One week to the day since Donald Trump’s historic election victory, President Obama warned Tuesday that the world must guard against the rise of “crude” nationalism and politicians who try to divide people along lines of race or religion.
“I do believe, separate and apart from any particular election or movement, that we are going to have to guard against a rise in a crude sort of nationalism, or ethnic identity, or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’” Obama said in Greece, the first stop of what he called his final foreign trip as president.
His comments came after the president-elect announced that he was naming Steve Bannon, a leading figure in the alt-right movement, as a senior White House adviser. Anti-discrimination groups slammed the hire, pointing to incendiary articles published by Breitbart News while Bannon was an executive at the right-wing news outlet.
Obama warned against drawing parallels between Trump’s election, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the renewed attention being paid to France’s far-right National Front party, but he seemed to be referring to the “Brexit” referendum in his remarks about European cooperation.
“We know what happens when Europeans start dividing themselves up, and emphasizing their differences, and seeing a competition between various countries in a zero-sum way,” Obama continued. “The 20th century was a bloodbath, and for all the frustrations and failures of the project to unify Europe, the last five decades have been periods of unprecedented peace, growth and prosperity in Europe.”
In the United States, the president continued, “We know what happens when we start dividing ourselves along lines of race or religion or ethnicity. It’s dangerous — not just for the minority groups that are subjected to that kind of discrimination or, in some cases in the past, violence.”
But he said embracing divisive politics means “we then don’t realize our potential as a country when we’re preventing blacks or Latinos or Asians, or gays or women, from fully participating in the project of building American life.”
Obama concluded, “My vision’s right, on that issue. And it may not always win the day in the short term in any particular political circumstance, but I’m confident it will win the day over the long term.”
The president acknowledged he was “surprised by the election results” on Tuesday and again emphasized that he feels “a responsibility” to ensure a smooth handover of power from his administration to Trump’s incoming team. But he denied that the vote amounted to a rejection of his political vision.
“Throughout my presidency, I’m sure as a matter of convenience, I generally haven’t paid attention to the polls,” he said. “But since your question is directly related to the notion of a rejection of my worldview: Last I checked, a pretty healthy majority of the American people agree with my worldview on a whole bunch of things.”
He appeared to be referring to his job approval ratings, which have climbed to a second-term high of just over 50 percent. Trump supporters have scoffed at those figures, arguing that the polls failed to predict the former reality show host’s historic victory.
Trying to explain the Republican victory, Obama said, “At times of significant stress, people are going to be looking for something, and they don’t always know exactly what it is that they’re looking for. And they may opt for change, even they’re not entirely confident what that change will bring.”