Every week I host a radio show in Great Britain, so great is their interest in our politics during the Trump era. And every week, the recurring question is, "How did America get Donald Trump in the first place?" This week, I finally had a satisfactory answer. I played the audio of Barack Obama's speech.
The former president returned to the stump last week with a major speech to college students in Illinois. "Listen to that speech," I told my British audience. "It's all there."
What is "it?" President Obama's fans — and he has far more than Donald Trump does at the moment— heard the return of intellectualism, sophistication and style. A Los Angeles Times columnist described Obama as "Sleek Dog," in contrast to President Bill Clinton, a.k.a., the "Big Dog."
But Trump voters heard something else in Obama's speech, which sounded all too familiar from the years of his presidency: condescension, arrogance. You might think they're just imagining it, but to the Republicans who picked Trump, it's very real.
In Trump's America, where talk radio and Fox News are a steady part of the information stream, Obama's previous, perceived slights toward them are as well-known as Hillary Clinton's infamous "baskets of deplorables" comment. When Clinton made that remark during the 2016 campaign, many conservative pundits immediately noted how it echoed candidate Obama's dismissive tone in 2008 regarding "bitter" blue-collar voters in rural America who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
As Obama spoke in Illinois, conservatives heard Obama's characterization of middle America as "basically decent," people who "get confused sometimes" as an insult.
"You know, they listen to the wrong talk radio shows or watch the wrong TV networks, um, but they're, they're basically decent, they're basically sound," he said.
And that's the context in which they see Obama and Donald Trump today.
When President Obama described the Republican Party as the "home" of "the politics of division, of resentment and paranoia," it sounded all too familiar. Just days after his speech at Sen. John McCain's funeral, where he praised the Republican senator for rising above harsh, implacable partisanship, Obama seemed to indulge in exactly that. Ask activist Trump supporters what they think of Obama's presidency. They'll tell you it was eight years of bare-knuckle partisanship beneath of the velvet glove of a winning smile and friendly media coverage. Are they right? Maybe, maybe not. But it's what they believe.
When President Obama said, "I complained plenty about Fox News – but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them enemies of the people," conservatives who watch that "wrong TV network" and listen to the "wrong radio" burst into laughter. They know the many times the Obama White House tried to get Fox News marginalized as a media source. They recall the Obama administration spying on Associate Press reporters, labeling Fox News's James Rosen a "criminal co-conspirator" over his coverage of North Korea policy and investigating his family. Obama opened more "Espionage Act" investigations into the working press than all previous administrations combined.
Even the Washington Post conceded, "Shocked by Trump aggression against reporters and sources? The blueprint was drawn by Obama."
When Obama wondered aloud, "What has happened to the Republican Party" and complained that the Trump administration is "undermining our alliances, cozying up to Russia," some Trump supporters tweeted each other "Did the 1980s get their foreign policy back?" That was a reference to Obama's mockery of Mitt Romney during their 2012 debate, when Romney called Russia America's greatest geo-political threat. Others posted pictures of the big red button Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with "reset" written in Russia across the top. (As Lavrov noted, Hillary's button actually had the wrong Russian word.)
And when President Obama tried to take credit for the current economic boom — "When you hear how great the economy's doing right now, let's just remember when this recovery started" — you could practically hear the heads exploding across Trump Country. Yes, it's true that the economy recovered after the Great Recession. What Trump supporters know but people who rarely consume conservative media content likely don't, is that the economic recovery under Barack Obama was the slowest since World War II.
Obama's recovery was so awful that in— two years after the $1 trillion stimulus was passed—the economy added zero jobs.
What makes the Obama experience so maddening isn't his behavior, or his questionable claims—that's just politics. It's the self-righteousness of it all, the suggestion that the U.S. under Obama was divided, not between liberals and conservatives, but rather "people who agreed with Obama and his allies," and "bad people." "Bad" as in "confused," "bitter," "clinging to guns and religion," "deplorable."
The return of Barack Obama to the national stage will remind many people who chose a problematic presidential candidate like Donald Trump why they made that choice to begin with. Viewing Donald Trump in a political vacuum, it seems almost impossible to imagine how he was ever elected. But compare him to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and you don't have to have a #MAGA hat on to see how appealing he becomes.
How did America get Trump? Eight years of sanctimony and elitism, along with hostility toward the basic cultural values of a significant part of the country -- and the promise that Hillary Clinton would bring even more of that.
How do you get Trump for four more years? See above.