One country, two tribes, the United States elected in turn Barack Obama, then a president as opposite to him as can be. Voters chose a 48-year-old, urbane, liberal black man, then a 70-year-old, unrepentantly coarse white man who is conservative, or something. Ain’t that America? Change comes in all forms and with wrenching lurches in a nation founded by bloody revolt and enervated through the generations by political and cultural revolution, sometimes to the edge of bloodshed or over.
There’s no getting a grip on this country. The U.S. serves up in-your-face cowboy culture, in-your-face counterculture, aggressively faith-based political movements, electric Bernie Sanders socialism and lots more chances to smoke pot legally, as well as workaday lives and pinstriped suits.
Americans vote for shake-up artists, not every time but enough times to set the country apart from democracies where the ship of state turns more slowly and majestically.
“The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line,” Obama said Wednesday. “We zig and we zag.”
Obama, the zig, was a guy so cool in the eyes of much of the world that he got a Nobel Peace Prize before he’d had a chance to do much. (At the time, in his first year, the U.S. was fighting two wars.)
Trump, the zag, is a hurler of insults, a raw orator you can’t turn away from if you can bring yourself to tune in, a boor with women, a peddler of falsehoods that made millions of eyes roll but spoke to a larger truth in the eyes of supporters.
Foreigners shake their heads at a country that over the years defines cool, then represents what crazy looks like.
Trump won with the backing of a long-prized, but declining, segment of white voters, especially men, especially less educated ones. They were on top of the political world for ages, part of Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority, Reagan’s haul of blue-collar Democrats and Bill Clinton’s bubbas. Now they fade in an increasingly diverse country.
But Tuesday, everything old was new again and they said: Yes, we still can.
Obama came to national attention with a speech of poetry and power that dreamed of red states and blue states joined spiritually as united states. It took the breath away of some Republicans as well as many Democrats. It was a pipe dream, he admitted years later. Divisions of red and blue, white and black, young and old, coastal and heartland, are epic now, tribal.
Though polar opposites in character, politics and experience, Obama and Trump have some commonality.
They both seized on dissatisfaction and rode the revolutionary impulse to success. Though not a neophyte like Trump, Obama had to claw against the establishment, personified in 2008 by primary rival Hillary Clinton, and benefited from that underdog posture.
This time Democrats served up the establishment, in Clinton, the candidate who told snickering donors about the “irredeemable deplorables” backing Trump, and woke up Wednesday to devastation, if they ever slept.
Obama and Trump tapped their different political tribes on the way to the White House, but with some overlap.
In Ohio’s Belmont County, which Obama won in 2008, Trump swept almost 70 percent of the votes. In nearby Mahoning County, which Obama won by 28 points in 2012, Clinton edged Trump by only three points. In other words, some people in working-class America who voted for Obama before turned to Trump this time.
So, now, a nation that is pretty upbeat about the job the cool black president is doing hands the reins to a man who spun conspiracy theories about Obama’s country of birth.
They will be together on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, peacefully handing over power. It is usually a moment of grace and probably, somehow, will be that once more.
Then it’s on with the zigzag, a time to be certain of nothing except that revolution, from some quarter at some point, will come again.