By the grace of God, and thanks to our robust and decentralized system of government, the U.S. has survived nearly a year with an unprepared, underinformed, incurious, incontinent narcissist as president.
In fact, in some regards, we’ve even thrived during this past year.
Still, the president’s character — mostly his colossal self-regard, his lack of self-control, and his unwillingness or inability to learn what he ought — made the year at times aggravating, terrifying, and certainly divisive. Trump hasn’t brought on any catastrophes yet, but he has frayed the nerves of his country. And there’s still three more years of this.
I’m sure I’m not alone in the experience, regularly this year, of literally struggling to believe that this reality TV star (whom I originally knew for going bankrupt and leaking debauched stories of his sex life to the tabloids) is actually our president.
How did this happen? There are a million ways to answer that question, and just as many op-eds and books have tried. Since Trump began winning primaries, a fun parlor game has been “whose fault is Trump?” or “who gave us Trump?” Again, there are millions of answers to this, the most direct being “the people who voted for and endorsed Trump at any point.”
If we wanted to blame one person, there are many possibilities: Ted Cruz, for embracing Trump early in the primaries, or endorsing him at the end of the general; Marco Rubio for not properly preparing himself for the run; Hillary Clinton, for poisoning her own candidacy through her greed (her highly paid speeches) as well as her arrogance and paranoia (the secret private server).
But it’s probably best to start with the man who was the most powerful person in the world on Election Day 2016: Barack Obama.
How did Obama give us Trump? Many ways. But let’s focus on three.
First off, Obama gave the country Trump by first giving the country the least likable Democratic nominee in modern history. Picking her as secretary of state put her in line as his successor. His refusal to pre-endorse Vice President Joe Biden in 2016 basically cleared old Uncle Joe out of the field. Also, Obama left behind a party so impoverished and indebted that party powerbrokers had no choice but to tilt the nominating process toward the corporatist fundraising behemoth that is Hillary. The fact that her campaign was sustaining the party's finances speaks to that.
Biden would have won, and others like Martin O’Malley or Bernie Sanders might have done better than Hillary. But Obama helped give us Hillary, and thus Trump.
Secondly, Obama helped Trump win during the campaign by lumping Trump in with all other Republicans. The intention was to make all Republicans seem icky and abnormal; the unintended consequence was to make Trump seem much more normal. In October 2016, when Clinton started posting double-digit leads in Michigan and finally pulled ahead in Ohio, Obama shifted from his tack of saying Trump “sure wasn't conservative,” to the tack of lumping Trump in with all Republicans. In Ohio in mid-October, Obama tried to lump Trump with Rob Portman, a staid and sensible establishment Republican senator. The aftermath: Portman maintained his huge leads, and Trump pulled ahead in Ohio, which he won in a blowout.
Third, and most importantly, Obama’s administration helped Trump beat Hillary, because it scared conservatives into voting for Trump.
Two days after Election Day, as I walked down K Street, I ran into a priest friend. He said he saw Trump’s victory as providing “a reprieve” for the Church. After Obama went to court to force nuns to procure contraceptive insurance for employers, and argued in court for narrower readings of the free exercise clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, religious conservatives were worried about what would come next.
Democratic politicians on the state level were trying to drive Christian florists, photographers, and bakers out of business for following their consciences. The ACLU was suing Catholic hospitals for not aborting babies.
Obama, by weaponizing the federal government against religious institutions and individuals, escalated the culture war to the point that many conservatives realized no peace was possible. They were willing to vote for a man like Trump if that’s what it took to keep HHS and the DOJ from shutting down their schools and businesses. A judge on the Supreme Court who would overturn Hobby Lobby and rule against the Little Sisters of the Poor would leave freedom of conscience mortally vulnerable.
Obama’s culture warfare raised the stakes, and made Trump seem a necessary evil to many religious conservatives, probably enough to flip Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and thus the election.
As we hang on tight with white knuckles for three more years, which will hopefully provide no more drama than the past year, there are plenty of people to blame. But because he was the most powerful person in the world at the time, Obama deserves special mention.