The story of Donald Trump, Michael Cohen and the president’s desperate efforts to make sure the public never saw his school records may seem relatively unimportant, even if it reveals something about Trump’s insecurities. But it’s actually an important part of the story of this entire era, of Barack Obama and the racial backlash that put Trump in the White House, a backlash that is ongoing and will feature prominently in the 2020 campaign.

In one of the more colorful moments in Cohen's recent testimony before the House, the former Trump factotum explained how his boss ordered him to contact his high schools and colleges and deliver a threat: If Trump's transcripts or test scores were ever to see the light of day, there'd be trouble.

Fordham University, which Trump attended before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, soon confirmed that it did indeed receive a threatening letter from Cohen, as did the New York Military Academy, where Trump went to high school. And now The Post’s Marc Fisher has more details about how concerned some of Trump’s friends were:

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In 2011, days after Donald Trump challenged President Barack Obama to “show his records” to prove that he hadn’t been a “terrible student,” the headmaster at New York Military Academy got an order from his boss: Find Trump’s academic records and help bury them.
The superintendent of the private school “came to me in a panic because he had been accosted by prominent, wealthy alumni of the school who were Mr. Trump’s friends” and who wanted to keep his records secret, recalled Evan Jones, the headmaster at the time. “He said, ‘You need to go grab that record and deliver it to me because I need to deliver it to them.’ ”

Obviously, if Trump were a straight-A student who aced his SATs, he would have been more than happy to have those records made public. But why would it have mattered so much even if he wasn’t? Who would really care whether a man in his 70s got a C in history class a half century ago?

It’s more than just embarrassment. The answer lies in the narrative Trump was writing, not just about himself but about Obama and the entire American system.

That narrative told white voters that their resentments and disappointments were both perfectly valid and not their fault. When Trump told them that the system was “rigged” against them, he wasn’t talking about wealth and power. He was talking about white people supposedly being held back, by immigrants and undeserving black people who had been pushed ahead of them to the front of the line.

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Central to that picture was the idea that Obama was the most undeserving of all. Trump turned himself from a reality show character to a political figure by becoming the country’s most prominent advocate of birtherism, the racist theory that Obama was not a real American but, in fact, had been born in Kenya.

What may be not quite as well remembered is that Trump also repeatedly demanded that Obama release his transcripts, and claimed over and over that Obama could not possibly have gotten into Columbia University and Harvard Law School on merit. “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” Trump said. “I have friends who have smart sons with great marks, great boards, great everything and they can’t get into Harvard.”

In other words, Obama must have been given a spot that should have gone to a more worthy person, who obviously would have been white (and it's no small irony that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner almost certainly was admitted to Harvard only because his father made a well-timed $2.5 million donation to the school).

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By any objective measure, this is a bizarre claim. Whatever you might think of Obama’s presidency, one thing you can’t say is that he isn’t smart and talented. If he had been admitted to college or law school because of affirmative action, you couldn’t imagine a better advertisement for affirmative action. But that’s precisely why he presents such a threat to Trump himself and the larger story he tells.

On a personal level, we know that Trump is desperately insecure about his intelligence. People who are actually smart don't go around telling you how smart they are, but Trump regularly feels it necessary to proclaim himself a genius; here's a representative stream-of-consciousness soliloquy from 2016, which actually began as a rumination on nuclear weapons:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world.

The subtext of Trump’s repeated claims to genius and his criticisms of Obama was that electing him would replace the falsely intelligent and undeserving president (Obama) with an actually intelligent and deserving president (himself).

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By 2016, that was a message the conservative base was eager to hear. They’d spent the previous eight years being told by media figures such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck that Obama’s entire presidency was oriented around showering benefits on lazy, undeserving black people while whites were marginalized and discriminated against. From hoaxes such as “Obamaphones” to the repeated claim that any policy initiative Obama pursued was “reparations” aimed at taking money from white people and giving it to black people, the voters who became Trump’s base knew this story well.

Which brings us to 2020. Lately, the Democratic candidates have gotten questions about reparations, and a number of them have responded that yes, we should have a concerted effort to deal with the long legacy of racism that continues to harm African Americans today in areas such as homeownership. However, they’re pointedly not talking about some kind of cash payment to the descendants of slaves, which is what people commonly understand the term “reparations” to mean.

But sooner or later, Trump is going to hit hard on “reparations,” and of course he’ll lie about what Democrats actually support. The message will be that while Trump has restored people such as you to their rightful place atop society’s hierarchy (America made great again) and if the Democrat wins, the natural order will once again be reversed.

The message will be: Fear the immigrants, hate the foreigners, resent the minorities profiting at your expense. After all, it worked in 2016, didn’t it?

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