Ever since Donald Trump won the presidency, critics and commentators have played a regular game of What if Obama did that?, in which they contrast conservative outrage with the former president to the complacency toward the current one. “If Obama had fired the FBI director who was leading an investigation into his campaign, Republican Party leadership would have accused him of obstructing justice,” wrote Dean Obeidallah for CNN, in one typical example.
The comparison was particularly resonant on Monday, when Trump took to the podium at a press conference in Helsinki. For the better part of his presidency, conservative commentators and provocateurs dogged Barack Obama with accusations of disloyalty and subversion, questioning his commitment to American exceptionalism and accusing him of being a secret agent for foreign powers. But Obama never did anything remotely as damning as Trump’s inexplicable defense of Vladimir Putin on Monday, when the sitting president publicly sided with his Russian counterpart over the findings of American intelligence.
Asked if he held Russia responsible for any part of its deteriorating relationship with the United States, Trump said yes, before disparaging the FBI probe into his campaign and denying “collusion” with the Russian government. Asked about Russian interference in the election, Trump dismissed his own intelligence agencies and deferred to Vladimir Putin. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Then he attacked his 2016 opponent and praised Putin’s denial. He called the FBI investigation a “witch hunt” and denounced Peter Strzok, an agent who recently testified, credibly, in front of Congress to refute accusations of political bias.
At no point did Trump criticize Putin for his anti-democratic behavior—from killing journalists, critics, and opposition politicians to raiding the country’s wealth with impunity. At no point did Trump offer even a mild challenge to Putin, deferring to the Russian president at every opportunity. There’s a reason observers were appalled at his performance: President Trump behaved as a supplicant, absolving Russia of any responsibility for the documented attacks on American election infrastructure.
Trump’s performance was shocking enough to make mild-mannered lawmakers like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner furious with indignation. “For the President of the United States to stand next to Vladimir Putin—who personally ordered one of the largest state-sponsored cyber-attacks in our history—and side with Putin over America’s military and intelligence leaders is a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries,” said Warner in a statement.
Compare that with the rabid conspiracy theories that greeted Obama from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who devoted show after show to wide-eyed attacks on the former president. Even mainstream Republican figures, like Kevin Hassett, now chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a 2009 column that Obama was a “Manchurian candidate” giving the United States a “war on business” that could destroy the economy. Norman Podhoretz wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “[a]s a left-wing radical, Mr.
Obama believed that the United States had almost always been a retrograde and destructive force in world affairs.” There’s also Dinesh D’Souza, recently pardoned by President Trump, who pegged Obama as an “anticolonialist” raging against “Western dominance,” and who sought to undermine the United States from within. Newt Gingrich endorsed this theory; as did David Koch, the conservative billionaire.
Where elites went, voters followed. In 2009, just 17 percent of Republicans said “Obama is a Muslim.” By 2010, it was 31 percent. As late as 2015, 43 percent of Republicans said Obama was a Muslim. An endless number of chain emails accused Obama of actively subverting the country, while a lucrative cottage industry of anti-Obama books and documentaries imagined elaborate conspiracies and detailed the president’s supposed plots against America.
None of this was true, and Obama ended his presidency without incident. Except, of course, for the election of Donald Trump, who has publicly questioned American exceptionalism and given legitimate voices reason to question whether he’s in thrall to a foreign power.
Even before Helsinki, there was Trump’s clear effort to dismantle the Atlantic alliance, his vocal contempt for America’s traditional allies, his solicitousness and praise for dictators and authoritarians, from North Korea to the Philippines, and his undermining of American cybersecurity and indifference to hostile state actions like those from Russia. But for all the investigations into Obama’s supposed scandals, Trump has endured little questioning from much of the Republican Party. Even critics like Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and retiring Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee have chosen not to punish or reprimand the president for his breaches and transgressions. Flake issued a strong statement against Trump’s performance in Helsinki, and it will remain just that, a statement.
The anti-Obama animus had one obvious root: racial resentment. For millions of Americans, a black man in the White House was so upending—so destabilizing to their expectations of what America was—that they responded with primal anger, willing to believe anything about the man who sat in the Oval Office. Donald Trump powered his way to the White House on the strength of that anger, running as the savior of America’s racial status quo, and a promise to turn back that tide.
Many of those Americans surely believed that Obama was a Manchurian candidate of sorts. Now, faced with a president who is eager to please a hostile foreign power, they actively support the effort.
If you’re white, it seems, you really are all right.