The differences between how Donald Trump and Barack Obama express themselves are vast and obvious. Trump is sometimes funny and cheerful, but more often cruel, barbarous, vindictive and vulgar. Obama is none of these things. He is too earnest to be genuinely funny, and it would never occur to him to engage in the kind of raw meanness for which his successor is famous. But reflexive accusations of “moral equivalence” shouldn’t prevent us from acknowledging what Obama and Trump have in common: a searing contempt for their critics.
Trump dismisses his opponents with the simple epithets favored by pre-teen boys: “loser,” “liar,” “crook” and so on. Obama’s contempt is infinitely subtler and more focused, but it’s no less real.
We got a hint of it in his first inaugural address in 2009. “There are some who question the scale of our ambitions,” Obama said. Were there? I remember many people questioning the ambitions themselves – that is, disagreeing with him on grounds of policy – but did they, as Obama went on to say, “suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans”? He was sure, in any case, that that’s what they meant. “What the cynics fail to understand,” he said, “is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” Those who opposed Obama’s agenda, chiefly his promise to spend truckloads of government money in an effort to “stimulate” the economy, were already “cynics” with “stale arguments” in the first hour of his presidency.
Obama would return again and again to this conceit over the course of his presidency. In a 2010 speech on his education initiative Race to the Top, for instance, he concluded his remarks this way: “I know there are some who say that Race to the Top won’t work. There are cynics and naysayers who argue that the problems in our education system are too entrenched, that think that we’ll just fall back into the same old arguments and divides that have held us back for so long.” These “naysayers” had no countervailing proposal, according to the president. They were content merely with saying his would not work. I would despise such critics too, if they existed.
Obama’s imaginary opponents aren’t just cynics and naysayers, however. They’re irrational and malevolent. “Over and over we’ve been told by our opponents,” he said at a campaign event in 2012, “that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing.” A few people here and there may believe government should do “almost nothing,” but approximately no one believes that government’s inability to do everything is the reason it should do almost nothing. In Obama’s mind, though, lots of people not only believe this piece of sonorous nonsense, but use it as a reason to dismiss other people’s problems as irrelevant. “If you can’t afford health insurance,” he went on, lampooning his own invention, “hope you don’t get sick. If a company is releasing toxic pollution into the air that your children breathe, well, that’s the price of progress.”
Many a politician, of course, has failed or refused to distinguish between his opponents’ views and what he believes to be the consequences of those views. If I think your view will lead to more car accidents, I accuse you of trying to increase the number of car accidents; and so on. That’s part of politics. But Obama engages in this practice so frequently as to suggest some form of neurosis. His opponents are goblins, fixated on the ruin of everything he loves simply because he loves it.
“I reject the idea,” he said in typical campaign remarks in 2011, “that America is going to be more successful if we abandon the 30 million people who don’t have health insurance that are going to get health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act.” He doesn’t say his opponents’ views would result in, or would amount to, such an abandonment; he says this is their “idea.”
Maybe it’s acceptable to caricature one’s adversaries during a campaign, but not, surely, in an inaugural address – a speech ostensibly dedicated to rallying Americans around a common purpose. “Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” he said in his 2013 address – as if the other side believes, actually or even metaphorically, in going to war for any reason or no reason.
And again from the 2013 inaugural: “We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” What lies behind the remark is a long-running debate about what American resources can realistically achieve – whether we can continue current funding levels without substantially reforming Social Security and Medicare. Obama thinks we can do both, and fair enough. What’s remarkable isn’t his view but the language he employs to express it: Any deviation from his view is, he believes, the deliberate abandonment of a generation.
These sorts of formulations have peppered Obama’s remarks for eight years. But his offense isn’t so much rhetorical as attitudinal. The contempt in his discourse signals the hubris of his outlook. Obama thought his adversaries had neither cleverness nor discipline, and that they couldn’t thwart him by standing on principle.
He was wrong. Donald Trump, beware.
Barton Swaim is the author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”