The Psychology Of Trump’s Preoccupation With Obama
By Noam Shpancer
Obama is antithetical to Trump. So long as he exists, Trump is threatened.
Central to Trump’s presidency is the effort to erase Obama’s legacy—his policies, his social agenda, and, more intriguingly, his very persona. This observation is neither new nor original. After all, Trump’s run on the Republican party began with his advocacy of birtherism, an attempt to quite literally delegitimize Obama. (As early as 2012, even before he formally entered politics, Trump also questioned Obama’s college transcripts, while later going to great lengths to hide is own).
Obama has remained top of mind for Trump ever since. The evidence is by now well documented: The flap over inauguration crowd size; the withdrawal from the Iran deal; the rollback of Obama’s environmental policies; the broadband attack on Obama’s environmental regulation and nondiscrimination policies; the ongoing assault on Obamacare; his complaints of “presidential harassment”; his recent disparagement of Obama during the G-7 meeting (breaking with the tradition that U.S. presidents don’t criticize each other abroad), and on and on.
Many observers have taken notice. Back in 2017, Charles Blow of The New York Times wrote, “Trump is obsessed with Obama. Obama haunts Trump’s dreams. One of Trump’s primary motivators is the absolute erasure of Obama – were it possible – not only from the political landscape but also from the history books.”
“Two Years Into Trump’s Presidency, Obama Remains a Top Target for Criticism,” Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman have likewise noted recently in the Times “It took all of one minute and nine seconds for President Trump to go after his predecessor on Friday — just one minute and nine seconds to re-engage in a debate that has consumed much of his own time in office over who was the better president.”
More recently, Elle Hunt in The Guardian of London has alluded to the matter, speculating that the real reason for the Greenland dust up, and Trump’s abruptly canceled visit to Denmark, was Trump’s desire to avoid comparisons between his reception and that of Obama’s, who was scheduled to visit Denmark a few weeks later.
Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post, observing Trump’s recent tumultuous ‘chopper talk’ with the press, noted: “Again and again, he tried desperately to compare himself favorably with his predecessor, Barack Obama. He did so by telling ridiculous lies that are easily disproved by the historical record — no, Obama didn’t institute the cruel policy of separating thousands of migrant families at the border, Trump did; no, Obama wasn’t denied permission to land Air Force One in the Philippines. You had to wonder whether Trump, who was the loudest voice in the racist “birther” movement, might have some kind of obsession with Obama and his continuing popularity around the world.”
Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann of NBC recently noted that “Two and a half years into his presidency, Donald Trump still has Barack Obama on his mind. Trump mentioned Obama, his wife and Obamacare 23 times in his interview on “Meet the Press” — when he was asked only four direct questions that involved the former president.” Bess Levin in Vanity Fair articulated the oddness of Trump’s Obama fixation when she wrote recently: TRUMP IS ONE BAD DAY AWAY FROM TWEETING “I’VE HAD THREE TIMES AS MANY WIVES AS OBAMA!”
Joelle Goldstein on Yahoo.com from July 31, 2019, describes how “While speaking to reporters in the Oval Office on Friday, Trump, 73, said he would be spending time at his New Jersey golf club resort next month… and argued that his time away from Washington, D.C., would give maintenance crews an opportunity to fix the inadequate air conditioning system which he contended was ruined by his predecessor… In addition to the air conditioning Trump also claimed, without evidence, that the U.S. has ‘a much better economy than in [Obama’s] wildest dreams.’ He later suggested that authorities should look into the former president’s book deal with Penguin Random House instead of the Russian investigation involving former FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller.”
More recently Dayton’s mayor, Nan Whaley, looking to persuade Trump to act on gun control in the wake of the recent massacre there, shrewdly told Trump: “You could do something Obama couldn’t do.”
What is the source of Trump’s Obama obsession? Some argue that it is in part politically motivated. Having spent a lifetime in the incessant pursuit of attention, Trump has developed a knack for sniffing out issues, and people, the mention of which will stir his fans—and Obama is one such person. But the persistence and intensity of Trump’s rage and frustration with Obama betray motives other than mere politics. With regard to Obama, The (orange) Lad Doth Protest Too Much.
