In his first major address since leaving office in early 2017, former President Barack Obama spoke to a crowd in South Africa commemorating the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela — and gave a scathing critique of the global political crisis that Donald Trump has capitalized upon.
"At the end of the 20th century, while some Western commentators were declaring the end of history and the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy and the virtues of the global supply chain, so many missed signs of a brewing backlash," the 44th president told the assembled crowd of roughly 15,00 people. "A backlash that arrived in so many forms."
The backlash took many forms, most prominently in the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Obama said. But it also became present in Russia.
"Already humiliated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, [Russia]suddenly started reasserting authoritarian control, and in some cases meddling with its neighbors," he said, referencing the country's incursions into Crimea and, perhaps, its attacks on the 2016 presidential election.
"You started seeing populist movements — which, by the way, are often cynically funded by right-wing billionaires intent on reducing govt constraints on their business interests — these movements tapped the unease that was felt by many people who lived outside of the urban cores, fears that economic security was slipping away," Obama continued. "That their social status and privileges were eroding. That their cultural identities were being threatened by outsiders, somebody that didn't look like them or sound like them or pray as they did."
The 2008 financial collapse, Obama said, "resulted in years of hardship for ordinary people all around the world and made all the previous assurances of experts ring hollow, all those assurances that somehow financial regulators knew what they were doing."
In a sly reference to Trump's propensity to take credit for economic upticks, Obama noted that "because of the actions taken by governments during and after that crisis — including, I should add, by aggressive steps by my administration — the global economy has now returned to healthy growth."
Nevertheless, "the credibility of the international system, faith in experts in places like Washington or Brussels, all that had taken a blow."
"And a politics of fear and of resentment and retrenchment began to appear," the former president said. "And that kind of politics is now on the move. It's on a move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago."
"Look around," he implored the crowd. "Strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained, the form of it, but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning."
He blasted Western countries for allowing far-right parties and figures to take power "based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely-hidden racial nationalism."
"Many developing countries now are looking at China's model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy," he added. "Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good?"
"The free press is under attack," Obama continued, deploying another jab at Trump. "Censorship and state control of media is on the rise."
"Social media, once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity, has proven to be just as effective at promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories," the former president said to raucous applause.
"So, on Madiba's 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads," Obama foreshadowed. "A moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity's future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world."