President Obama’s farewell address Tuesday night and President-elect Donald Trump’s first press conference Wednesday morning marked a jarring transition in leadership, politics, and syntax.
Invoking the words of his second inaugural address, in which he talked about progress “from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall,” Obama declared that America is exceptional because “we have shown the capacity to change. . . . Yes, our progress has been uneven. . . . for every two steps forward it often feels we take one step back.”
Get ready to shift into reverse, America.
It was painful to hear the list of Obama’s accomplishments, as Donald Trump and the Republican Congress prepare to undo as much of his legacy as they can, as quickly as they can, starting with the Affordable Care Act.
It was painful to hear his paean to diversity and a more hopeful, unified country, even as Confederate stalwart Jeff Sessions moved into the second day of confirmation hearings to become the nation’s next Attorney General.
It was even painful to listen to Obama’s tender and respectful tribute to his wife and daughters—such a different vision of marriage and relations between the sexes than the misogyny of Donald Trump.
But most of all, it was painful to listen to such a thoughtful, optimistic, progressive speech about the better possibilities of American democracy as the worst elements in our society assert themselves. We have a big hill to climb.
Obama declared the core principle of democracy is “despite our outward differences that we are all in this together, that we rise and fall as one.”
He listed the threats to our democracy, starting with the disaffection of a large number of Americans who see their incomes shrinking and their prospects dimming—the displaced workers who helped elect Donald Trump.
America’s first African American President pushed back against the racially divisive and bigoted rhetoric that got such a giant boost from Trump, pointing out gently that he is old enough to know that “race relations are better than they were ten or twenty or thirty years ago, no matter what some folks say,” and pointing to the country’s growing diversity, young people’s more open and accepting attitudes, and the futility of withdrawing into hostile racial camps.
In the wake of the most bitter and divisive presidential campaign in recent memory, Obama made a strong argument for coming together. People of color have to tie “our own very real struggles for justice” to whites who are struggling, he said. “We have to pay attention and listen.” And whites have to acknowledge that “the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish.”
And then he discussed the serious threats to our democracy, including the lack of “some common baseline of facts.”
Cue Donald Trump, who held his first news conference since getting elected, in Trump Tower the morning after Obama’s speech. He began by attacking the press. His spokesman Sean Spicer started the press conference with an attack on the “outrageous,” “sad,” and “pathetic” news about a leaked report that the Russian government might have compromising information it could use to blackmail Trump. Mike Pence seconded the scolding of the “shameful and disgraceful” media. Then Trump took the podium and denounced “fake news,” declaring that “the American people are sick and tired of it.”
Having thus softened up the reporters in the room, Trump declared that he was on familiar ground, since he had news conferences almost every day during his campaign. “We stopped giving ‘em because we’re getting a lot of inaccurate news,” he said.
“I have great respect for freedom of the press and all of that,” he assured the assembled reporters.
Then he got into a fight with CNN reporter Jim Acosta saying,
“No, I'm not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”
Throughout the press conference, Trump spoke in his familiar crude, self-aggrandizing style:
“I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.”
“I look very much forward to the inauguration it’s going to be a beautiful event we have some great talent.”
Veering back to the leak, Trump conceded he now believes there was Russian hacking in the lead-up to the election. But he blamed the recent leak on unnamed political enemies and the press:
“I think it’s a disgrace that information would be let out. I saw the information I read the information. . . . It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen. . . . A group of opponents got together. Sick people. And they put that crap together.”
As for Russian hacking, “look at what was learned from that hacking,” he said, going back over campaign talking points about the “horrible” things Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta had said about her in leaked emails.
He went on to describe himself as “a very high-profile person” and boast that he would do a better job than Clinton in standing up to Putin.
“I was in Russia years ago with the Miss Universe contest, which did very well . . . and I told many people ‘be careful.’ ”
And on it went. I, I, I. Me, me me.
“I have no dealings with Russia, I have no deals with Russia. I have no loans with Russia. I could make deals with Russia very easily but I don’t want to.”
(Time magazine has pulled together copious documentation of Trump-affiliated businesses entangled with Russian financiers.)
Never mind. Forget about conflicts of interest. Trump’s very thoughts conflict with each other even as he moves from one sentence to the next. Trump doesn’t want to do business in Russia, he said, because he would view that as a conflict of interest. But he is free to do business anywhere he wants, because there is no such thing as conflict of interest for a President—“a very nice deal.”
Asked if he would release his tax returns as every other President has done, in order to show that he has no business dealings with Russia, Trump turned sarcastic. “Oh, I’ve never heard that before!”
“I’m not releasing tax returns because as you know they’re under audit,” he said, repeating the claim, discredited by the IRS, that being audited means he can’t share his own tax information.
“No one cares about my tax returns except for you!” he yelled at the assembled reporters. When a reporter rejoined that the American people care, he retorted, “I don’t think they care at all! I won! I became President!”
There you have it. The arc of history is long. Right now it is very, very bent.