Obama, Trump, and the Great American Divide
America is more divided today than it has been since the Civil War, according to political observers such as former president Jimmy Carter and California governor Jerry Brown. A 2014 historical study reached the same conclusion. During the Civil War and its aftermath, the divisions were more black and white. Today, the great divide involves a dizzying array of issues, from the power of the federal government to gay marriage.
To better understand complicated issues and conflicts in society, sociologists sometime simplify reality by creating ideal types. They combine and reduce complex mental constructs into fictional personas who most closely approximate the two sides of a conflict.
Thus, for years, political scientists have been trying to approximate the ideal conservative and liberal typologies. One of the major criticisms of crafting ideal types is its tendency to focus on extreme, or polar, phenomena, thereby distorting reality rather than simplifying it. Even sociologist Max Weber, who created the concept, wrote that "it is seldom if ever that a real phenomenon can be found which corresponds exactly to one of these ideally constructed pure types" (1).
Sometimes, however, reality "trumps" theory. For conservatives, Barack Obama's presidency has been a nightmarish experiment in ultra-liberalism that no scientist, political or otherwise, could have produced in a laboratory. For liberals, presidential hopeful Donald Trump is the ultimate reactionary Frankenstein's monster, created out of wealth and privilege. Together they are the archetypes of what has gone wrong with America.
Donald Trump epitomizes "it's all about me" capitalism, while Barack Obama incarnates "we are the world" multicultural liberalism. In spite of their "Make America Great Again" and "Yes We Can" slogans, neither of the two men is truly motivated by the well-being of the United States nor serves it. Not surprisingly, both have created personality cults.
For Obama, who was raised in Hawaii in the absence of his African father and by a stepfather for a number of years in Indonesia, it's about his search for identity. "I was raised as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child and as a black child and as a white child," he once recalled. He describes the outcome of that quest after moving to the mainland in his autobiography Dreams from my Father (2):
Hawaii lay behind me like a childhood dream. I knew it was too late to ever truly claim Africa as my home. If I had come to understand myself as a black American ... that understanding was unanchored to a place.
In short, Barack Hussein Obama is a multi-hyphenated personality. All Americans are to some extent hyphenated, having all come from somewhere. Native Americans had their identity hyphenated by the European intruders. Some say the difference between today's immigrants and their predecessors is the acceptance of multiculturalism, which encourages newcomers to retain their customs and language rather than fully assimilate into the dominant culture. Others claim that it is their ethnicity that sets them apart from the mainly European immigrants of the past.
But with Obama, it goes beyond multiculturalism and race. Although he identifies himself as a black American, Obama himself acknowledges that he has little in common with black Americans' primarily west African history of slavery and emancipation. He seems truly unanchored to a place. Cedric Mohammed, who publishes Black Electorate.com, writes that Obama is "foremost a universalist" who by nature "internationalizes the individuals, events, circumstances, and institutions that he engages, as he is claimed simultaneously by different communities: African, Muslim, Southeast Asian, Hawaiian, White American; Black American etc.," noting that "[h]e deftly moves in and out of different perspectives and civilizations."
Thus, Barack Obama seems focused on integrating America into a globalized world as a more equal partner and making Americans model global citizens, as he sees himself. In the process, he has lost the trust of allies such as Israel and the Sunni Arab states; allowed traditional rivals, such as Russia, to once again evade the international order; emboldened enemies like Iran; and allowed non-traditional networked organizations such as ISIS to flourish. Domestically, he has further fractured an already polarized society.
Donald Trump was the poster boy for the 1980s "me generation" of material greed. Back then, he was the golden boy of the media – the American success story. There is nothing hyphenated in his personality or in his name, which is prominently displayed on his buildings, yacht, jet, and helicopter. "I had a very solid childhood from the standpoint of family," he told David Letterman in 1987. Unlike in Obama's case, Trump's German immigrant father was by his side, giving him the money, experience, and Ivy League education to help push him to the top. The rest was ego.
In fact, Trump was the precursor of the kind of greed that finally caused the great crash of 2008. His crown achievements of the '80s were Trump Tower in NYC and the flashy Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. Overextended, like his ego, his shoddy business practices, such as financing with junk bonds, were overlooked. When his empire first crashed in '91-'92, the banks had no choice but to bail his companies out. He has filed for bankruptcy three times since, most recently in 2009.
As we have seen on his campaign trail, his style is both abrasive and divisive. On his hit reality show, The Apprentice, Trump displayed his hardball style of American capitalism. On one episode, he dismissed an entire team of millionaire wannabes, intoning "You're all fired…go home."
His own homes are flashy, adorned with gold and diamonds, as are his elegant spouses, whom he has changed almost as many times as he has filed for bankruptcy. While Trump lives the modern American dream, it is Obama, who could only dream of his father, who managed to create a stable family life.
So must Americans choose between an amorphous cultural-political globalization and a self-serving narcissistic capitalistic society? The American center still exists. It has been co-opted significantly by the media, which blurs the boundaries between reality and "reality."
From Obama, who consults in the White House with Jon Stewart, a comedian masquerading as a newsman, we got the irreality show of a nuclear deal that almost guarantees proliferation, not only by the undemocratic ayatollahs of Iran, but also across the world's most unstable region, the Middle East. The bombastic foreign policy of reality show star-turned-president Donald Trump would most likely get America into some less than entertaining conflicts.
A Trump presidency following Obama's would convince the world that the U.S. is inexorably divided, not to mention downright nuts, with each administration doing an about-face in foreign policy, with one making a Iran an ally and the other walling out Mexico as an enemy.
The domestic rift would become a chasm.
Obama wants to remove the barriers between America and the world – not just allow immigrants to access its wealth more easily, but tear down the walls of American exceptionalism. Trump is sure he can make America great again by expelling illegal immigrants and building walls between America and the world. Somewhere between the extreme "we" and the extreme "me," there is still a common U.S. Only by tearing down partisan barricades will Americans "Make America Great Again." Can we do this after having been driven to such extremes? "Yes We Can."
(1) Weber, Max, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkley: University of California Press, 1978: pp. 19.
(2) Obama, Barack, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995: p. 115.