Barack Obama is the founder of Donald Trump
© Getty Images

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 RyanEsper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Latinos say they didn't benefit from Trump tax cuts — here's why Conservative commentator rips Trump's signature tax overhaul: 'It was a big mistake' MORE and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Senate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Republicans will pay on Election Day for politicizing Trump's impeachment 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 ObamaNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Climate 'religion' is fueling Australia's wildfires Biden's new campaign ad features Obama speech praising him 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 TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' 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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