Some may posit racism as the primary motive—as Trump has a history of racist statements and actions. Yet racism is not a primary motive for Trump. It cannot be. By all evidence, Trump is not truly animated by big ideas or abstract values. The only thing that matters truly is him. Trump will accept another person’s (or group’s) worth only to the extent that they approve of and serve Trump. There is no other, independent test of merit. This is why the racism (and anti Semitism) explanation won’t stick on Trump. Racism is an ideology, and a tribal cast of mind. Trump has neither ideology nor tribe, as he lacks the capacity to attach to either. He only has himself.
I’d argue that Trump cares little about whether those in his circle or in his camp are white. He cares that they admire and work to prop him up and please him. It just so happens that most of those who do are white, and many of those whites are racist. (The same explanation, by the way, holds for Trump’s constant lying. He doesn’t do it to further a social, political, or ideological agenda. He lies about the facts when the facts fail to fulfill his needs or flatter him).
A better explanation may begin with the simple observation that with Trump, the deepest motives are always egotistical, since his florid narcissism won’t allow any other person, entity, or idea to be more important. But what is it about Obama that so injures Trump’s narcissism, compelling him to rage?
The answer is not that Obama is black, or a democrat. Rather, it is that in Obama, Trump sees his antithesis–everything he is not and cannot be. Politics aside, a fair look at what is already publicly known about the two men will suffice to conclude quite readily that Obama has basic decency, which is a core quality of character that garners intuitive respect across cultures and times, independent of one’s status, wealth or fame.
Obama is a man in full: self-made, self-aware, self-contained, at peace with himself, at ease in the world, and capable of relating with people at eye level. He can laugh with others and at himself. By temperament, he’s warm, emotionally stable, thoughtful, and open-minded. The bright side of humanity is self-evident and fully intact in Obama. He traffics in inspiration. Many of those who disagree with what he’s done as a politician would not mind being who he is as a person.
Trump is at his core indecent. As a man, he’s forever fledgling. Propped up by his wealthy father well into middle age, he struggles mightily with self-control, by his own admission fears self-reflection, and is clearly incapable of a range of human emotions, from empathy to humor. He has no use for tenderness, the arts, or spiritual pursuits. Trump traffics in debasement.
Despite his gilded life, he’s constantly aggrieved, embittered, and at war with the world. He appears to have no friends, only henchmen, lackeys, and hangers-on. The people he attracts into his orbit quite regularly turn out to be crass opportunists, con men and sleazebags, or greedy narcissists like him.
Sans honest self-knowledge and awareness, his self-love, like his relations with others, is shallow and transactional, and depends on constant external affirmations, none of which can fill the bottomless pit of his need. He’s a car without headlights. The moment the streetlights go off, he’s lost. Even among those who agree with what he’s done as a politician, few would aspire to be who he is as a person.
What this comparison makes clear is that Obama, psychologically, is antithetical to Trump. Therefore, so long as Obama exists, Trump is threatened. Specifically, the existence of a person like Obama is a dire threat to Trump because Trump’s presidency is not a victory so long as someone like Obama can also have been president.
For Trump to feel psychologically safe and validated he needs to feel superior, not politically but personally. He gets to feel superior only by winning. But the win has to be personal. It has to be about him. For the presidency to feel like a win for Trump, he has to feel he’s won it because of who he is. If it was in part luck, or a weak opponent, or the shifting zeitgeist, or racism, or a bad electoral system, or the Russians—then Trump’s psychological system cannot register his presidency as a win at all.
Obama’s existence as a former president raises the possibility that Trump did not win because he’s Trump, since the anti-Trump has also won (not to mention he won the popular vote, drew bigger crowds, and did all that sans Russia’s help). Trump can’t be a winner if Obama, Trump’s antithesis, is also a winner.
Psychologically, we labor most to destroy that which is most threatening. And the most threatening is often what we most covet and can’t have. When Trump sees Obama he sees a truth that is both undeniable and untenable. Trump needs Obama extinguished like darkness needs light extinguished—in order to exist.
Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is the author of the novel The Good Psychologist. He was born and raised on an Israeli kibbutz. He received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Purdue University. Currently, he is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University in Westerville Ohio. His research interests center on issues of child care and development. He is also a practicing clinician with the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology in Columbus, Ohio. He specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders.