Many people are to blame for the rise of Donald Trump as a political force, and most of them reside on my side of the aisle. But that story is familiar by now. And we'll be hearing a lot more about it. Should Trump lose, conservatives will be lucky if the ensuing riot of recriminations falls short of outright civil war. Should Trump win, I’m hoping to get a tent upwind from the latrine at the re-education camp. (I kid, I kid.)
Still, not all of the blame belongs inside the conservative family.
Consider President Obama. One of the central insights of both the Obama campaign and administration (the difference is subtle but real) is that Obama benefits when his critics overreact. In 2008, then-political adviser David Axelrod coined the phrase “no drama Obama” to describe not only his client’s personality but his messaging. By seeming unflappable in the face of criticism, Obama comes across as presidential. The more heated the criticism, the more presidential he seems.
The thing is, Obama often intentionally provokes the conservative base. As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman put it in January 2015, Obama “seems to come up with a new idea every couple of weeks to drive (the GOP) up a wall.” That makes him a master at trolling.
For those still not up to speed with the lingo, “trolling” is an Internet term for saying outrageous things in order to elicit an even more outraged response. Or, as Urban Dictionary defines it, “The art of deliberately, cleverly and secretly pissing people off.”
For instance, although ideology and policy no doubt play a role in Obama’s frequent refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” he also seems to enjoy watching his critics shriek about it.
In late 2014, when Obama announced that he was going to unilaterally block the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants in the country – after insisting for years that the Constitution wouldn’t allow him to do anything of the sort – many writers on the left and the right recognized that at least part of his strategy was to bait Republicans. Obama could have changed the policy quietly, without much fanfare. Instead, he sought to incite as much right-wing anger as possible.
Tellingly, the White House didn’t give the exclusive to Univision or MSNBC, but to Fox News. As liberal writer Bill Scher put it in Politico, “Operation Epic Troll” was a “smashing success.”
Obama played a similar game with his birth certificate and the whole birther craze. He could have released his birth certificate as early as 2008, when the Mephistophelean Clinton henchman Sid Blumenthal was whispering in reporters’ ears. But Obama didn’t for years – in part because he knew the conspiracy theory would galvanize his base. It not only confirmed everything liberals wanted to hear about the right, it also provided Obama with an endless supply of one-liners. And for a long time that worked well for Obama; he got to mock birthers and play the dignified victim.
You can probably already see the problem. When you throw out so many buckets of chum, you have no idea what kinds of creatures you'll attract.
Obama chummed the waters for so long, he pulled in a Great White Shark. A man often in error but never in doubt, with a thumbless grasp of facts and a total willingness to repeat conspiracy theories, rumors and innuendo as the truth, Trump was almost the personification of the collective id of the angrier strata of the Republican base.
Trump’s claim last week that he was doing a public service by “ending” the issue Clinton “started” was itself a brilliant bit of trollery. He was trying to have it both ways, simultaneously saying that the birther movement was nefarious and illegitimate from the beginning, and that he was some kind of statesman for relentlessly pushing the birther story.
None of that matters now. Like Obama, Trump exploited birtherism for his own advantage, worming his way into the GOP. Obama allowed the issue to fester in the fever swamps of the right, and now he’s facing the real possibility that he will be replaced by the Swamp Thing.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.