No one irritates Donald Trump quite like Barack Obama.
Trump’s run for president was in part triggered by his enmity for Obama, his desire to one-up him, and he has performed his presidency as a singularly focused attempt at Obama erasure, dismantling what he can of what Obama built and undoing policies Obama instituted.
Obama is everything that Trump is not: intellectual, articulate, adroit, contemplative and cool. He also happens to be a black man. The fact that he could not only ascend to the height of power but also the heights of celebrity and adoration vexed Trump.
Trump set about to demonstrate that none of that mattered, none of it could supersede the talents of a confident counterfeit. He convinced himself that Obama was the convenient recipient of affirmative action adulation from a world thirsty for racial recompense, an assuaging of white guilt.
Trump has held this view well before anyone heard the name Barack Obama. In 1989, Trump said in an NBC News interview, “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white, in terms of the job market.” Trump went so far as to say that “I’ve said on occasion, even about myself, if I was starting off today I would love to be a well-educated black because I really believe they do have an actual advantage today.”
This made Obama an early target for Trump. He questioned Obama’s birth and his heritage, his abilities and educational pedigree. He questioned his leadership and his work ethic. Trump knew the terrible legions of flaws he possessed and was incredulous that this black man could be devoid of any.
So, he feverishly searched for error, sometimes inventing it, moreover projecting his own error onto Obama.
Obama became Trump’s foil for personal reasons of racial and cultural insecurity. But Trump’s view of him perfectly aligned with a larger phenomenon: A significant swath of white America grated at the uppityness of this black man who would set the tone for how Americans should behave, and his black wife who would lecture them about what to eat.
Obama wasn’t on the ballot in 2016, but in a way he was. Trump wasn’t only running against Hillary Clinton — whom conservatives revile, whom Vladimir Putin reviles, whom the patriarchy reviles — he was also running against the black shadow of a black man.
Trump was elected to restore the cultural narrative of the primacy of whiteness.
Now, with the colossal disaster of his Covid-19 response threatening his re-election prospects, Trump is attempting to draft Obama once again as his primary opponent.
No president would have wanted this pandemic to happen on their watch. There would be death and suffering regardless. But, it is hard to imagine another president handling the situation as poorly as Trump has, which has led to far more death and suffering than was necessary. Where we are with this virus was not inevitable. It is the direct result of Trump’s failed policies.
Trump has tried for months to do what he has always done: invent an alternate reality, lie, blame and brag, deny responsibility and claim victory. But that simply doesn’t work as well when the coronavirus has claimed more American lives in a few months than the Vietnam War claimed in a decade. It doesn’t work when tens of millions of Americans are out of work and the economy is teetering on a depression.
So, Trump is reaching past Joe Biden in his basement for an opponent who evokes a more visceral disdain from his base: Obama.
He has cooked up an Obamagate conspiracy, claiming that the former president committed “the biggest political crime in American history, by far!”
Of course, there are no crimes other than the ones Trump himself has committed. But, this is a familiar territory for Trump, projection and deflection. By using sleight of hand to turn the focus to Obama on a phony scandal, he hopes to make people look away from the mountain of dead bodies on which he is now perched.
Trump is trying to make Obama his Willie Horton, the black criminal George Bush successfully used as a racial cudgel in his race against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Trump believes that there is a seesaw mechanism to his political fortunes: If he can drag someone down, it will lift him up.
For now, that person is Obama, the man who lives in Trump’s head, who stalks his dreams, the countervailing symbol to Trump’s deficiencies.