Donald Trump launched his career in conservative politics by challenging Barack Obama’s claim to American identity. On Wednesday night in Philadelphia, Obama returned the favor.
The president did not ask to see the mogul’s birth certificate. Nor did he engage with the (disconcertingly plausible) theory that Trump’s candidacy is being aided by a hostile foreign government. Rather, Obama argued that the intolerant authoritarianism that Donald Trump embodies is alien to our nation’s bedrock values.
“He’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election,” Obama said of the GOP nominee, in his address to the Democratic National Convention. “That is another bet that Donald Trump will lose. Because he’s selling the American people short. We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don’t look to be ruled.”
Later, the president reminded his audience of how deep his own roots in this country — and its value system — actually go. If Trump wins the presidency, it will be because he convinced a large number of hardworking white people in small-town America that he is their voice. But in Philadelphia, the first black president argued that he — not Trump — is the true inheritor of such “salt-of-the-earth” folks’ collective wisdom.
You know, there’s been a lot of talk in this campaign about what America’s lost — people who tell us that our way of life is being undermined by pernicious changes and dark forces beyond our control. They tell voters there’s a “real America” out there that must be restored. This isn’t an idea that started with Donald Trump. It’s been peddled by politicians for a long time — probably from the start of our republic.
And it’s got me thinking about the story I told you 12 years ago tonight, about my Kansas grandparents and the things they taught me when I was growing up. They came from the heartland; their ancestors began settling there about 200 years ago. They were Scotch-Irish mostly, farmers, teachers, ranch hands, pharmacists, oil-rig workers. Hardy, small town folks. Some were Democrats, but a lot of them were Republicans. My grandparents explained that they didn’t like show-offs. They didn’t admire braggarts or bullies. They didn’t respect mean-spiritedness or folks who were always looking for shortcuts in life. Instead, they valued traits like honesty and hard work; kindness and courtesy; humility; responsibility; helping each other out … And what my grandparents understood was that these values weren’t limited to Kansas … They knew these values weren’t reserved for one race; they could be passed down to a half-Kenyan grandson, or a half-Asian granddaughter; in fact, they were the same values Michelle’s parents, the descendants of slaves, taught their own kids living in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago.
Here, Obama articulates an alternative to Trump’s white identity politics, by arguing that at the core of his own white ancestors’ identities was a commitment to the universal values of empathy and tolerance.
The president went on to argue that the durability of such values would prevent Trump from ever setting foot in the Oval Office:
America has changed over the years. But these values my grandparents taught me — they haven’t gone anywhere. They’re as strong as ever; still cherished by people of every party, every race, and every faith … That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end.
In likening Trump to America’s historic enemies, Obama framed the mogul as an alien in our midst: He may have convinced half the country that he’s one of us, but soon they’ll recognize him for the stranger that he is. In the president’s telling, that moment of recognition won’t come when the American people catch a glimpse of some secret document, but rather, when they take a harder look into the mirror.