In a new interview, former President Barack Obama says he isn’t surprised that Donald Trump was able to “get traction” in American politics. But at the same time, Obama admits he is shocked that Trump became a symbol of right-wing populism.
“I will say that I’m not surprised that somebody like Trump could get traction in our political life,” Obama said in an interview with the Atlantic magazine published on Monday. “He’s a symptom as much as an accelerant. But if we were going to have a right-wing populist in this country, I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.”
He added: “If you think about populists from the past, someone like Huey Long — he wasn’t from the right; he was a classic populist, rooted in the earth; he knows the lives of the people he is rallying; he genuinely understands them. I guess I would not have expected someone who has complete disdain for ordinary people to be able to get attention and then the following from those very same people.”
The former president said he could understand the desire of many Americans for the “classic male hero” of his own childhood.
“The John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter. There was a code,” Obama explained. “The code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the ’30s and ’40s and before that — there’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully; in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies.”
Obama then compared Trump to Richie Rich, the fictional character in the 1950s comic book series and, later, an eponymous 1980s Saturday morning cartoon.
“I thought that the model [for conservatives] wouldn’t be Richie Rich,” Obama said. “The complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.”
Trump, a New York City real estate heir, became famous in the latter decades of the 20th century, successfully tailoring an image for himself as a brash and flashy billionaire tycoon and, later, as a boardroom kingmaker on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Critics noted that he was not nearly as successful a real estate magnate as he let on, but nearly all observers recognized that he was a brilliant marketer who for a time became synonymous with the ostentatious displays of wealth that marked Manhattan at the turn of the century.
In 2016, Trump rode his celebrity and a wave of loud, simplistic populism — which he had honed years earlier while championing the so-called birther movement — into the White House.
Obama said he now understands how his own historic 2008 election as the nation’s first African American president threatened parts of what became Trump’s base — and their anxieties were exploited by conservative media outlets like Fox News.
“What I think is indisputable is that I signified a shift in power. Just my mere presence worried folks — in some cases explicitly, in some cases subconsciously,” Obama said.
“And then there were folks around to exploit that and tap into that. If a Fox News talking head asks, when Michelle and I dap, give each other a fist bump, ‘Is that a terrorist fist bump?,’ that’s not a particularly subtle reference. If there’s a sign in opposition to the ACA in which I’m dressed as an African witch doctor with a bone through my nose, that’s not a hard thing to interpret.”
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