From his first year in office, Obama encountered a raw rejectionism from the Republican right; it wasn’t just criticism of his policies but a challenge to the very legitimacy of his presidency. Many details were fabricated, such as the allegation that he was secretly a Muslim, or that he had been born outside the United States. Yet these themes were repeated so often on conservative talk radio and cable news that they began to constitute an alternative reality.
It’s hard to know what a better counterstrategy might have been, but Obama’s cool public posture (while he was smoldering inside) didn’t work very well.
The rise of Trump has surprised most pundits, but it doesn’t seem to shock Obama. Trump is a crystallization of the angry rhetoric that Obama has been facing from the GOP since he took office. Trump is just louder, more shameless and more charismatic. He’s the marriage of P.T. Barnum and Rush Limbaugh.
It would be good if Obama were better at projecting the rationalist’s faith in this moment of irrational politics. One of his heroes is clearly Pope Francis, who conveys with every action his rejection of fundamentalism and absolutism. Perhaps the pope gives lessons.