No. Obama’s Failure Didn’t Create Trump

President Donald Trump reads an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership prior to signing it in the Oval Office on January 23, 2017. (Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
February 24, 2020 12:25 p.m.
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I want to respond to a point TPM Reader MR made below. He makes a few points. But there’s one in particular I want to drill in on because it’s deeply embedded in his argument and is widespread enough to constitute something like a conventional wisdom or even a truism for many. I’d summarize the argument as this: it’s not enough to turn the clock back to 2016 or go back to some pre-Trump ‘good old days’ because ‘that’s what got us Trump’.

There are different permutations of this argument. At a high level of abstraction it’s almost definitionally true: the pre-2016 world came before Trump so it did ‘get us Trump.’ But it’s more than a chronological argument. Some people are critiquing Obama-ite incrementalism or Obama’s efforts to come up with various grand bargains with Republicans that took up much of his eight years in office. Others are putting the blame on “neo-liberalism”, a shallow version of progressivism which prioritizes elite cultural concerns at the expense of rising inequality, declining living standards which hollowed out civic life in America and created the seedbed for Trumpism.

It’s certainly true that we cannot see Trumpism as a mere historical accident or fluke. Whatever happened in 2016, three years into his term, Trump has an iron grip on the Republican party and is consistently supported by at least 40% of the public. Any strategy going forward needs to take the reality of Trumpism into account, what it is, what made it possible, how to combat it.

But again, there’s something more going on here. And it’s a version of ideological myopia. It acts like the right doesn’t actually exist. Or, to put it in grad seminar-speak, it denies the right or Trumpism or rightist nationalism any agency.

For many this is just a shorthand way to enlist Trump as an argument for the policy agenda they were supporting even before Trump. But the real problem is that it acts like the right doesn’t actually exist or, to use the grad school phrasing, makes it like Trumpism lacks all agency, as though the world of the right is just an epiphenomenon of things that are or aren’t happening in the world of the center-left. You may think it’s about authoritarianism or nationalism but actually it’s some kind of acting out tied to the lack of a public option. Sure, that’s a bit of a hyperbolic rendering of the thinking. But it’s not too far off the thinking.

None of this is to suggest that politics should be business as usual, or that driving Trump from office will solve all the dangers he represents and all the civic backsliding we’ve seen over the last three years. (Not that I think anyone is actually suggesting this…) But to combat authoritarian nationalism we need to understand it on its own terms, as its own worldview, with drives and ambitions that are far more than outgrowths or echoes of things that happen on the center-left.

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