Eight years ago, reflecting on President Barack Obama’s first inaugural address, I wrote that :
… this man Barack will not be our Moses or our Solon, our Ashoka or our Duke of Chou. Such spirits have already risen in this republic and have already fallen. He is, rather, more like our Marcus Aurelius, the worthy bearer of a worthy ideal, who will fight hard for what he believes and perhaps buy America another century and the world time to find a new ideal and new structures, but who in the end cannot save the civilization he leads …
… Believing in the (American) ideal is at once the condition of [his] recognized leadership and its undoing.
At the time my focus was on Obama’s affirmation of the marketplace as integral the American ideal. But in the light of President Obama’s profoundly troubling farewell, another dimension of his understanding the American ideal seems to be constraining him. His commitment to a peaceful and orderly transition, and to upholding public trust in democratic institutions, seems to have compromised his grasp of, or at least his public response to, the extent to which democratic institutions have already been compromised and the extent to which the liberal order and indeed humanity itself are threatened by electoral catastrophe of November 2016.
President Obama has, to be sure –once again– been dealt a bad hand. Our political structure, lacking an authentic senate which must affirm the validity of popular decisions based on their conformity to natural as well as positive law, provides for no effective legal remedy for the wrongs committed by Trump and those who helped “elect” him. Even if the criminal complicity on the part of Trump or members of his organization with Russian and FBI interference in the election could be established, this would at best set in motion a chain of prosecutions, resignations, and/or impeachments until the Presidency passed to an individual who had not been complicit in such crimes. The person to whom the Presidency passed would almost certainly be a Republican. There is no provision in our constitution or laws for a “do-over.” And key conditions for valid extralegal action –last resort, probability of success, and proportionality in particular—have not yet been clearly established. Even if the conditions for extralegal struggle were met, the outgoing President is probably not best deployed leading the charge.
What could President Obama do?
My answer to this question is, unfortunately, that he could have done a great deal more than he did. It does not fall to a sitting President to pass judgment on the validity, under either positive law or natural law, of a particular election or of the authority exercised by his supposed successor. Judgments under positive law belong to the courts and judgments under natural law to the magisterium exercised, in our pluralistic society, by scholars and teachers across our diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions. But he did not need to speak as if this was a normal transition when it is not. He could have thematized the problematic character of the transition and spoken directly to the dilemma he has faced in handling it. He could have called on the people to pose questions, scholars to offer opinions, and those with full senatorial right to pass judgment. And he could certainly have been much more explicit about the threat represented by Trump and the forces he is unleashing not just to his specific political legacy but to the liberal order and indeed to humanity itself.
The presidency does, to be sure, afford a privileged vantage point, and perhaps Barack Obama knows something which we do not which reasonably convinced him that this was not the right course. But if so, it is likely something which many of those very close to him also don’t know, or read very differently, given the reports of dissent within his inner circle regarding the presumption of normalcy which has governed his handling of transition. And Barack Obama must also think about what lies ahead. I have always believed that for this extraordinary man the Presidency was little more than a mid-career positioning move. He is a leader whose calling, while it includes the public exercise of external forum political authority, is by no means confined to it. Barack Obama will not just be a “citizen” and a former President. He is, first and foremost, a very senior organizer, exercising external forum political leadership from behind the scenes. He is, at least nominally, a legal scholar. And he may well have an authentic prophetic vocation. And he holds the Nobel Peace Prize, arguably the highest honor conferred by our civilization. He will speak and act not just as a citizen, but as a scholar, teacher, and organizer and as someone who comes as close to anyone on the planet to holding publically recognized senatorial right. And from the moment he leaves office he will be free to act and judge in accord with this right.
Barack Obama did not get the presidency he –and those of us who supported him– hoped for. It now looks like will not get the post-presidency he hoped for either –continuing to act as organizer-in-chief for the movement he has built while others take on the burdens of public leadership, deepening his spirituality and prophetic vision, returning to teach and judge publically only when he had taken the next steps in his own development, when there is something that needs to be said that only he can say, or when an authentic crisis demanded his presence. That crisis has arrived already, before he has left and is demanding of him something that he may not want to give. But that is the nature of leadership.
… when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. (John 21:18)
This will be true for many of us, both hidden and manifest, who, in the days to come, will be called on to fight once again battles we thought had already been won, battles from which we are still and already broken and exhausted. For now, from among the hidden, I do for Barack what I did at the beginning of his presidency. I “stand behind this man, in the shadows, speaking truths he knows but may not utter.” Whatever its status under positive law, under the natural law the 2016 US Presidential election was not valid, but represents, rather, a coup by some of the darkest forces on the planet. This is true both because of the apparent manipulation of the election by the Russian state, elements in the FBI, and possibly others, and because the aims publicly advocated by those who claim to have won the election are contrary to the Common Good. We cannot say with certainty that Donald Trump intends fascism, but the possibility and the danger are real and must be named and resisted. Even if he does not intend fascism, his stated policy positions, in addition to being contradictory to the point of incoherence, represent a threat to the tentative efforts begun under President Obama to address such critical global challenges as climate change, the effects of globalization and technology on the working class, the rising relative costs of healthcare and higher education, the need for global governance to confront global challenges, and the danger that in coming to terms with the limits to the secular ideal in both its technocratic and humanistic forms, humanity will turn its back on the secularism’s real contributions to human spiritual and civilizational development –and most especially the liberal order which protects, however imperfectly, the cultivation of the rational autonomy which is the condition of any mature spirituality. It is the obligation of each and every human being on this planet to resist. And it is your obligation, Barack, to name this threat with us and to lead. This is the only way for you to fulfill your highest vocation. I can only remind of you a truth I am certain you already know far better than I: it is only by going where we “do not wish to go” that we learn where we actually need to be.
We are here, with you, Barack, “in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could endure.” We are here with you, Barack, seeking a path through the darkness, charting the next steps in the human civilizational project. Here, in the midst of the darkness, let us be Light. Here, in the midst that winter, let us speak Spring.