The notion that President Obama played some substantial role in awakening the Donald Trump phenomenon has evolved from a form of buck-passing that conservatives once struggled to justify into a full-blown conventional wisdom.
It is not uncommon anymore for anti-Trump conservatives like National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke to perfunctorily assert that “Obama begat Trumpism” without taking the trouble to explain what Obama did, other than simply to be who he is, to cause nearly half of the Republican electorate to become spellbound by a bigoted demagogue. But there is something revealing about the way this idea took hold through unthinking repetition.
The conservative tendency to ascribe disconnected, negative global developments to something Obama’s done, or to something abstract about his nature, is well known enough to be an object of satire. The phrase “Thanks, Obama!” (or #ThanksObama) is understood across the political internet as a parody of the right’s reflexive anti-Obamaism. Get a traffic ticket? Thanks, Obama! Leave your house keys at the office? Thanks, Obama!
Occasionally this kind of criticism, like a stopped clock, is accurate (intervention in Libya didn’t work? Thanks, Obama!). But it usually just reflects an obvious and uninteresting political logic. Assigning blame for bad news and claiming credit for good is among the most banal but potent tactics in politics. Fueling anger at another party’s leaders is a great way to motivate your own supporters; by the same token, governing failures can drain your own supporters’ enthusiasm. That’s the thinking behind facially absurd efforts to blame Obama for the spread of Ebola, or for the surge of child migrants at the border a couple years ago.
But the logic doesn’t carry over to blaming Trump, because the phenomenon for which conservatives are assigning blame arose within the Republican Party. To treat Trump as an object of blame at all is to imply that millions of your allies are participating in something bad. To implicate Obama compounds the problem, however, because Trump’s supporters see Trump as Obama’s antithesis—the solution to the problems Obama has caused—not as somehow complicit with him.
The shattering of a political movement, and the attendant grief, will by its very nature elicit searching and denial. But dragging Obama into the process can’t serve to unify the right the way, for instance, blaming Obama for Benghazi might. It instead drives the wedge deeper. But blaming Obama has been so pervasive over the past seven years, such a critical means of keeping the conservative worldview sorted, that it has become atavistic—to the point where we are now seeing it deployed in ways that undermine the supposed purpose.
There is but one prominent conservative, by my count, who refuses to cast Trump as a thing that happened to the GOP, rather than something the GOP brought upon itself.
Represenative Amash may actually be conceding too much. There are above-board ways to argue that Obama isn’t blameless in Trump’s rise. The problem is that they all implicate Republican politics or conservative ideology, and are thus off-limits to Trump’s intra-party critics. Obama could have done much more to mitigate the foreclosure crisis he inherited. He could have introduced a much larger recovery act at the outset of his administration, and he could have been more aggressive and creative with his appointments to the Federal Reserve. These are significant errors, and any good-faith effort to comprehensively reckon with Trump’s rise should include them. The way conservatives are implicating Obama, by contrast, is meant to serve the rather different purpose of avoiding that reckoning altogether.
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