Look…here’s the difference between “When Obama did it…” and “When Trump did it…” and I’ll explain it in terms of the famous scene from “Sophie’s Choice”:
For those who don’t remember, the Mother (played by Meryl Streep) is approached by a Nazi guard and he tells her that she has to give up one of her two children to be taken away and killed in a concentration camp. If she doesn’t choose, then he’ll shoot both kids. She gives away the oldest kid.
“When Obama did it…” is when Obama was forced to give up his proverbial “oldest kid”. And “When Trump did it…” is when Trump walked straight up to the bad guy, handed him a chocolate bar, and said “I heard you do this thing where you threaten to kill both kids unless a person agrees to give one of ’em up. It’s a stroke of genius. I wanna guarantee that one of my two kids will live.”
That’s the difference. That’s the difference between Obama and Trump.
You keep saying that Obama and Trump are the same kind of President because both of them gave one of their kids to the bad guys. You say that the rest of us are hypocrites because we didn’t march through the streets condemning Obama for doing that, and because we did condemn Trump for doing it. You claim we’re hypocrites because the outcome in both scenarios is the same.
But they’re not the same. They’re not the same because the process and the history of how that outcome was achieved are different.
And process, and history, especially when it comes to policy-making, are everything.
This distinction holds up for nearly every single scenario used to compare Trump and Obama. For example:
Were migrant kids separated from families under Obama? Yes. But was it encouraged and welcomed? No. The massive influx of illegal immigrants was a difficult position that was treated for what it was: a difficult position. It was treated not only as a national security issue but also as a humanitarian issue.
Under Trump? The separation of families was encouraged and welcomed. It was treated as something easy to decide. It was treated as a one-sided issue: an issue of national security. Nothing else really mattered.
The metaphors and thought experiments when it comes to these two drastically different philosophies (with their multifarious intersecting outcomes) is staggering:
Obama: Someone breaks into your home. Before you can reach for a gun, they force you, at gunpoint, to choose between your loved one getting raped or getting murdered.
Trump: Someone is invited into your home, willingly, by you, and you say to them “It’s incredibly generous that you found a way to ensure that my loved one survives. Rape as an alternative to death sounds tremendous.”
Was the outcome the same? Yes.
But was the process the same? Absolutely not.
In spite of the outcomes being identical, the decision-makers did not make the same decision. In one scenario, they welcomed the damage inflicted on their loved one. In the other one, they didn’t.
In the Trump scenario, the decision-maker had the illusion of leverage, the illusion of being in control. “I made the decision for my loved one to be raped. Not anyone else. I was the one who ensured their survival. If you think about it: I’m actually a hero.”
Sounds just like Trump, doesn’t it?
It might actually be funny if the proverbial “Loved one” in danger isn’t “The American People”.
This same pattern continues throughout the timelines of both Presidents:
Did Obama hold talks and/or negotiations with some of the world’s most nefarious dictators? Yes. Did he praise them as “a great leader” or “a great friend”? No.
Did Trump do the same? Yes. But did he praise them? Sadly, also yes. He called them a “great leader” and a “great friend”.
Why, then, are the two Presidents so different? Because Obama didn’t care about creating the illusion of leverage. He didn’t care if it looked like he, alone, made the decision, or if it was cooperative, or if the other guy made the decision. That is because he understood one of the most essential principles of statecraft: that in order to really adhere to a set of values, one has to acknowledge that there is always a give and take.
One has to acknowledge that there is a cost.
And that is the central, unresolved issue with Trump: he does not acknowledge cost. Ever. Trump pretends that in every scenario, there is no cost. For Trump, cost, and acknowledging cost, is a form of weakness.
When we welcome the worst aspects of human nature into our lives because “both sides do it”, or because “They’re just going to do it anyway” or “This is how you win,” we wind up sending a message to the entire world: that we won’t fight to adhere to a set of standards. We’ll welcome whatever comes our way, no matter how low the standard, because “both sides do it.” Because “That’s how you win.”
It is a form of ignoring cost. But, unfortunately, some costs are simply too massive and too precious to be ignored. Our standards and our values just happen to be among those costs. If we ignore such an expense and refuse to address it, then we cease to be a country that is worth anything, economically or otherwise.
It is the antithesis of American Exceptionalism. How can it be anything other than that? Consider the proposition at hand: “Since they act like selfish, immoral animals, then we’ll act like selfish, immoral animals.” It is literally the weakest leadership position possible. It doesn’t “lead” anyone or anything.
It doesn’t set the standard. It follows one.
Most people fight like mad in the face of degradation, even if the exercise is futile, because it sends a message. It tells the next guy: “Even if you do have the upper-hand by nefarious means, we’re not going to make it easy for you. We’ll never condone or support what you do, or how you do it. If ever you want us to travel down a dark path to ruin, or to rot from the inside, then you’ll have to make that happen by force. And that force will cost you dearly.”
That’s the difference.
The alternative? To welcome it. And that’s precisely what Trump does. He welcomes it. He praises the worst actions of other countries. He praises our enemies. In fact, he even offers to lend a helping hand to them for short-term gain, for the privilege of being able to say to the rest of us “I decided this. I was in control. I’m a mover and shaker. I make things happen.”
To return to our original metaphor: Trump defines getting to keep one of two children, while offering to send the other one off to die, as the definition of winning. “Did you see how I got to keep my kid? I did that. I saved him. I’m a hero.”
The revulsion we should feel in the face of such a transaction, this negotiation, is something so primal that it lays bare the formidable question all of us as Americans and human beings must inevitably answer:
Is it better to win with dishonor?
Or is it better to lose with dignity?