Donald Trump has a thing about Barack Obama. Trump is obsessed with Obama. Obama haunts Trump’s dreams. One of Trump’s primary motivators is the absolute erasure of Obama — were it possible — not only from the political landscape but also from the history books.
Trump is president because of Obama, or more precisely, because of his hostility to Obama. Trump came onto the political scene by attacking Obama.
Trump has questioned not only Obama’s birthplace but also his academic and literary pedigree. He was head cheerleader of the racial “birther” lie and also cast doubt on whether Obama attended the schools he attended or even whether he wrote his acclaimed books.
Trump has lied often about Obama: saying his inauguration crowd size exceeded Obama’s, saying that Obama tapped his phones and, just this week, saying that Obama colluded with the Russians.
It’s like a 71-year-old male version of Jan from what I would call the Bratty Bunch: Obama, Obama, Obama.
Trump wants to be Obama — held in high esteem. But, alas, Trump is Trump, and that is now and has always been trashy. Trump accrued financial wealth, but he never accrued cultural capital, at least not among the people from whom he most wanted it.
President Trump heading to the White House Rose Garden on June 1, when he announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord.
Al Drago / The New York Times
Therefore, Trump is constantly whining about not being sufficiently applauded, commended, thanked, liked. His emotional injury is measured in his mind against Obama. How could Obama have been so celebrated while he is so reviled?
The whole world seemed to love Obama — and by extension, held America in high regard — but the world loathes Trump. A Pew Research Center report issued this week found:
“Trump and many of his key policies are broadly unpopular around the globe, and ratings for the U.S. have declined steeply in many nations. According to a new Pew Research Center survey spanning 37 nations, a median of just 22 percent has confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. This stands in contrast to the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when a median of 64 percent expressed confidence in Trump’s predecessor to direct America’s role in the world.”
Obama was a phenomenon. He was elegant and cerebral. He was devoid of personal scandal and drenched in personal erudition. He was a walking, talking rebuttal to white supremacy and the myths of black pathology and inferiority. He was the personification of the possible — a possible future in which legacy power and advantages are redistributed more broadly to all with the gift of talent and the discipline to excel.
It is not a stretch here to link people’s feelings about Obama to their feelings about his blackness. Trump himself has more than once linked the two.
Just two months before Trump announced his candidacy, he weighed in on the unrest in Baltimore in the wake of the police killing of Freddie Gray, tweeting:
“Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!”
Months earlier, following the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of Michael Brown, Trump complained:
“President Obama has absolutely no control (or respect) over the African American community—they have fared so poorly under his presidency.”
Trump also tweeted:
“Sadly, because president Obama has done such a poor job as president, you won’t see another black president for generations!”
Clearly, not only was Obama’s blackness in the front of Trump’s mind, but Trump also appears to subscribe to the racist theory that success or failure of a member of a racial group redounds to all in that group. This is a burden under which most minorities in this country labor.
Trump’s racial ideas were apparently a selling point among his supporters. Recent research has dispensed with the myth of “economic anxiety” and shone a light instead on the central importance race played in Trump’s march to the White House. As the researchers Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel reported in The Nation in March:
“In short, our analysis indicates that Donald Trump successfully leveraged existing resentment towards African Americans in combination with emerging fears of increased racial diversity in America to reshape the presidential electorate, strongly attracting nativists towards Trump and pushing some more affluent and highly educated people with more cosmopolitan views to support Hillary Clinton. Racial identity and attitudes have further displaced class as the central battleground of American politics.”
Trump was sent to Washington to strip it of all traces of Obama, to treat the Obama legacy as a historical oddity. Trump’s entire campaign was about undoing what Obama had done.
Indeed, much of what Trump has accomplished — and it hasn’t been much — has been to undo Obama’s accomplishments, like pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement and reversing an Obama-era rule that helped prevent guns from being purchased by certain mentally ill people.
For Trump, even plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act aren’t so much about creating better policy as they are about dismantling Obama’s legacy. The problem with Obamacare isn’t that it hasn’t borne fruit, but rather that it bears Obama’s name.
For Trump, the mark of being a successful president is the degree to which he can expunge Obama’s presidency.