Is Trump Obama’s Dark Doppelgänger?

FPRI takes no positions on the presidential candidates; naturally, our individual scholars do, and we anticipate those positions will vary. 

As the Donald Trump monster lays waste to Republican political careers, and even the Grand Old Party itself, survivors wonder: Who released the Kraken? Conservative purists place the blame squarely on Barack Obama’s shoulders. The president’s autocratic style at home and his appeasement of dictators abroad triggered a pitchfork revolt. Democrats, in turn, hold Republicans responsible for years of vitriolic attacks designed to delegitimize the president, which only encouraged extremism. But there’s also a deeper reason for the Trumparama. Decades of increasingly hostile media coverage toward the White House and years of rising partisanship, mean that presidents tend to give birth to political alter egos.

Trump’s advance is striking because he represents the antithesis of Obama. Sure, on a handful of issues, their views overlap—for example, on the dangers of U.S. intervention in the Middle East. But more often, Trump looks like a photographic negative of the president. Obama was a community organizer and professor; Trump is a businessman and reality-television star. Obama is a cerebral “Spockian”; Trump is a bombastic braggadocio. Obama visited Cairo in 2009 “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”; Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Obama built a potent alliance of minorities and highly educated whites; Trump’s support is based on whites without college educations and almost no minorities. Obamastruggled to sell his message in the Appalachian regions of Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia; that is Trump’s heartland. Obama is the first black president; Trump’s supporters tend to view whites significantly more positively than blacks.

What explains Trump’s rise? Many establishment Republicans have cast an accusing eye straight at the White House. According to Jeb Bush, Trump is “a creature of Barack Obama.” The New York TimesRoss Douthat said the Trump phenomenon is “first and foremost a Republican and conservative problem.” Nevertheless, Douthat continued, Obama’s celebrity brand of politics, imperial presidential style, and rejection of white working-class voters all aided Trump’s emergence. There’s a pinch of truth here. Obama created a coalition based on demographic groups that are growing (minorities and the college educated) rather than declining (noncollege-educated whites). And Obama has sometimes displayed a condescending attitude toward those who “cling to guns or religion.”

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