On Sunday, the president who dawdled while a pandemic spread across the country, got into a no-win trade war with China, hired a slew of incompetent and ethically challenged advisers and presided over the worst economic crash in 90 years decided to call Obama “grossly incompetent.” Talk about projection.
I have a couple theories as to why he is doing this now. No, it is not simply an effort to distract from Trump’s meltdown or from the almost 90,000 deaths resulting from the pandemic. Trump could have chosen a more plausible conspiracy and a less popular target, but he picked Obama for a reason. Two reasons, actually.
First, Trump has been in a juvenile competition with his predecessor since the day he took office. Trump insisted the economy was stronger under him than under Obama. (That was false then and is now, well, self-evidently ludicrous.) Trump tore up the Iran deal and backed out of the Paris accords in part because Obama was associated with them. As it becomes patently obvious that Trump’s presidency will go down as one of the worst in history and that his achievements are minuscule compared with Obama’s, Trump becomes even more frantic to position himself as a superior president. It is the sort of thing a narcissist crumbling under the pressure of his own humiliation would do.
However, when one looks more carefully, a more specific different reason emerges for Trump’s new round of Obama-bashing. Trump seeks to make Obama out to be a criminal or unfit. It goes back to the original sin of Trump’s political career — birtherism — and to his campaign, which channeled cultural and racial animosity among whites against elites, nonwhites and immigrants.
Trump’s effort to delegitimize the only African American U.S. president and to convince his followers that they are victims has been central to his political identity and to the bond with his cult. In times of political peril, as he was in the 2018 midterms when he invoked a “caravan” of migrants to stir his base, Trump always returns to white grievance. Just as birtherism made no sense but became a totem of the MAGA crowd, “Obamagate” now provides the same function of unifying, energizing and enraging Trump’s camp.
When Trump is staring at international humiliation and political defeat, he first went to the well of anti-Asian xenophobia (e.g. imploring an Asian America reporter to ask China her question). When that fails to hit the mark, he goes back to his touchstone: racism directed against African Americans. He remains convinced that if he just gets his rabid base sufficiently engaged, he can pull out another improbable win. And prepare yourself: Should Biden select an African American vice president (as I think he should), the grotesque racism that will ooze from the right will make birtherism seem innocuous.
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