Former President Barack Obama broke his promise to stay quiet after leaving office, condemning the path of the United States under President Donald Trump.
“Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different. The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire,” he said on Friday.
Obama acknowledged that he wished to address the country as a “fellow citizen” not an “ex-president” but said that the moment was too great to remain silent.
The former president addressed students at the University of Illinois, criticizing everything about Trump’s presidency, calling it a “dark” period of American history.
He reminded them that periods of progress in American were frequently followed by periods of resistance to change, especially from leaders who fanned the flames of resentment.
“It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause,” Obama said. “He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.”
He pointed to the rise of white-nationalism and racial division and condemned Republicans for stoking resentment to remain in power.
“Over the past few decades, the politics of division, of resentment and paranoia has unfortunately found a home in the Republican Party,” Obama said.
He implied that his presidency was a period of progress, that was followed by Trump.
“There’s always been another darker aspect to America’s story,” he explained. “Progress doesn’t just move in a straight line. There’s a reason why progress hasn’t been easy and why throughout our history every two steps forward seems to sometimes produce one step back.”
He scolded Republicans for allowing conspiracy theories to rage about Benghazi and his birth certificate and implied that Trump and the Republicans were dependent on the darker side of human nature.
“They start undermining norms that ensure accountability, try to change the rules to entrench their power further. And they appeal to racial nationalism that’s barely veiled, if veiled at all,” he said.
Obama referred to Trump as a “bully” who deserved to be rejected by the American people.
“We are Americans. We’re supposed to stand up to bullies. Not follow them. We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination. And we’re sure as heck supposed to stand up, clearly and unequivocally, to Nazi sympathizers,” he said.
Republicans, he said, were appealing to “tribe” by trying to divide people by race and gender.
“None of this is conservative,” Obama said. “It’s not conservative. It sure isn’t normal. It’s radical.”
He also blasted Republicans for “cozying up to the KGB” by working with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“What happened!?” he said, pointing out that the Republicans used to hate communism.
He put the moment in the context of history, noting that the United States survived the tumultuous times of the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, the Cold War with Russia.
He reminded students that American leaders were “not perfect” but that progress was made.
“That progress wasn’t achieved just by a handful of leaders making speeches,” Obama said, urging all of the students present to perform heroic acts of progress to make history.
Despite the dark tone of his speech, Obama urged his supporters to stay positive.
“Fortunately I am hopeful because out of this political darkness I am seeing a great awakening of citizenship all across the country,” he said.
He encouraged his followers not to depend on charismatic leaders to urge them forward, perhaps hinting at the failure of failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“You can’t opt out because you don’t feel sufficiently inspired by this or that particular candidate,” he said. “This is not a rock concert, this is not Coachella. You don’t need a messiah. All we need are decent, honest, hardworking people who are accountable.”