Donald Trump has proved beyond doubt that he is the most uninformed president in history, but he also grasps better than anyone in the media or his party that he was savvy enough to pick the only moment in history that he could be elected president: the retirement of Barack Obama or, he saw it, the banishment of Barack Obama.
That provides the central motive for everything he does. It spawns each of his serial failures and every small success. It is what he wakes up thinking about every morning. He is the Anti-Obama, and he must prove it every day, by finding a way to demolish any record that Obama was ever president of the United States and to the extent that the black man did things that were popular, like responding to disasters, to be seen as transcending him.
But many in his party — congressional leaders, GOP stalwarts like former Sen. John Danforth of Missouri, even the Republican National Committee — just don't get it. Bewildered by the president's refusal to singularly condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who rioted at Charlottesville, Va., and murdered a woman and injured others, they publish vivid denunciations of the extremists and pronounce the ideology anathema to everything the party of Lincoln ever stood for. They don't get it: The president cannot renounce his base. Hurricane Harvey will give him a momentary bump, but his approval ratings are stuck at 35 percent. Much lower and he becomes easy bait for Robert S. Mueller III, whose Russian investigation closes in every day.
Trump ran for president with one strength no other Republican had: He had steadfastly claimed that Barack Obama was a fraud who was a usurper of the American throne because he was born in Kenya, not Hawaii as birth records and newspaper birth announcements showed, and was probably a Muslim. He finally admitted, meekly, during the campaign that Obama was a citizen, but still he promised to undo everything the black president had done.
He did not run for president in 2012 or other times when he toyed with the idea, because he could not have won. Obama's retirement and the nearly certain prospect of Democrats nominating a destructible candidate gave him his one chance. All the early campaign publicity about Trump's history fed the narrative of a man who would try to save the vanishing white culture. His father had been jailed in a violent Ku Klux Klan rally in New York City and the two, father and son, had fought off many charges that their housing developments wouldn't rent to African Americans and Latinos.
Together with his bluster, attacks on immigrants and name-calling, it brought millions of working-class white voters into the Republican primaries and swamped his baffled opponents. The party had never seen such gusto in campaign crowds. Although he lost the popular vote by 2.9 million, he handily carried all the Confederate states except Virginia, and with the help of angry working-class white men narrowly carried the iron-belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Why would he do or say anything that might cool the ardor of the people who transported him above the standard 30 percent Republican electorate and into the White House? He wasn't born to commit suicide.
Starting Inauguration Day, Trump began dismantling all that Obama had done that could be reached by executive order or regulation. He withdrew the United States from the historic climate treaty, signed by every nation in the world except North Korea, Cuba and Syria. His Environmental Protection Agency chief follows Trump's directive to roll back every rule to reduce atmospheric and water pollution adopted the previous eight years and further back if he can. His Cabinet and advisers, along with private beseeching from Republican leaders, persuaded him not to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement, but he employs a strategy of goading Iran into breaking it so that the rest of the world will join him in scrapping the Obama treaty.
This week, he reversed Obama's ban on passing on military armaments like automatic weapons and assault vehicles to police departments and pardoned the Arizona sheriff who was charged by Obama's Justice Department with violating the law by brutalizing blacks and immigrants, explaining that Obama had been unfair to the man. He has condemned leaders of his own party for not killing Obamacare, which he had promised his base that he would do, and for not already repealing the Obama-era financial reforms that sought to avoid another banking collapse and bailout. He had promised Wall Street that he would do that and roll back Obama's taxes on wealthy investors that help shore up Medicare and the health care system. But Congress just sits there, still in thrall to Barack Obama.
Proclaim himself an enemy of white supremacists and nationalists who hate brown-skinned immigrants — why would he do that?