Trump Wants to Make the 2020 Election a Referendum on Obama

The “Obamagate” conspiracy theory is rooted in the one thing the president knows best: racism.

A quick perusal of Trump’s Twitter feed demonstrates that he and his enablers continue to be obsessed with what they are calling “Obamagate.” In commenting on this development, Brian Kilmeade made a statement that has a lot of political pundits scratching their heads.

Why would Trump want to run against one of the most popular presidents in modern history? For example, a recent poll showed that a majority of Americans, 52 percent, say Obama would be a better leader for the current crisis than Trump, who weighed in at only 38 percent.

David Frum does a good job of getting inside Trump’s head to tell us what’s going on in there.

Trump’s psychology is defined by his terror of rejection. The most stinging insult in his vast vocabulary of disdain is loser. And yet every poll, every powerful Biden TV ad, forces Trump to contemplate that he is headed toward a historic humiliation…

Angry, scared, and aggrieved by the lack of praise for his efforts, Trump turns for safety to television, where his two-dimensional friends explain how everything is everybody else’s fault. They tell him that he is right and all his critics are wrong. They promise that miracle drugs will—poof!—make all his troubles vanish without effort. Sean and Tucker and Laura and Jeanine and the Fox & Friends romper room tell him stories that hold the terror at bay.

Frum concludes that Trump has “lost the plot” because “he’s talking about things most voters could not even understand, let alone care about.” It’s true that most voters aren’t interested in delving into the intricacies of how the investigation into the whole Trump-Russia affair was both launched and conducted. But that misses the point of what they see when Obama’s name is invoked.

The first thing to keep in mind is that, just as he’s always done, Trump is not attempting to win over a broad coalition of voters. Instead, he’s playing to his base in the Republican Party. To understand who is included in that group, we have to go back to the 1960s when the last great political realignment took place.

Through the implementation of the so-called “Southern Strategy,” the GOP hitched their star to white people who were resentful of the gains made by African Americans after the Civil Rights movement. Then, in the 1980s, they became the party of Christian nationalists, who not only had a history of racism but added to the whole embrace of grievance politics by launching the culture wars.

When it came to actual policies, the Republican Party has always depended on its supporters among the financial and military elite. That is why David Roberts pointed out that the GOP became the “post-truth” party.

Republicans thus talk about “taxes” and “spending” and “regulation” in the abstract…They talk about cutting the deficit even as they slash taxes on the rich and launch unfunded wars. They talk about free markets even as they subsidize fossil fuels. They talk about American exceptionalism even as they protect fossil-fuel incumbents and fight research and infrastructure investments.

In short, Republicans have mastered post-truth politics.

During the Bush/Cheney years, those policies brought us the massive failures of a bungled response to Katrina, two seemingly endless wars in the Middle East, and the Great Recession. All Republicans had left was to be the party of racism and grievance. They played that to the hilt by simply obstructing everything Democrats tried to do—becoming the “post-policy” party.

Following Obama’s re-election in 2012, the Republican Party performed an autopsy that counseled them to reach out to people of color, women, and young people. But doing so would have gone against everything their base voters had come to expect from them. Instead, they went with Trump, who had launched his career on the national political stage with the racist lie of birtherism.

What running against Obama exemplifies is that Trump will once again attempt to fire up his base with racism and grievance politics. But of course, it also builds on the president’s own racism. As the saying goes, Obama has taken up residence in Trump’s head because, in every way imaginable, the former president demonstrated that he was better at the job. As Jonathan Chait once captured so well, that is an unforgivable crime to racists.

Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.

Ta-Nehisi Coates did an amazing job of explaining how that played out with the election of “the first white president.” While he uses words that might be offensive to some, they help capture the sentiment we’re dealing with.

Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.

As Frum explained, Donald Trump is growing more desperate every day at the prospect of becoming a loser. Given that his entire political existence hinges on the fact of the black president who preceded him, he is resorting to the one thing he knows best: racism.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.