Barack Obama is the founder of Donald Trump
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Last week’s hiring of new campaign chief Steve Bannon, the editor-in-chief of the ultra conservative conspiracy theory generating website Breitbart.com, reconfirmed the key role hard right talk radio and social media has played in the rise of Donald Trump. Much to the consternation of Speaker of the House Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWhite House faces growing outcry over migrant family policies John Legend slams Paul Ryan for Father's Day tweet, demands end to family separation Trump faces Father’s Day pleas to end separations of migrant families MORE and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress had a good couple of weeks — now let's keep it going McCarthy: 'The Mueller investigation has got to stop' McConnell: Mueller 'ought to wrap it up' MORE, this marginal figure is now front and center in running the race to the White House and directing the future of the Republican Party.

But, this displacement of the GOP establishment by formerly fringe elements would not have been possible had they not been elevated and given credibility by their favorite target: President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaShould President Trump, like President Obama, forsake human rights in pursuit of the deal with a tyrant? Obama shares summer reading list ‘Three Californias’ plan would give Dems more seats MORE.

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Obama has long understood something about the Republican base that many party leaders failed to fully acknowledge or accept. As he first explained to an audience during a 2008 campaign stop in Pennsylvania, working class voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This was a prescient description of the nativist and populist ideas that inspired the insurgent Tea Party in 2010 and ultimately propelled Donald Trump to the top of the party’s ticket this year.

These same fears and frustrations also manifest in the so-called birther movement: the persistent belief that Obama was not born in the United States. Pushed and promoted by talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, Donald Trump first burst onto the political scene with his call for the President to release his long-form birth certificate.

Notably, rather than simply ignoring Trump, Obama went out of his way to give him attention. With Trump in the audience at the 2011 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, the President joked, “Donald Trump is here tonight! … no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald."  

And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter — like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?” While this got great applause and laughter at the time, the 2016 presidential campaign has shown that the line between the truth and such conspiracies is not so clear to many of those same bitter, gun-clinging voters. 

It may be that Obama’s shout-out gave Trump the mojo he needed to run for office. The New York Times recently reported, “That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature in the political world.”

By recognizing Trump, if only to make fun of him, the President fed into the same sense of anger and outrage he first identified in 2008. In other words, these were not just offhand comments but part of an effort to unleash the base of the party in an attempt to undercut the credibility of Republicans. By elevating Trump, Obama was trying to fracture the GOP and strike a fatal blow to his political rivals.

Even though Clinton is well ahead in recent polls, perhaps this strategy worked too well?  President TrumpDonald John TrumpEx-ethics chief calls on Trump to end 'monstrous' migrant policies Laura Bush blasts Trump migrant policy as 'cruel' and 'immoral' US denies report of coalition airstrike on Syria MORE will be no laughing matter.    

Tabachnick is a professor of Political Science at Nipissing University, who has  published books and articles in the areas of global politics and political philosophy.


 

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