One of the dominant narratives about Barack Obama in conservative media and Republican politics hinged on the idea that no one knew who America’s first black president really was. This notion that Obama was hiding his true self found countless avenues of expression -- obsessions over his college transcripts; fine-toothed parsing of personal anecdotes related in his books; sinister insinuations about the childhood years he spent in Indonesia; dimwitted conspiracies about who actually wrote his autobiography; equally stupid conspiracies about his biological father; still dumber conspiracies about the famous black men who could be his “real” father; and bad-faith efforts to impute to Obama the politics of every controversial figure he encountered in his public life. The current president’s ascent in Republican politics began with a bigoted smear campaign to demonstrate that Obama had covered up his true place of birth.
The unstated political intent behind all this aggressive and frequently deranged probing into Obama’s past was to leverage racial anxiety and portray Obama as foreign, un-American, and dangerous. The stated justification was that America needed to break through the political persona Obama had created and understand who the “real” Barack Obama was.
“All people want to know is: What has this man ever actually accomplished in government? What does he plan for America? In short: Who is the real Barack Obama?” then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in a 2008 campaign speech. “He’s been elected president,” Fox News’ Sean Hannity said shortly before Obama’s inauguration. “My question is: Do we really know the real Barack Obama?” Conservatives were singularly obsessed with debunking Obama’s self-told origin story and exposing the true “radical” they already had convinced themselves was hiding behind it.
Now here we are in 2018 and Donald Trump, who benefited more than any other Republican politician from telling grotesque lies about Obama’s background, is president of the United States, having successfully campaigned on his own mythology as a business genius and self-made billionaire. That mythology was always based on grandiose lies and relied heavily on intense secrecy and media credulity. This week it was ripped to shreds by a New York Times investigation into the Trump family’s wealth which found that Donald Trump was heavily dependent on dubious -- and often fraudulent -- financial support from his real-estate developer father, Fred Trump.
The true Donald Trump is a child of privilege whose wealth was always secure. He was disastrous as a businessman, but he was singularly effective in devising schemes (in collaboration with his dad) to conceal those failures with complex and inventive forms of tax fraud. The Donald Trump who markets himself as a business phenom is actually a spectacular failure who so values personal wealth and the outward appearance of success that he would commit fraud and even attempt to railroad his ailing father into altering his own will.
This is precisely what conservatives were warning would happen with Obama: A president’s facade was shorn away to reveal something far more sinister, with dire implications for our political system. And early indications are that the right couldn't care less.
Fox News has spent the day since the Times story dropped spinning it as positive for Trump, arguing that the illegal behavior described in the story actually shows that Trump is -- in the words of Neil Cavuto -- “pretty clever.”
Sean Hannity, who aired a series of programs in the run-up to the 2008 election purporting to expose “The Real Barack Obama,” brushed off the Times’ deconstruction of Trump as a “slander” cooked up by Democrats who “think they're losing the vote on Judge Kavanaugh.” Breitbart News, which committed itself to a much-publicized (and often hilariously inept) “vetting” of Obama in 2012, limited its coverage of the Times story to publicizing Trump’s attacks on it.
Such hypocrisy is to be expected, I suppose, but it’s still wild given all the dire warnings conservatives sounded about what a secret radical president would mean for U.S. policy. The situation we now face is that a sitting president with a long-standing record of fraud and tax evasion is responsible for overseeing the IRS and directing tax policy. The Times article describes the intricate, intra-familial schemes the Trumps devised so Fred Trump could line the pockets of his children without paying taxes. Are we just going to assume that similarly fraudulent arrangements do not exist between Donald Trump and his children, one of whom is a senior official in his White House?
The potential for corruption is staggering, and it hovers menacingly above all the acts of official corruption we already know about. And yet, few on the right seem invested in loudly asking “who is the real Donald Trump?” I guess it would be pointless anyway; we know the real Donald Trump is a fraud and a tax cheat, but they just don’t give a damn.