With the virtual Democratic National Convention over, the US presidential election is in its final stretch. This is an election like no other: Because of the pandemic, most of the campaigning is on the internet; because of Donald Trump, what is at stake is not only who will win but the very survival of democracy in America. No one can seriously argue with Barack Obama’s appraisal of how much the Trump presidency has already harmed the United States: “Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”
Obama’s speech, from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, was, like the campaign, unprecedented. Former presidents do not engage in political roughhousing to such an extent. But it would have been dereliction of duty of historic proportions for a leader of such stature not to warn of the dangers to democracy from all that Trump has already done (or not done), from the way he is fighting to remain in power, from all that he may do if re-elected.
Obama’s dramatic warning, however, is not expected to change the minds of those who are already determined to vote for Trump. For them, and perhaps for many others, the former president’s intervention will be described as a clumsy and predictable effort to help his former vice president and his party. In deeply divided America, as in so many societies today, few change their minds on the basis of warnings, nor even when reality proves the error of their choices.
Obama, however, spoke also of something that was not highlighted in the news bulletins but is an essential issue for democracy and a permanent challenge to its functioning – the quality of candidates and the extent to which they care for others. We all know Trump’s qualities – he makes sure to reveal himself to us daily. But speaking of Joe Biden’s virtues, Obama said that the Democrats’ candidate had grown up with these words from his parents: “No one’s better than you, Joe. But you’re better than nobody.”
If we judged others and ourselves by those words, society, politics and the international community would be very different.