Guess the politician. He’s a dangerous “authoritarian.” A “race-baiter” and a “racist” who divides Americans for political gain. An “arrogant” celebrity of a politician who has no place in the Oval Office. An “unqualified,” “incompetent” fraud who “simply does not understand what it means to be president.” Hell, he can barely give a speech.
If you guessed Donald Trump, you’re not wrong on the merits. Trump is a bona fide authoritarian, with a tenuous commitment to the foundations of liberal democracy, from personal liberty (eviscerated by his plan for mass deportation) to freedom of the press. His entire campaign is an exercise in conjuring bigotry for political gain, from his initial call for a wall to keep Mexico from sending “criminals” and “rapists” and subsequent one for a ban on Muslim entry to the United States to his coy relationship with white supremacists (Trump refused to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke) and constant repetition of anti-Muslim myths, including a widely debunked claim that New Jersey Muslim Americans celebrated the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.*
There’s more! Trump is a literal celebrity, whose public résumé amounts to playing a demanding boss on network television. If experience in political office (or in high military service) is a prerequisite for sitting in the White House, then Trump is wildly unqualified. If he’s demonstrated any knowledge or mastery of public policy, it’s lost to history. In fact, by his own admission, Trump doesn’t even have policies. Instead, his pronouncements are just “suggestions” for the sake of making deals. And his plans, such that they exist, hold no ties to reality. It’s not even clear he understands grade-school concepts like the separation of powers.
He’s neither a self-made man nor a particularly successful businessman. He’s a fountain of lies and untruths, and he can’t read a scripted speech without swerving off into braggadocio. He’s a bully, a womanizer, and at least one psychologist—writing for the Atlantic—thinks he suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. Which, given everything we know about Trump’s life and career, would make sense.
This isn’t to say those words describe Obama. Just the opposite. But the thing to understand is that depending on where you fall on the American political spectrum, there are two distinct Obamas. The first is the one we know, the president of the United States, liked by most voters and leaving office with a positive approval rating. Democrats respect him for his accomplishments—an economic recovery, a host of new reforms, and a critical expansion of the social safety net—and people around the world hold him in high esteem. He’s praised for his oratorical skills, his family life, and his overall temperament. The emerging consensus on his administration is positive, with caveats. It would be fair to say he has been an active and consequential figure in the mainstream of American politics.
The other Obama, the second one, doesn’t exist as flesh and blood so much as he’s a specter—the Dread Obama who haunts right-wing fever dreams. This is the Obama described above, the chief villain in a far-right psychodrama, slammed as a “race-baiter” for showing empathy for Trayvon Martin, condemned as a tyrant and a “Caesar.” The Obama who Donald Trump once suggested was too stupid to attend elite schools. The Obama attacked as feckless and incompetent by right-wing pundits and publications.
What makes this so darkly comic is that many of these pundits are behind Trump. The same Todd Starnes who blasted Obama as the “race-baiter-in-chief” is willing to back the nativist demagogue if he can stop Hillary Clinton. The same Breitbart that denounced Obama as “unqualified” is now a virtual Das Reich for the Trump campaign. The same Newt Gingrich who won the South Carolina primary on teleprompter jokes is now an ardent Trump defender. Vanishingly few, if any, of the claims they’ve made about Obama are true. Far from some kind of American Morgoth, Obama is a mainstream liberal politician, with mainstream liberal priorities.
But everything they’ve said about Obama is true of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. And if Trump becomes president, the boogeyman they’ve railed against for eight years will be the actual chief executive of the United States of America.
You could waste an afternoon speculating about the source of this projection. Why have Republicans elevated a man who stands for everything they claim to hate, who has lived a life of decadence and frivolity they claim to despise? But time is a commodity, and you should live your life. For now, it suffices to say that it’s almost hilarious.
*Correction, May 18, 2016: This article originally misspelled the name of the Ku Klux Klan. (Return.)