Whatever became of Barack Obama?
There’s a fascinating profile of the curiously low-profile former President in New York magazine. The author, Gabriel Debenedetti, observes that Obama has “mostly opted out of liberal America’s collective Trump-outrage cycle”. Very wise. However, there was at least one time when the antics of the 45th President properly got to the 44th.
It should have been the least controversial of occasions – a speech to the National Scout Jamboree. The event takes place every four years, a gathering of the Boy Scouts of America, at which the current President of the United States of America is invited to give an appropriately wholesome address.
However in 2017, Donald Trump took a somewhat unconventional approach:
“Addressing a crowd of roughly 40,000, who were expecting the usual talk about citizenship and service, the president uncorked a political diatribe packed with jabs at Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Washington, D.C., ‘cesspool’… and reminiscences of Election Night 2016 and the pundits he embarrassed. ‘You remember that incredible night with the maps, and the Republicans are red and the Democrats are blue, and that map was so red it was unbelievable. And they didn’t know what to say,’ Trump told the Scouts. They seemed bewildered at first but before long broke into chants of ‘USA!’ Adult observers were openly horrified…”
I’d urge you to read a more detailed account of the speech (also in New York magazine). It is truly extraordinary stuff – and not just because a serving President chose to address a gathering of boy scouts in the manner of a crazy uncle, but also because the crowd lapped it up.
Obama was appalled:
“…the Boy Scouts speech really troubled him. Kids their age are the most impressionable group there is, Obama reminded friends at the time, likening them to sponges. If the president shoves a divisive political argument at them, that’s what they will absorb.
“It was a very Barack Obama thing to get agitated about. Throughout his entire political career, he has attached an unusual degree of significance to storytelling, and he has often spoken of the importance of modeling what it means to be a good citizen.”
Obama is right – storytelling is of the greatest importance. However, in this respect, those with the greatest influence are Obama’s friends in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and other strongholds of the cultural elite. So what stories have they been telling?
Well, not much to inspire or encourage the people of America’s flyover country. If portrayed at all, fictional America beyond the big cities is a cartoonish abode of rednecks, bigots and zombies – a place to escape from, not to feel proud of.
TV can't ignore flyover country – but nor can it look it in the eye
What the media does like doing, however, is telling tales of transgression. The hero or heroine who defies convention, tears up the rule book, upsets the establishment, is now routine to the point of cliché. The rebel, the maverick, the anti-hero: in popular culture there is no other way to be good – or at least interesting.
Writers now have to work much harder to make edgy characters stand out from the crowd. It’s no longer enough to be a brooding, morally-ambiguous loner like Batman or Wolverine. Who isn’t these days? No, to cause any sort of frisson in a contemporary audience you need to plumb the depths of a Deadpool.
The irony of it all, however, is that the cultural elites want their real-life leaders to be terribly well-behaved. The likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton bring diversity only in terms of race and gender; their conduct and demeanour couldn’t be more conventional.
Their stated social agenda is to overturn old hierarchies of privilege; yet, unlike the disruptive heroes of liberal fiction, they don’t do so by fearlessly exposing the establishment, but by imposing preachy codes of political correctness – which are more likely to trip up ordinary people than the rich and powerful.
Indeed, as long as the rich and powerful proclaim the correct opinions, real-life liberal heroes seem intensely relaxed in their company:
“Obama has given well over a dozen paid speeches, earning at least $300,000 for each, sometimes far more, including ones to financial institutions like Carlyle, Cantor Fitzgerald, and Northern Trust…
“Immediately after leaving office, he flew to Palm Springs, then visited with Richard Branson on his private Caribbean island. Before long, he was on David Geffen’s yacht in French Polynesia with Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, and Oprah Winfrey.”
Establishment liberals, especially those in the media, should understand that politics is downstream of culture. Having inured us to the idea of the hero as transgressor and the leader as disruptor, they shouldn’t be surprised when someone like Donald Trump turns up and makes the role his own.