Trump's Revenge: How the Assault on Obama's Legacy Explains the President's Priorities

Trump Obama meeting
President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting at the White House on November 10, 2016. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

In the 1880s, France saw the unlikely rise of Georges Boulanger, a military man who built a political movement based entirely on grievance. Boulangisme, as that movement came to be called, began with a desire to exact revenge on Germany, which had recently defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War. Rife with romantic nationalist overtones, boulangisme “centered on the power and charisma of a single leader who was seen as a kind of political savior for a nation led astray by ‘foreign’ forces and ideology,’” as the political scientist Ingrid L. Anderson wrote.

Although the boulangistes gained some power in Parliament, the Third Republic survived the movement’s demagoguery. Boulanger killed himself in 1891 in the appropriately dramatic fashion of the French, at the grave of his mistress. His lasting contribution to Western society is the word revanchism, which comes from the French for revenge. Général Revanche was the nickname given to Boulanger as he mounted his campaign against Germany and other forces supposedly corrosive to France. Today, revanchism is used to describe a political philosophy of redressing grievance and restoring greatness.

Republicans probably didn’t know it, but they appear to have elected Général Revanche last November. Eight months into his presidency, it is clear that President Donald J. Trump is not a conservative Republican, nationalist strongman or centrist dealmaker. He is, instead, a revanchist whose sole aim is to cancel every achievement of President Obama while punishing Hillary Clinton, the woman who was supposed to build on those achievements.

The remarkable thing about Trump is that he doesn't even try to hide his revanchism to any significant degree. In early August, BuzzFeed published a revealing report about European leaders’ observations of Trump.

They...believe Trump’s foreign policy is chiefly driven by an obsession with unravelling Barack Obama’s policies. “It’s his only real position,” one European diplomat said. “He will ask: ‘Did Obama approve this?’ And if the answer is affirmative, he will say: ‘We don’t.’ He won’t even want to listen to the arguments or have a debate. He is obsessed with Obama.”

Trump believes his working class white supporters loathe Obama as much as he does. This is, in truth, a Republican conviction that predates his unique brand of demagogy. Recall the branding of the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare,” a clever Republican strategy that tethered the imperfect but effective health law to Obama. Many people had no idea “Obamacare” was responsible for Medicaid expansion and pre-existing condition protections. Once they learned as much, they naturally rejected the recent Republican repeal effort, proving once more that the American people are not as ignorant or mean-spirited as Trump seems to believe.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Two days after his election in November, Trump visited Obama at the White House. “I very much look forward to dealing with the president in the future, including counsel,” Trump said in a joint appearance afterward, praising Obama as a “good man.” Later that month, the president-elect dropped by the newsroom of The New York Times, where he was asked about prosecuting Clinton over her use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state.

“I want to move forward, I don’t want to move back,” Trump said. “And I don’t want to hurt the Clintons. I really don’t…They’ve gone through a lot.”

Trump has been through a lot in the first eight months of his presidency, and little of it has been good, either for him or for the nation. And so he and the Republican Party have turned to an all-out assault on Obama and Clinton. Finding no path forward, they look back in anger, in apparent hope of appeasing his most ardent supporters, the ones animated, above all, by an antipathy to Obama.

That’s the only way to account for the announced cancellation of Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which was neither illegal nor responsible for crime or joblessness, as Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have variously claimed. A mere 15% of Americans support deporting Dreamers, and Trump himself has previously signaled empathy for these hopeful young Americans. But DACA belongs to Obama, so it must be tossed out of the White House like trash left over by a previous tenant. Same with the Paris climate accord, another major achievement of the previous administration. Again, most Americans (70%) wanted to keep things as they were. Again, revanchism won over reason.

In response to the DACA cancellation, former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, now a right-wing radio host, perfectly summarized the revanchism of today's GOP. "Trump did something today that made Obama very, very angry," he wrote on Twitter. "That means Trump did something very, very good today." 

When not cancelling Obama’s environmental regulations or workplace protections, Trump and the Republicans look to punish Clinton with endless investigations.

Republicans spent two years and $7 million on their sham investigation into the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The goal was not to find out why four Americans died but, rather, to degrade Clinton’s standing with the public. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Southern California, admitted as much, by accident, in 2015.

What’s astonishing is that, two years later, the zeal to punish Clinton over Benghazi remains acute. At the behest of the right-wing organization Judicial Watch, federal judge Amit P. Mehta ordered the State Department to conduct a “supplemental search” of the email accounts of aides to Clinton when she was secretary of state. At the same time, Trump surrogate Jay Sekulow has continued his obsession with a 2016 tarmac meeting between Loretta Lynch, then the attorney general, and Bill Clinton. Yes, the encounter was ill-advised, a reminder of why the Clintons make so many people squeamish. But in the right-wing imagination, the 20-minute chat holds the key to some vast liberal conspiracy worthy of a Dan Brown novel.

The Clinton fixation is the anger that soothes. It also distracts. Confronted with questions over Trump’s relationship to Russia earlier this summer, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders scolded reporters: “If you guys want to talk further about a relationship with Russia, look no further than the Clintons.” She repeated a raft of accusations that Sean Hannity had been making on Fox News all summer long, just as the Trump administration was sinking ever deeper into crisis.

It’s not that Clinton deserves impunity because she lost the election. But the Uranium One deal that remains, quite confoundingly, a major concern for the right, was covered in great detail in Peter Schweitzer’s 2015 book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, a volume that received significant — and, some said, credulous — attention from outlets like The New York Times. This is a nothingburger slathered in weak sauce.

It doesn’t help that the party’s nominal head lacks an intellectual or ideological anchor with which to keep the Republicans moored. Remember that Trump came to political prominence with his racist claims that Obama wasn’t born in the United States (and was a secret Muslim to boot). The president was an impostor, and only Trump was brave enough to detail his transgressions. “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible,” Trump said in 2011. “How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?"

Resentment propelled Trump to power. Ignoring this obvious fact, some hoped for a mythical “presidential pivot,” when Trump would become a sensible middle-of-the-road, let’s-pave-some-roads Republican, one who ditched the “Lock her up” chant for a rendition of “Kumbaya.”

But without that chant, there is only a haunting silence, a lack of leadership and ideas. The party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan is now the party of Général Revanche.

Editor's Pick