Obama vs. Trump Is the Election America Wants

And the election America needs.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Twitter via Getty Images and Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

I’m not raising this subject because I think it’s a good idea. The point here is simply to try to describe the situation. The situation is this: The country needs Barack Obama to run for president against Donald Trump.

I am not speaking practically. We all know it would be unconstitutional for a two-term president to seek a third term. Admittedly, the country is not much bound by the strict terms of its Constitution at the moment, and inasmuch as the 22nd Amendment was meant to make sure the presidency could never fall into the grasp of some elderly and declining figure who was unwilling to gracefully step aside—well. Exactly. But this is not about whether a 58-year-old Barack Obama could bring youth and vigor to a doddering gerontocracy. It’s about how that gerontocracy itself is an expression of a national psychological crisis, with both major political parties frozen into a pattern of conflict more than a decade old, unable and unwilling to move forward.

Most people understand that Trump was elected by the people who were angry about Obama having been president. It’s been widely noted that the election of a bigoted, ignorant, corrupt buffoon was an obvious symbolic backlash by white people against the specter of a cerebral, careful, high-achieving black president. If black excellence could reach the Oval Office, then the only way to retaliate was by raising white degeneracy to the same level.

Yet that victory was a hollow one, and everyone knows it. Trump ran 3 million votes behind Hillary Clinton and nobody showed up for his inauguration, and even all of that was beside the real point, which was that he didn’t beat Obama. Obama got to laugh at him from the stage at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and stroll off into the sunset, and there was nothing Trump could do about it.

Trump’s obsession with this failure has been blatant recently. He is averaging nearly a tweet a day about Obama or “Obamagate” this month; while thousands of Americans are dying of the coronavirus each week, he sends the White House press secretary out to make conspiratorial remarks about Obama’s alleged crimes. But his fixation was always there. The running gag where every time Trump does something wrong, there’s an old Trump tweet attacking Obama for supposedly doing the same thing—this goes beyond mere hypocrisy or projection, into a deep pulsing artery of helplessness and compulsion. Trump goes golfing in a crisis to chase the phantom of golfing Obama, which he can never touch.

We are all prisoners of Trump’s damaged mind. Trumpism and anti-Trumpism are both awkward efforts to sublimate this conflict, which have rendered our entire politics absurd. Why is Joe Biden the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee? It would be bad enough if voters simply wanted him because he was Obama’s vice president—or because his having been on the sidelines for the past three and a half years allows him to embody their desire to blank out everything that’s happened and reset the world to how it used to be. It’s even bleaker than that, though: Joe Biden is the nominee because Donald Trump is afraid of him, afraid enough to have gotten himself impeached trying to sabotage Biden’s chances. The winning argument about “electability” during the truncated primary season was never about Biden’s campaigning skills or any aura of competence; voters who watched Biden running for president in Iowa or New Hampshire had grave doubts about his abilities. Trump believed in him, though, and it was Trump’s beliefs that dictated the shape of the Democratic race.

This is not healthy, but an honest diagnosis is the first step toward finding a cure. Consider, again and from all the angles, the father from Get Out declaring, “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.” America elected one black president and now it can’t let him go. It is grasping at the shadows of Obama—the plans for a Biden presidency, the fantasies of a Michelle Obama vice presidency, and somewhere, in the constitutionally impermissible distance, the original figure, the landslide winner, the frightening and destabilizing proof of democracy. Donald Trump stares toward him in helpless fascination the way he watches Shark Week, contemplating his own destruction while standing safely on land.

Donald Trump is a lot of things, but he is indisputably American, and he knows what America wants. I would personally rather have Bernie Sanders win an election and would rather have Elizabeth Warren run the country, and if I get mad enough about the foreclosure fraud debacle, I might tell you Hillary Clinton would have been less of a sellout to the banks than Obama was. But there is no doubt in my mind that if the matchup could happen, Barack Obama would beat Donald Trump’s ass like no one else on Earth could beat it, would whip him from Los Angeles to Maine, from Minnesota to the Rio Grande, across all the far-flung territories. Trump knows it too; he is pathologically consumed by it. The knowledge has almost become desire. What if we just let him have it? It’s impossible; it’s our only choice.

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