Former U.S. president Barack Obama, in an impassioned return to the global stage, has warned that the world is sliding into a brutal and dangerous new era of “strongman politics” where autocrats are exploiting fear to subvert democracy.

Just a day after President Donald Trump held a friendly summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he initially accepted Mr. Putin’s denial of election meddling allegations, Mr. Obama delivered a lengthy speech that was peppered with thinly disguised jabs at his successor.

“Look around. Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.”

Mr. Obama was cheered with standing ovations from about 15,000 people at a Johannesburg cricket stadium on Tuesday as he made his highest-profile public appearance since leaving office last year. The crowd greeted him by enthusiastically chanting “Yes, we can” – an echo of Mr. Obama’s famous election slogan.

The first black president of the United States had been invited to pay tribute to South Africa’s first black president to mark the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth.

His 80-minute speech, a fervent plea for resistance to autocracy and cynicism, had been billed by his aides as his most important speech since leaving office. The Johannesburg platform was carefully chosen to evoke the memory of Mr. Mandela, the South African liberation hero who had inspired Mr. Obama’s first act of political activism: his decision as a young college student to join the anti-apartheid movement.

Without naming him, Mr. Obama took clear aim at Mr. Trump for his policies on immigration and climate change, his fondness for falsehoods and his cozy relationship with authoritarian leaders.

The politics of “fear and resentment” is now on the move, in the United States and across the world, Mr. Obama said.

“It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago,” he said.

Populist movements are being “cynically funded by right-wing billionaires” who use it as a tactic to remove governmental constraints on their business interests, he said.

Much of the world is “threatening to return to an older, more dangerous, more brutal way of doing business,” reviving the old notion that “might makes right,” he said.

Mr. Obama said there are “two different stories, two different narratives” that are battling for the “hearts and minds” of the world. And he made it clear that he and Mr. Trump are on different sides of this division.

In another barely veiled attack on Mr. Trump’s tactics, Mr. Obama mocked politicians who routinely lie and who never back down when their lies are exposed.

“We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more,” he said. “It used to be that if you caught them lying, they’d be like ‘Oh man.’ Now, they just keep on lying.”

The growing tendency by governments to control the media and promote their own propaganda could be the “undoing” of democracy, he said. “The free press is under attack.”

Mr. Trump regularly launches verbal assaults on the U.S. media, calling them the “enemy of the people.” His aides have defended his “alternative facts” when his falsehoods are challenged. But the world cannot function without facts, Mr. Obama said.

“People just make stuff up,” he told the crowd. “You have to believe in facts … The denial of facts runs counter to democracy.”

In a clear reference to Mr. Trump’s repeated claim that climate change is “a hoax,” Mr. Obama said it is impossible to “find common ground” if a politician ignores the consensus of almost all scientists. “If you say it’s an elaborate hoax, where do we start?”

On immigration, he made another veiled reference to Mr. Trump, who has restricted immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries. Immigration policies based on “race or religion” are wrong, he said.

He cited the French soccer team that won the World Cup this week as an example of immigration and diversity. “Not all of those folks looked like Gauls to me, but they are French.”

The rise of populism and the assault on democracy, he said, were partly a result of severe economic inequality. “A few dozen individuals control the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity.”

The solutions, he suggested, could come from policies such as a universal guaranteed income and more progressive taxation to reduce the deep gulf between rich and poor.

The Globe and Mail, July 17, 2018