In 2011, Donald Trump flinched.
“After considerable deliberation and reflection, I have decided not to pursue the office of the presidency," he said in a statement. Typically, he attempted some face-saving bravado: “I maintain the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and, ultimately, the general election.”
It’s more likely his “strong conviction” told him that if he even won the nomination, he would lose to President Obama. And given Trump’s documented racism, he did not want to get embarrassed by a Black man.
Now President Trump is trying to do what he didn’t have the guts to do in 2012 — run against Obama.
Of course, the last president to respect the Constitution can’t vie for the White House again. Still, that isn’t stopping Trump from making his reelection campaign into a referendum on Obama, and how the Trump presidency remains this base’s best sanctuary for white fragility.
With former vice president Joe Biden as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Obama’s name was bound to be heard often as Trump, Fox News, and various surrogates knotted Biden to his former boss’s policies, such as the Affordable Care Act — not to mention all the concocted nonsense Trump claims occurred during Obama’s tenure.
Yet Trump’s colossal botching of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in more than 90,000 confirmed deaths in less than three months, altered his reelection strategy. Unable to run on an economy now cratered due to his own lethal blunders, he’s falling back on his political origin story — his seething contempt for this nation’s first Black president.
(I’ve long believed this is why Trump has had a peculiar enmity for Senators John McCain and Mitt Romney. To Trump, they didn’t just lose an election; their defeat by a Black man also impugned white masculinity.)
A decade ago, Trump became the mendacious face of the so-called birthers who tried to delegitimize Obama as president. To great comic effect, Obama turned Trump’s racist crusade against him at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Sitting in the audience, Trump was publicly mocked and humiliated. While people laughed with Obama, they laughed at Trump — who didn’t laugh at all.
Now Obama is done with jokes. In a speech during a nationally televised graduation celebration for the Class of 2020, the former president lambasted Trump without mentioning his name.
“Do what you think is right. Doing what feels good, what’s convenient, what’s easy — that’s how little kids think,” Obama said. “Unfortunately, a lot of so-called grown-ups, including some with fancy titles and important jobs, still think that way — which is why things are so screwed up.”
Again, Obama publicly bested Trump, whose only retort a day later was to call Obama “grossly incompetent.” It’s a longstanding Trump tactic, learned from his reptilian mentor Roy Cohn, to accuse others and deflect blame from his own failures.
When Trump tweets, “Obamagate," it’s beyond a hollow accusation. It’s more than an attempt to tar Biden, although the administration, aided by Trump’s rabid older sons, is already doing plenty of that in typically unfounded and ugly ways.
It’s a reminder to his base that, four years ago, he offered succor against the eight years of Black excellence that stoked white resentment. Obama wasn’t perfect — no president is. Yet his intelligence, competence, and humanity have been amplified by a successor devoid of even basic decency.
So now, at least in Trump’s mind, it’s Trumpism versus Obama’s legacy. He has blamed the prior administration for his anemic pandemic response, although his predecessor literally left a pandemic playbook that Trump ignored. It’s just another piece of Trump’s pathological erasure of Obama’s policies, often to this nation’s detriment; this time, the astonishing cost has been a COVID-19 death toll steadily rising toward 100,000.
Not that Trump has noticed. Fanciful lies, ardent racism, and bad science are the scaffolding of his administration, not hard truths. Denouncing the only Black president helped get Trump to the White House; now he’s relying on it to keep him there for four more years.
In an election year unlike any other, it’s the audacity of hope versus the audacity of a dolt.