Barack Obama asks, “Why is it that the folks that won the last election are so mad all the time?”

It seems like a clever line:

“Why is it that the folks that won the last election are so mad all the time?” [Barack] Obama asked a crowd of 4,000 as the fifth interrupting protester was escorted out of a Miami rally on Friday [November 2]. Any further shouts were drowned out by the crowd’s roar.[1]

And it would seem to have earned the audience’s approval. But what this line actually illustrates is how utterly clueless the former president is—and a lot of other folks are—about authoritarian populism.

Authoritarian populists have been mad for over a millennium. The short answer to Barack Obama’s question is simply that it will take much, much more than even a completely unrestrained and absolutely dictatorial Donald Trump to assuage this anger.

It’s an anger that, according to Colin Woodard, first arrived in what would become the United States in 1717,

from the war-torn borderlands of northern Britain: lowland Scotland, the adjacent Marches of northern England, and the Scots-Irish-controlled north of Ireland. Their ancestors had weathered 800 years of nearly constant warfare. . . .[2]

Woodard quotes an unnamed foreign diplomat as describing the north of England as “very poor and uncultivated and exceedingly wretched . . . from the perpetual wars with which these nations have savagely destroyed each other”[3] These people, whom Woodard calls Borderlanders,

learned to rely only on themselves and their extended families to defend home, hearth, and kin against intruders, be they foreign soldiers, Irish guerrilla fighters, or royal tax collectors.” They saw themselves as “God’s chosen people, members of a biblical nation sanctified in blood and watched over by a wrathful Old Testament deity. Suspicious of outside authority of any kind, the Borderlanders valued individual liberty and personal honor above all else, and were happy to take up arms to defend either.”[4]

Sound familiar? It should. These people, who occupied what Woodard calls Greater Appalachia,[5] live on today as Trump’s authoritarian populist base. Thomas Frank describes them as suspicious of political, economic, and academic elites; as resentful of their primary and secondary school experiences; as suspicious of sexuality education; and as having had their votes taken for granted by those I call functionalist conservatives, who had promised social conservative policies but only occasionally delivered.[6] Frank writes that

the leaders of the backlash—the same canny people, remember, who are responsible for such masterpieces of political strategy as the Florida 2000 election result and the campaign for Social Security privatization—have chosen to wage cultural battles where victory is impossible, where their followers’ feelings of powerlessness will be dramatized and their alienation aggravated. Take, for example, the backlash fury-object du jour as I write this, the Alabama Ten Commandments monument, which was erected deliberately to provoke an ACLU lawsuit and which could come to no other possible end than being pried loose and carted away. Or even the great abortion controversy, which mobilizes millions but which cannot be put to rest without a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal. Indignation is the privileged emotion, the magic moment that brings a consciousness of rightness and a determination to persist.[7]

Frank is on to more than a little when he describes a backlash. These folks don’t actually have an idea of what the world they desire looks like. They are simply about revulsion, revulsion against outside authority and revulsion against outsiders. They personify the “us” in “us” versus “them.” Their “we” constantly faces “invaders” and their “we” must constantly do battle against “them” to protect their “us.” They simply want to destroy everything they see as having been imposed upon them over a thousand years of history.

They don’t even have anything like a proper understanding of that history—that would require education. This is rather a resentment that has been passed down and nurtured from generation to generation and that gains adherents with every elite arrogance.

Perhaps you agree with Obama’s policies. Perhaps you disagree. But for authoritarian populists, a Black president from the Democratic Party could not possibly be “our” president. He was “socialist” not because he was actually socialist (he wasn’t). He was “Muslim” not because he was actually a Muslim (he wasn’t). He was “born in Kenya” not because he was actually born in Kenya (he wasn’t). He was all of these things simply because he couldn’t possibly be one of “us.” And therefore he was to be fought against and repelled at all costs.

You might read all this and think to yourself, this isn’t a governing ideology. And you’d be right, absolutely right. It isn’t. And that’s the truly scary thing about Trump: He is in an office that authoritarian populists were never supposed to occupy. He is there because functionalist conservatives—the mainstream elite whose existential concern is to preserve their positions relative to the rest of society—underestimated authoritarian populist anger.

Which Obama still does.

  1. [1]Cleve R. Wootson, Jr., “Obama rips hecklers: Why are the people who won the last election ‘so mad all the time?’” Washington Post, November 3, 2018,
  2. [2]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011), 101.
  3. [3]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011), 102.
  4. [4]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011), 102.
  5. [5]Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011).
  6. [6]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005)
  7. [7]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005), 121-122.

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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