The U.S. is facing an election year tainted by an unusual radicalization from both parties vying for the presidency. The deafening campaign of the demagogue Donald Trump is the most visible phenomenon in an atmosphere dominated by passion, a binary focus toward problems and the feeling that — in the Republican trenches — an internal battle is being fought to become culturally dominant. In the Democratic ranks, the strength of the facts, such as Hillary Clinton’s superiority over her opponents, has created an almost Versaillesque pre-electoral atmosphere. At the same time, in the Republican camp, the ultraconservative conglomerate (the tea party, fundamentalist Christians, Islamophobes, and those longing for a wistful past) and classic conservatism — which constituted the ideological nucleus until George H. W. Bush’s presidency — are fighting for survival.
Since Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, not a single day has gone by that the diverse melting pot of the extreme right hasn’t tried to make its voice heard in favor of the scorched earth policy. The president’s pragmatic reformism has encouraged those alarmed not to relent, and the specific achievements of the White House — the widening of public health care, the resumption of relations with Cuba, the agreement with Iran, gay marriage — have led to the volume of those who feel wronged by the president’s audacity to increase. But perhaps the greatest grievances for a large group of them have to do with old racial prejudices, despite half a century having passed since Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
Something profoundly sullen has risen to the surface over the course of Obama’s two terms in office. The campaign that lies ahead, for the most part, will be subject to the goals of the radical right to undo the most significant parts of his legacy — or at least threaten to do so — and promise that no stone that makes up the DNA of the first black president will be left unturned. Think tanks on both sides are working on such an eventuality, which will equally determine the slogans of both parties. For the Republicans, it will be because anyone who may want to dispute Trump’s nomination must accept part of his apocalyptic lexicon, and for the Democrats, because at all times they have to avoid the more fearful voters coming to the conclusion that the American way of life is in grave danger.
Obama’s recurrent ambiguity in extremely urgent situations — the challenge of the Islamic State, the crisis in Ukraine — has always been a sign of weakness for the hot-headed conservative camp, and they have cried out in pain toward international commitments like those of the Paris climate summit. For a smear campaign like Trump’s, the diplomatic niceties and multilateralism are a breeding ground for demanding a heavy and violent hand. But this inevitably hinders the Democratic discourse of those candidates, like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who don’t want to appear as Obama’s political descendants, nor as completely different from him.
“American democracy is in uncharted territory” is the phrase the analyst Robert Kuttner used to summarize an analysis of the situation. No president has ever been more effective in coming to the rescue of the middle class than Obama — the figures on the economic recovery are a testament to this — but a part of this middle class feels threatened by a collective identity crisis; an abstract, ethereal nature; and a lack of confidence for the future. The same goes for the presenters on Fox News, where you can always find a companion in misfortune – unfamiliar territory in which the challenge of global terrorism encourages all imaginable fears.
Not even in the worst moments of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the word impeachment hit the headlines, was the feeling of irreconcilable political fracture so palpable. There had been enough WASPs (white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant) for the incorrigible American heartland to consider him basically one of its own, despite their socializing worries under suspicion. This is not the case for Obama, against whom the Donald Trump universe has taken a stand ever since he set foot in the Oval Office. To say in Clinton’s time that he was the first black president was nothing more than an ingenious outburst with minimal blowback; to have an African American in the White House for eight years, yes he’s done that, and it’s still a useful electoral weapon, loaded with prejudices that the extreme right is willing to use until the polls advise otherwise.