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Opinion Obama’s rousing speech trolls Trump: Who’s the impostor now?

Former President Barack Obama, addresses the service during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency in no small part on the idea that his predecessor was an impostor. He adopted the racist “birther” theory about Barack Obama with the carefully cultivated aim of connecting with disaffected GOP constituencies, then stuck with it through his hijacking of the party in 2016 en route to winning the presidency.

That core idea — that the first Black president couldn’t possibly have been a real American, that electing Trump would in effect set things right by erasing from history the Obama presidency, which should have never happened — is particularly galling, but also worth remembering, in light of the stark contrast we just witnessed unfolding between these two men.

It is perversely fitting that President Trump issued his clearest statement of corrupt intent yet toward our elections on the same day that Obama delivered a eulogy for John Lewis, who was revered for his willingness to sacrifice his life to realize the full promise of American democracy for African Americans, and for all Americans.

Trump tweeted his usual lies about vote-by-mail, falsely claiming it will produce a “FRAUDULENT” result, and asked whether we should “delay the election until people can properly, securely and safely vote.”

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Trump cannot postpone the election, and many Republicans rejected the idea. But in floating it, Trump again tried to dissuade states from scaling up safe voting options in pandemic conditions and sought to cast in advance any outcome in which he does not prevail as fundamentally illegitimate.

Trump also reminded us again that he intends to do all he possibly can — including manipulating the levers of government and even the machinery of our justice system — to corrupt the election and maintain his grip on power, regardless of the preferences of the American electorate.

In his eulogy for Lewis only a few hours later, Obama didn’t mention Trump. But Trump’s intentions towards this fall’s elections — and our democracy — were everywhere.

Obama ripped into “our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.” That’s the sort of violence Lewis repeatedly braved. And it’s the sort that was waged to clear a path for Trump’s grand appeal to illiberal Christian nationalism and to create the TV imagery of state violence against domestic dissent that is supposed to galvanize just enough reactionary sentiment among White voters to enable another counter-majoritarian electoral college inside straight.

Obama also tore into the voter suppression tactics targeting Democratic and minority voters still in operation today — many put in place by GOP legislatures and egged on by Trump since. And Obama pilloried efforts to undermine the postal service “in the run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”

Trump is already undermining vote-by-mail just about every day — having unabashedly revealed that this is really about ensuring fewer people exercise their right to vote against Republicans, that is, against him.

“John Lewis devoted his time on this earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we’re seeing circulate right now,” Obama said. “That’s why John crossed that bridge. That’s why he spilled his blood.”

And Obama called for strengthened voting rights going forward, including a revitalized Voting Rights Act and the removal of all manner of barriers to participation. But Obama also acknowledged that too many people sit out our elections, limiting our democratic promise.

Obama recently let it be known that he fears two things about this fall: voter suppression, and Trump’s efforts to question the outcome’s legitimacy. It is an unsettling fact about this moment that Trump is currently engaged in both. They may commingle in a uniquely toxic way, if Trump declares premature victory on election day while raging that millions of outstanding mail ballots, mostly from Democrats, should not count.

We already know Trump is capable of resorting to all manner of illicit schemes to avoid facing a free and fair election. He got impeached for this. His attorney general practically laid out a full blueprint before Congress.

And Trump has now telegraphed it once again with total clarity. It could ultimately mean large-scale civil violence, all to avoid accepting legitimate majoritarian defeat.

On the very same day, Obama signaled his faith that if the will of the majority is truly heard with minimal impediments, then Trump will be removed from office. Obama may or may not prove right about this.

But here’s what we know right now: Trump, too, fears that this is the case. He has made this absolutely clear again and again — and did so on the day of Lewis’s funeral — by leaving zero doubt of his willingness to remain in power via illegitimate means if necessary.

And so, by offering a full-throated affirmation of true majoritarian democracy in response, Obama posed a tacit question: Who’s the impostor now?

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