In an interview with the Atlantic to mark publication of his memoir A Promised Land, Barack Obama ponders Joe Biden’s chances of working with Republicans in Congress, comes close to admitting to being a never-Trump conservative himself – and compares America under Trump to Central Asia under Genghis Khan.
“If we were going to have a rightwing populist in this country,” Obama says, “I would have expected somebody a little more appealing.”
Trump is refusing to admit defeat by Biden, despite a 5.5m deficit in the popular vote and an electoral college loss by 306-232, the margin by which he beat Hillary Clinton.
“For all the differences between myself and George W Bush,” Obama said, “he and his administration could not have been more gracious and intentional about ensuring a smooth handoff. One of the really distressing things about the current situation is the amount of time that is being lost because of Donald Trump’s petulance and the unwillingness of other Republicans to call him on it.”
On Sunday night, Trump tweeted: “I WON THE ELECTION!” Twitter gave the message a label: “Official sources called this election differently.”
The president’s current petulance might be increased by how Obama compares him to “the classic male hero in American culture” – and finds him distinctly wanting. Trump is, after all, a president who plays the song Macho Man at his rallies.
“I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up,” Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of the Atlantic. “The John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter. There was a code … the code of masculinity that I grew up with that harkens back to the 30s and 40s and before that.
“There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully – in fact, he defends the vulnerable against bullies. And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich – the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.”
Most give Trump no chance of success in his lawsuits in battleground states, based on groundless claims of election fraud. But depending on the results of two runoffs in Georgia, the Senate looks set to stay in Republican hands. Biden may have to try to work with Mitch McConnell, the hardline Republican senate majority leader who has propped up Trump in office.
Obama said: “Mitch McConnell is not buddy-buddy with anyone. I’m enjoying reading now about how Joe Biden and Mitch have been friends for a long time. They’ve known each other for a long time. I have quotes from Biden about his interactions with Mitch McConnell.
“The issue with Republicans is not that I didn’t court them enough. We would invite them to everything: movie nights, state dinners, Camp David, you name it. The issue was not a lack of schmoozing. The issue was that they found it politically advantageous to demonize me and the Democratic party.”
How friendly Democrats should be to the Never Trumpers, conservatives from the Lincoln Project to the Bulwark and beyond, is another key issue. Told by Goldberg that “a colleague of mine says that in some ways you’re a never-Trump conservative”, Obama said the characterization was “not quite right”, but reached again for mid-20th-century male archetypes Republicans revere.
“I understand that,” he said. “There’s this sense of probity, honesty, responsibility, of homespun values, that I admire. That’s the Kansas side of me. My grandmother’s a stand-in for that.
“The folks we celebrate at Normandy, including my Uncle Charlie, who was a member of one of the units that liberated parts of Buchenwald, those were men who, whatever their limits, whatever their constraints in terms of their emotions because of what they were told they could and couldn’t feel and be as men, however their relationship with women was skewed by all this – they sacrificed for others.
“And they never bragged, and certainly they would never make cheating others or taking advantage of them a calling card.”
“… You mentioned earlier that I’m in some ways a never-Trump conservative. That’s not quite right, but what is true is that temperamentally I am sympathetic to a certain strain of conservatism in the sense that I’m not just a materialist. I’m not an economic determinist. I think it’s important, but I think there are things other than stuff and money and income – the religious critique of modern society, that we’ve lost that sense of community.”
The depth of Obama’s answer reflected the many differences between him and Trump – and the sheer size of his book. A Promised Land runs to 751 pages, many filled with rumination on historical progress, centrally Martin Luther King Jr’s belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.
Genghis Khan came up in response to a questions about a visit to the Pyramids. The Mongol warlord would “slowly boil you in oil and peel off your skin”, Obama said. But “compare the degree of brutality and venality and corruption and just sheer folly that you see across human history with how things are now. It’s not even close.”
“This was not meant to be commentary on the Trump presidency – not directly, at least,” Goldberg wrote. “In any case, Obama has more respect for Genghis Khan than he has for Donald Trump.”