SALT LAKE CITY, December 9, 2015 – The two couldn’t be more different, right? Ben Domenech has written over at the Federalist that the rise of Donald Trump is a natural consequence of President Obama’s tenure.
It makes sense. Just as Barack Obama was able to strike a chord in the electorate because of dissatisfaction with President Bush eight years ago, Trump is rising as reaction against Obama. In sum, Domenech puts Trump down to Obama’s legacy:
“It is an America that is more tribalist, where people feel more racially and religiously divided; more politically correct, where people feel less free to speak their minds; and it is an America where trust in the nation’s elites, whose skills are credentialed but unproven, are at historic lows.”
So Trump is thriving because of the political environment that Obama has helped to shape.
But it’s more than that. It isn’t so much that Trump has tapped into a reservoir of voters who are willing to tolerate much more bombast from a politician who promises to be very different from the president—which is true. It is that many of these voters have come to expect that appropriate presidential behavior is such bombast.
Instead of merely emerging as a reaction to, or consequence of, Obama, Donald Trump is, in temperament and presentation, much more like Obama than either men or their supporters would like to admit.
Barack Obama’s real legacy is a coarsening of presidential rhetoric, a lowering of the evidentiary standards by which presidential arguments are made, and an abandonment of accountability for saying dumb things.
Both Trump and Obama have total confidence in themselves when they speak. “Believe me,” says Donald Trump about nearly everything. It implies, “believe no one else, because they don’t know.”
Obama, too, is all knowing: “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors,” he famously said. “And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
His speaking style is laden with certainty. He punctuates his sentences with a tone that suggests frustration at the fact that his constituents don’t realize the breadth of his insight. There is no room for doubt, and in an age when such certitude is rewarded, Trump can get away with claiming to know more than he does.
Our Stupid Leaders
Both Trump and Obama openly mock their critics and detractors. In the former’s case, it’s the Washington elites or GOP establishment. In the case of our president, it’s usually just ordinary Republican voters. The open contempt in which Trump holds certain classes of government bureaucrats and elected leaders is matched only by the contempt in which Obama hold most Americans, whether it’s the “bitter clingers” or those who haven’t subscribed to every tenet of the global warming faith.
The Hugest, Most, and Best
Earlier this year, President Obama declared that climate change was the defining threat of the century. “On this issue of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late,”’ Obama said. “And that moment is almost upon us.” A spate of terrorist attacks here and abroad haven’t persuaded him to put the weather at two or three on his priority list.
In Paris last week he declared that the future looks grim if we don’t enact his preferred climate policies: “a glimpse of our children’s fate if the climate keeps changing faster than our efforts to address it. Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields that no longer grow.”
Trump’s exaggerations, though noteworthy and often inelegant, are still second-rate next to Obama’s.
Us Versus Them
Their’s is a Manichean contest in which compromise is anathema. Trump’s is a world heroes and losers. Losers include anyone—even widely acclaimed war heroes like John McCain—who disagrees with him. They also now include Muslims, whom Trump wants to bar from entering the country “until our leaders can figure out what is going on.”
Likewise Obama sees the world in stark terms. Elections are an opportunity for voters to “punish their enemies.” The debate over whether to admit Syrian refugees proves that half of America is bigoted.
Ironically, in a world where it is us against them, Obama and Trump are on the same side.
To an extent, all politicians fall into these traps. No one can speak at length on complex subjects consistently for months and not exaggerate something, or over rely on his own intelligence.
Still, for those perplexed by Donald Trump’s seeming ability to defy the most basic political conventions of rhetoric, it’s simple: the conventions have changed.
And Barack Obama changed them.