Publisher's Note — July 11, 2018, 11:08 am

The Enemy Within

“Obama [and nostalgia for him] is still running the risk of suffocating reform and encouraging the reelection of Donald Trump.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on July 3, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Nostalgia for Barack Obama is in full swing. With each passing day, Donald Trump’s insults and general nastiness are making people increasingly regret the absence of a president who behaved like an adult.

Certainly, the restoration of dignity to the White House is devoutly to be wished. Nonetheless, I find myself more and more irritated with the analyses of the former President’s character by anti-Trump journalists. As a very early critic of Obama, I often came up against my colleagues’ lack of awareness, particularly at the start of his spectacular rise to prominence in 2006. At this late date, I would have wished for rather more insight on their part.

But now we have Maureen Dowd, getting it wrong once again. Dowd subscribes to the idea of a celestial Obama who wanted to remain above the sordid political fray. According to this scenario, Obama was too idealistic for raw politics and at the same time too arrogant and condescending to appreciate the realities of Middle America and the grassroots work a professional politician must do. Citing a new book, The World as It Is, by Ben Rhodes, Dowd seizes on something Obama is alleged to have said shortly after Trump’s election: “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” And later: “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early.”

These statements by Obama do in fact sound like an indication that he considers himself exceptional. Dowd, however, is surprised at his ability to ignore what she calls “the hunger for revolutionary change” that was so much in evidence at the rallies for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—a hunger born of “the fear” felt by many ordinary people that they had sunk out of sight, into the void, forgotten by Washington. How was it that the outgoing president, the beneficiary in 2008 of the same desire for a clean break after eight years of Bush, could in 2016 support “the most status quo, elitist candidate,” Hillary Clinton? In Rhodes’s view, this is an acute irony, because in the final analysis Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 conveyed essentially the same message: Hillary Clinton is “part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to change.” For Dowd, the answer to Rhodes’s question lies in Obama’s lack of interest in working with the activist wing of the Democratic Party. He wanted to be, Dowd says, “the man alone in the arena,” and he “did not like persuading people to do what they didn’t want to do,” which is “the definition of politics.”

My God, how are we going to awaken from the Trumpian nightmare if our press has so little understanding of American politics? Obama was and remains a pure politician, a member of the country’s most powerful and corrupt political faction, the Democratic Party of Chicago. Having left his work as a community organizer in order to attend Harvard Law School, he returned to his adopted city, law degree in hand, and proceeded to associate with the local political barons and thus to prepare his future. Along the way, he literally married the Democratic machine: as the daughter of a precinct captain, Michelle Robinson Obama had not only grown up in the milieu dominated by the party’s reactionary “boss,” Mayor Richard J. Daley, but was also indebted to him for her economic survival. Her father, Fraser Robinson, worked in the city water plant, where the machine’s soldiers were practically guaranteed employment. It was through Michelle that Barack, in 1991, met Valerie Jarrett, who was at that time the deputy chief of staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J. and heir to the family fiefdom. In the Illinois Senate and elsewhere, Obama performed favors for his patron, and in December 2006 the boss repaid him handsomely by announcing his support—very early in the electoral cycle—for Obama’s presidential candidacy.

A single event exemplifies the close ties between Chicago’s political boss and his disciple: in October 2009, in the midst of the country’s financial crisis and while engaged in a crucial battle for the reform of the national health care system, President Obama went to Copenhagen in a vain bid to secure the 2016 Summer Olympic Games…for Chicago.

Why did Obama support Hillary Clinton at the country’s expense and in contradiction of his own supposedly progressive and reformist values? Doubtless because Hillary conceded the 2008 presidential campaign in exchange for a promise that she would be appointed Secretary of State and would obtain Obama’s backing for her candidacy in 2016, when it would be, at last, “her turn.” These days, Obama, far from being isolated somewhere up in the philosophical clouds, continues to dirty his feet in the electoral mud, chiefly in order to prevent the allies of the insurgent Bernie Sanders from occupying important positions in the Democratic Party. In his role as overlord of the former regime, Obama is still running the risk of suffocating reform and encouraging the reelection of Donald Trump.

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Constitution in Crisis·

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America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Power of Attorney·

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In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

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I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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