Skip to main content
u.s. politics

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives at the podium to speak at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on August 3, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

It has been exactly 12 years since a little-known politician named Barack Obama crashed into the world's consciousness thanks to a bravura speech he made at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. With passion and eloquence, he insisted that there was no Blue America – liberal and democratic – and no Red America – conservative and Republican. There was only the one single Red, White and Blue America. Huge applause! With that, the Democrats had found their new spiritual leader – a young black man, no less – and the media had found their newest darling.

The only problem was he was wrong. The truth was, and remains, that there is very much a blue and a red America and there is no such thing as a single united nation called the United States of America. In fact, the split has only deepened since Mr. Obama denied its existence, as the two recent political conventions underlined every single day of their respective runs.

Subscribers: Business leaders denounce Trump, but is that good or bad for Clinton?

There was a related irony about Mr. Obama's 2004 speech, as Jane Mayer noted in her indispensable book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. The extreme right-wing billionaires whom her book exposes had for years been trying to subvert the United States of America and replace it with their own capitalist paradise, where taxes were low, regulations on corporate greed negligible, and limits on greenhouse gases non-existent. Just as Mr. Obama was making his speech, Ms. Mayer reported, this plutocratic cabal, led by the fanatical Koch brothers, was in the process of significantly escalating their campaign of insatiable greed and rapacity.

This meant the radicalization of the Republican members of Congress, who were pressed to refuse virtually all co-operation with a Democratic president. Soon, the conspirators' clandestine backing of far-right radicals gave the world the intransigent Tea Party. It also meant the increased activism of conservative think tanks and a great swelling in the ranks of lobbyists in Washington pressing at every level of government for the goals set out by the Koch factory.

At the same time, an astonishing number of Americans increasingly got their views about the world from the unhinged souls on Fox News and from hate radio led by the likes of Rush Limbaugh. So the two Americas, with a few folk in the middle, became increasingly entrenched.

As much as any other time in American history since the notorious Gilded Age of the late 19th century, there was no single United States of America but rather Mr. Obama's own Blue America and a Red America run by the filthy rich for the filthy rich. The young Mr. Obama was celebrating a united America that barely existed and was quickly disappearing, what was left of it. Soon, he was trying to govern it, often without luck.

So when he won his thrilling, historic victory in 2008, determined to act as if there was a single USA, he was greeted with uncompromising Republicans in Congress determined to make it close to impossible for him to govern on his terms. As Mitch McConnell, then Senate minority leader, bluntly said, "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

And indeed, many of Mr. Obama's failures come down to Republicans refusing to co-operate with him. But they couldn't yet achieve their overall goal and he was re-elected to face four more years of a bitterly divided, ferociously antagonistic two Americas.

Yet this is the same President who came to Hillary Clinton's convention last week to draw once again a picture of his same-old mythical America:

"I stand before you again tonight … to tell you I am more optimistic about the future of America than ever before. … The America I know is full of courage, and optimism, and ingenuity. The America I know is decent and generous. … And, most of all, I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together – black, white, Latino, Asian, native American, young, old, gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That's what I see. That's the America I know."

Maybe it was true of the quite exhilarating Democratic convention (if one ignores the chauvinistic and hawkish rhetoric). But it sure wasn't the America most of us know.

What about that other America the world saw only a week earlier at the Republican convention in Cleveland, what Bill Maher calls a lynch mob against Ms. Clinton? Or the fact that Donald Trump, heaven help us, is leading some polls? Or that the scariest Republican candidate in memory defeated 16 other potential candidates and may very well become president? Does this not challenge the Obama vision?

The fact is that a Red America and a Blue America are real entities, far more real than any idealized United States of America. Republicans no longer even pretend to believe in Mr. Obama's United States, having just endorsed not only Mr. Trump but the most extreme right-wing platform in their history. Trumpeters believe only in Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama believes in the folkloric America of high-school history classes. Which one will triumph in 100 days? And who can govern an irreconcilably divided America?