Mr. Spock at the “sh*t show”: Barack Obama, the rise of Trump and a world gone crazy

No, Republicans, you can't blame Obama. But our strangest, coolest president ever may have paved the way to madness

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 12, 2016 5:00PM (EST)

 (AP/Reuters/Joshua Roberts/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Joshua Roberts/Photo montage by Salon)

Barack Obama does not much appreciate being blamed for the rise of Donald Trump. But after reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s immense article on “The Obama Doctrine” in the Atlantic, which was based on several lengthy interviews with the president and his inner circle of advisors, I suspect Obama also knows that the charge contains a germ of truth, on a deep karmic or psychological level most of his critics are unlikely to grasp.

Goldberg’s Obama magnum opus is well written, highly intelligent and impressively researched. It’s also massively narcissistic and sycophantic, in vintage Beltway-insider style, marinating in details and locations and celebrating its author’s access to power. We’re in the White House dining room, or John Kerry’s private office at the State Department, or aboard Air Force One on the runway in Kuala Lumpur. We are discussing serious things: the perceived personality defects of Vladimir Putin, the contemporary relevance of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” and the importance of America’s relationship to Asia — a question Obama hoped would be central to his presidency that got trumped, or Trumped, by other concerns.

Even as Goldberg sinks, little by little, into the swamp of Washington groupthink — honestly, he should know better than to refer to Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan president, as a “dictator” — he teases out an intriguing portrait of the blend of caution, calculation and hopefulness that have characterized Obama’s foreign policy. Through it all, we can also discern a depiction of the president’s central flaw. It may not be a flaw at all, depending on your view of such things; it is certainly preferable to other flaws we could name. (Obama is presumed to favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, but Clinton is portrayed throughout the Goldberg article as an incautious military interventionist who drove the administration’s disastrous Libya policy and wanted to compound the error in Syria. It’s a lot more like an indictment than an endorsement.)

Obama is frequently described as cool or sardonic or detached or analytical or deliberative; he is without doubt the most intellectually gifted American president in many decades. (Woodrow Wilson would be the most recent candidate, and before him probably Lincoln.) But what underlies Obama’s impressive book-learning and nuanced strategic thinking is a well-known failing of the intellectual class: He doesn’t seem to know much about human nature, and appears continually surprised by how stupid, fearful and irrational his fellow citizens and fellow planetary inhabitants are. He has read more than enough of Hobbes and John Locke, more than enough foreign-policy papers by officials of the George H.W. Bush administration. (His avatar in that field is, no kidding, Brent Scowcroft, which explains a lot.) He’s a little short, so to speak, on Freud and Nietzsche, on “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Apocalypse Now” and “Blue Velvet.”

To my mind, the most illuminating of Goldberg’s numerous Obama-up-close anecdotes is the one about the presidential press conference at a G20 summit in Turkey last November, a few days after the ISIS attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Obama seemed increasingly exasperated and puzzled that the press corps never asked him about climate change or the conflict in Ukraine or the Iranian nuclear negotiations or any other possible summit topics. Every question was about ISIS and terrorism, culminating in a CNN reporter’s infamous outburst: “Why can’t we take out these bastards?”

That was the week when Trump first proposed barring all Muslims from entering the United States, a suggestion that all normal and reasonable people immediately rejected as outrageous — and that propelled him to a huge lead in the Republican campaign he has yet to surrender. Every Republican elected official everywhere in the country seized on the Syrian refugee crisis as a potential wedge issue, demanding that no more migrants be admitted under any circumstances (except maybe the Christians, in Ted Cruz’s iteration). Obama barely appeared to have noticed any of this. An unnamed official told Goldberg that it wasn’t until the next day, after a flight to Manila, that the president’s advisors figured out that “everyone back home had lost their minds.”

Whoever said that — it may have been Obama himself — was entirely correct. America’s reaction to the Paris attacks came pretty close to mass hysteria, and had nothing to do with the actual danger represented by ISIS, which was and is insignificant. There are many valid criticisms to raise about Obama’s approach to foreign policy and national security, including the dubious effects of the drone war and his administration’s obsessive crackdown on leakers and whistleblowers. But we have been very fortunate, in my judgment, to have had a president for seven-plus years who has valued logic over panic when it comes to the issue of Islamic terrorism, and who has consistently sought to frame that problem in global and historical terms and not to exaggerate its importance.

I’m delighted to learn, via Goldberg, that Obama often reminds his staff that far more Americans die every year from falls in the bathtub than die at the hands of Muslim terrorists. (John Kerry, on the other hand, comes off like a raving lunatic, envisioning a future in which ISIS destroys European society and leads to the return of 1930s-style fascism. Thank Christ he didn’t get elected.) I can understand why he doesn’t say this stuff in public, but Obama is justified in describing Syria — and, by extension, the larger quagmire of the Middle East — as a “shit show” that won’t be solved during his presidency or the next one or the one after that. On any logical basis, it’s difficult to challenge his argument that the least bad choice in Middle East policy is to disentangle and disconnect to the greatest extent possible and pivot toward America’s relationship with the developing nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where constructive change is far more achievable.

