are the road to ruin for humanity. Barack Obama's could take us to the promised land – Susan Dalgety
Twelve years ago, in driving rain – the kind that soaks right through to your bone marrow – I queued for two hours to hear a politician give a speech.
As Barack Obama ran up to the podium – 30 minutes late – the rain bouncing off his head, his campaign suit replaced by a workmanlike leather jacket, the African American woman next to me grabbed me in a big hug.
“He’s going to win, he’s going to win, there is hope after all,” she laughed. “We’ve waited so long for this, so long. Wait till I tell my grandchildren I saw him. He’s really here.”
As I left Widener University, just outside Philadelphia, after hearing the next President of the United States speak of the audacity of hope, I too was filled with optimism for the future.
The global economy may have been teetering on the edge of collapse, destroyed by bankers and their out-of-control greed, but this man, born of a black Kenyan father and white American mother, was going to change the world. I was fired up and ready to go.
Magnificent oratory, genuine empathy
This week, as I survey the wreckage of 2020, my enthusiasm is somewhat blunted. Obama did rebuild the American economy, saving its iconic car industry from oblivion.
He steered a healthcare bill through an obstinate Congress, with more than a little help from Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi. For the first time ever, the citizens of the world’s richest country had some degree of protection against the crippling cost of healthcare.
And when the country grieved, as it did all too often, Obama healed the nation with his magnificent oratory and genuine empathy.
But the very sight of him and his beautiful family in the White House unleashed a filthy racism that had festered under the surface of America for decades. A reality TV star and serial bankrupt, one Donald J Trump, capitalised on the fearful anger of a white minority, persuading enough Americans he was their future.
There were times during the past four years when I have despaired of humanity, and not just as Trump cheated and lied his way through his presidency. The decision to leave the EU left me wondering what kind of country I was to grow old in, one cut adrift from the rest of the world. Nationalism scares me – it divides people into sides, based primarily on their identity, stirring up old hatreds and making new enemies.
Was Obama too cautious?
Social media powers a civic discourse that is neither civil nor enlightening. Women lose their livelihoods because they insist, rightly, that they are adult human females. Lies become the truth, reality TV is real life, everything is fake. Climate change threatens my grandchildren’s future and the pandemic threatens us all now. And Christmas is cancelled.
But wait, through the mists of early morning sleep, a familiar voice resonates in my earpiece. It is Barack Obama, reading the preface to his memoir, ‘A Promised Land’, which will be published on Tuesday.
His tone is that of an older man, more sombre than the one I listened to in the rain, more world-weary than the author of Dreams from my Father, his best-selling memoir that introduced him to the world.
He talks of the racial and social division that has divided America since it declared independence, reminding us that the founding documents proclaimed all men equal, yet counted a slave as three-fifths of a man.
“It’s a contest that’s been fought on the fields of Gettysburg…the halls of Congress; on a bridge in Selma, Alabama; across the vineyards of California; and down the streets of New York,” he writes.
He ponders if he was too timid in standing up against the forces of hate. “I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed…”
And he tells of a future “of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorists networks, climate change, mass migration…” that requires humanity to co-operate with each other, or perish.
Faith in the next generation
But despite his country’s deep-rooted flaws – “a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism” – his love for America runs deep. It is, he asserts, “the only great power in history to be made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice.”
And he holds out some hope for the future. Not the audacious, confident hope that inspired him to tell the United Nations in 2014 that the future is not something to be feared or out of our control, but “something we can shape for the better through concerted and collective effort”.
His optimism was shattered by Trump’s unerring ability to stir up America’s worst instincts, and even now, as his old friend Joe Biden is about to be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, Obama is cautious about what lies ahead, recognising that no single election will remake the world.
As he approaches his seventh decade, his hair growing more grey by the day, Obama looks not to his fellow politicians to do the right thing, but to all of us. “I’ve learned to place my faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation,” he writes.
That is the message of the last decade, as it has been since humans first stood up and walked. We need leaders to inspire us, to enforce the rule of law, to organise society, but it is up to each of us to embrace our neighbours as our own, and to make the sacrifices required to build that better world, whether that means ditching fossil fuels, paying more tax or queuing for hours to vote.
Will we reach the promised land or perish in a cesspit of our own making? That depends on whether we want to be Obama or Trump.
Read and listen to Barack Obama in the Atlantic magazine
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