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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

How Barack Obama lost the great culture

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Sometimes you lose the war of ideas because people don’t care about your ideas. Sometimes, though, you win the war of ideas because other people don’t care about your ideas. And then you get comfortable.

In this line of thinking, politics occurs at the subconscious level, and politicians and analysts need to get more in touch with their core sense of what people think.

It doesn’t take long to realize that this strategy does not often work in practice. Most of the stories I’ve been told about Mitt Romney don’t bother with the details of what he really believes. They assume that even the most reactionary candidate wants to follow the right path.

There’s a similar thesis for Barack Obama. It comes from a high-school classmate and from other high-school acquaintances. All seem to have given up on him. He seems to be some kind of no-good pragmatist who won the general election but never really settled into office.

The trouble with this assumption is that it mischaracterizes the basic nature of the role of politicians. People often treat politicians as a rhetorical moment, a kind of cheap performance.

Politicians can’t lead very well in a campaign. They can’t present a coherent grand national narrative, and they can’t define a coherent set of principles for the day when they get elected.

So they get general ideas out the door.

After his first electoral defeat, Ronald Reagan figured this out. And of course the combination of profound ideological sophistication and deft public persuasion were key ingredients in his eventual election victory.

It’s part of what makes the Robert Mueller investigation one of the most powerful political events of the last 20 years: an obvious giveaway of the bare basics of the special counsel’s potential collusion case. Donald Trump is not a strongman. He is not a no-man. He isn’t a shaman. He is not a narcissist. He is an insecure man, and in his vulnerabilities people will see the deep outlines of his psyche.

This turns Trump into something like a playboy, and that is a big part of what he is going to need to be: a playboy (although nobody really knows what playboy means). He can’t articulate his economic policies in any useful way. He can’t give a persuasive argument for our particular form of nationalism. He’s not especially good at discussion of foreign policy.

But he knows a good club room story, he knows how to talk up the glories of male competition, and he’s good at hooking people up. It’s just not clear that the general public likes him as a person, but he can use that trait to win votes at the base.

Then there’s Trump’s religious concept of a president. He’s an absolutist and a fan of hierarchy. He surrounds himself with his own group of people.

It’s the same thing with members of the national security team. They hang together, prioritize themselves, and tend to gravitate to the two men in the center, General McMaster and General Flynn.

Their alliance happens to be quite effective in the Mueller case. Only in this manner is the case of perjury possible.

No one should underestimate the extent to which certain longstanding pieces of this psychology are not only operative in Trump, but that his character simply makes him irresistible to these folks.

But there’s also another way of looking at Trump’s power. This is more difficult to see. In some ways, Trump is a very unusual personality in modern politics, and more unusual than the traditional individual politician. He’s very, very insecure. He’s very, very oriented toward ratings. He doesn’t like people who take a problem and throw a tantrum.

The other day I was talking with somebody who has worked on an opposition campaign for a candidate. I told him that I thought Trump was flailing and in trouble. He wasn’t convinced. He said that Trump just needed to do a TV interview with a feisty anchor like me to start talking like he had a positive program and that he was pulling the country together in a cause.

This old political kind of thing comes in several variants. He can be excruciatingly persuasive to certain audiences, and then can leave them cold. The president also frequently plays a game that keeps others preoccupied — by being inarticulate, indifferent or delusional.

But you can’t really handicap Trump as an individual, because he’s so uniquely erratic, so ill-versed in doing what he says he wants to do.

The way to think about the overarching Trump story is to think of the broader and longer trajectory. In America today, as

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