President Barack Obama said Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is “taking advantage of” the frustration, fear, and anger many middle Americans feel as demographics in the country continue to shift.
In a wide-ranging interview with NPR—President Obama touched on the historic Paris climate deal, what he hopes of his successor (who he suspects will be a Democrat), and weighed in on the various on-campus movements that sprang up throughout the past year—Obama said Trump’s campaign plays right into racial fears that have long existed in the U.S.
“I do think that the country is inexorably changing, I believe in all kinds of positive ways,” he said, saying when he talks to his teenaged daughters and their friends he is hopeful for the next generation. But he adds, the combination of demographic change and economic hardship has led many to feel like they’re being left behind.
“You combine those things and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear,” Obama said. “Some of it justified but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.”
Trump has been widely criticized for calling for an outright ban on Muslims entering the U.S., statements he has largely stood by though he offered some flexibility in the days following his initial statement. Trump’s campaign launch featured divisive rhetoric geared toward Mexican immigrants, whom he referred to as criminals and “rapists.” And supporters at Trump rallies have also reportedly attacked a number of protesters who have challenged the candidate on issues like Black Lives Matter and immigration.
President Obama said his election to the nation’s highest office and his background as the nation’s first black president in some ways “may represent change that worries” pockets of the Republican party. “But that’s not to suggest that everybody who objects to my policies may not have perfectly good reasons for it,” he said. “If you are living in a town that historically has relied on coal and you see coal jobs diminishing, you probably are going to be more susceptible to the argument that I’ve been wiping out the economy in your area.”
President Obama also defended his administration’s ongoing strategy to combat Islamic State, or ISIS, saying the U.S.-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes against the network has been “increasingly effective,” though he acknowledged his administration has a messaging problem when it comes to relaying that effectiveness and the overall strategy to the American people.
The president said ISIS “is not an organization that can destroy the United States” but due to the nature of the most recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., both of which have been linked to the terror network” he understands why people are worried. Yet, Obama said, “what is important is for people to recognize that the power, the strength of the United States and its allies are not threatened by an organization like this.”
Obama was also questioned about the nation’s identity after a year that brought forth pretty widespread change with the Black Lives Matter movement, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and discussion of admitting immigrants and refugees while the nation is on high alert for terror attacks.