But Americans, as you may have noticed, don’t do logic all that well. We do fear and passion and soaring guitar chords and “freedom isn’t free.” We love tough talk and paranoid fantasies and bizarre, apocalyptic delusions. Obama is a master of political oratory, which is what got him elected in the first place. But given his apparent puzzlement that the stupid, primitive and seductive passions that run throughout human history — and the deranged current of jingoistic nationalism that runs throughout American history — have not been conclusively vanquished by the light of reason, he still adds up to the strangest and unlikeliest president ever. So I think it’s about halfway true that Obama’s persistent mode of cool drove us crazy and paved the way for the empty hotness of Trump, although it's a lot more true to say that we were already crazy and Trump was ready and waiting.

Trump is the anti-Obama, the distorted reflection, the choleric abreaction to Obama’s phlegmatic calm. If Obama is the most Apollonian political figure ever, Trump is the Dionysian comeback. If Obama is the only president ever to be compared with Mr. Spock — Goldberg does it at least twice — then Trump is the sadistic, bearded Spock from that alternate-universe “Star Trek” episode. (As Obama probably knows, that would be season 2, episode 4: “Mirror, Mirror.”) Obama did not create Trump, because the Trumpian force has always been with us and within us. But in relying too much on his misguided assumption that humans are governed by reason more than emotion, and that the atavism, tribalism and nihilism Trump so perfectly embodies were in retreat, Obama may unwittingly have released Trump from his dungeon in the American unconscious.

As is customary when he feels that his fundamental worldview is under attack, Obama managed to sound bemused rather than outraged when Margaret Brennan of CBS News brought up what a Wall Street Journal editorial has called the “Obama-Trump dialectic” at a White House press conference this week. “I have been blamed by Republicans for a lot of things,” the president said, “but being blamed for their primaries and who they’re selecting is novel.” He went on to say, reasonably enough, that “Republican political elites” and the right-wing media have been pouring poison into the lagoon for years, and should hardly be surprised that a mutant monster has come crawling out of it. He’s neither Republican nor Democrat! Neither man nor crustacean!

As Obama understands perfectly well, the dynamics behind the Obama-Trump dialectic reflect inflexible principles of Republican ideology. First, whatever goes wrong is someone else’s fault. Second, the Republicans are always right and represent the majority of “real Americans.” That one requires extreme intellectual gymnastics in an era when the Republican leadership and its electoral base are engaged in open civil war and the public doesn’t like either of them. But anyone who disputes that proposition is not a real Republican and/or a real American, and is quite likely a Muslim. Speaking of which, if the first and second principles don’t appear to be working, we get to the third one: Blame Obama. He has been spineless and tyrannical; he has surrendered to Sharia and invaded Texas; he has instituted socialism and enslaved the white man, apparently through inaction and incompetence.

Disheartened and desperate mainstream Republicans have tried to rally around the idea that Obama is to blame for Trump, but they can’t seem to agree about how or why, which would seem to be important ingredients. That Journal editorial in December suggested that “Obama’s insistent failure to confront the realities of global jihad” had unleashed “Trump’s unfiltered nationalist id.” National Journal writer Josh Kraushaar thinks — you have to bear with me on this one — that if Al Franken hadn’t won the narrow 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota, thereby giving the Democrats 60 seats instead of 59, Obama wouldn’t have been able to drive through his vicious Stalinist agenda and therefore something something no Trump. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who has the reputation of being one of the less stupid Senate Republicans (talk about damning with faint praise) says Trump is the result of “years of anger with the overreach of the Obama administration.”

Which is it, guys? Was Trumpogenesis caused by Obama being too weak or too strong? Was it the way he cowered before the Muslims or the way he sent the black helicopters to take your guns? (There are those, to be sure, who will tell you the black helicopters are full of Muslims.) Of all people — and in this case I literally mean of all people on the planet — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal may have come closest to hitting the target. Jindal does not have the reputation of being an intelligent Republican. In the initial field of GOP presidential candidates, several of whom did not appear to be human, Jindal was the one who most resembled a brain-trauma victim or an inadvertently released psychiatric patient. He was too crazy and too dumb for the Republican Party of 2016, which is a breathtaking accomplishment.

But out of the mouths of babes and sucklings come surprising things, as Bobby’s savior once observed, and in this case the profoundly unpopular governor of a corruption-riddled state has tripped over a key fragment of the truth. Jindal or, more likely, someone on his staff wrote an Op-Ed for the Journal last week trying to fan the tepid flames of the Obama-Trump dialectic. Starting from the political-science nostrum that voters in an open-seat presidential election seek out the opposite of what they’ve just had, Jindal proposed that after two terms of “the cool, weak and endlessly nuanced ‘no drama Obama,’ voters are looking for a strong leader who speaks in short, declarative sentences.”

Yes, that’s a breathtakingly stupid political analysis. But that doesn’t make it wrong. (We can skip over “weak,” which is obligatory Republican dogma.) Look around you, people: This is America we’re talking about. Breathtaking stupidity is, if I am using this expression correctly, pretty much our jam. Jindal’s stupidity and the long-term stupidity of the Republican Party and the stupidity of a large and disgruntled segment of the American electorate have fed into an accelerating vortex of stupidity driving the anti-Obama, anti-reason, anti-Enlightenment candidacy of Donald Trump. Who is, I am afraid, not as stupid as he appears, and who understands certain things about human nature that Barack Obama never has.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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