In an interview in London for her new memoir “Becoming,” former First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a stinging assessment of the state of American politics and, specifically, of President Donald Trump. Said Obama:
“We come from a broken family, we are a little unsettled. Sometimes you spend the weekend with divorced dad. That feels like fun but then you get sick. That is what America is going through. We are living with divorced dad.”
The Independent, which reported on Obama’s comments, said she offered that assessment in a joking manner. But joking or not, there’s some real truth in Obama’s assessment of how we got here — and got Trump.
A look at the 2016 exit poll explains why.
On character trait after character trait, large majorities of the public gave Trump poor ratings. Consider:
* 38% had a favorable opinion of him (60% had an unfavorable one)
* 33% said Trump was “honest and trustworthy”
* 38% said Trump was qualified to be president (61% said he was not)
* 35% said he had the temperament to be president
Those are the numbers, in virtually every past election, of a loser. But Trump won. Why? Because four in 10 voters said the most important character trait in a candidate was someone who could bring real change to Washington; Trump won those voters by 68 percentage points.
Which brings me back to Michelle Obama’s metaphor. So, to reset: America is the child of divorced parents. He has been living with the mom for years. He’s sick of her rules and doesn’t feel like he can have any fun. Enter the divorced dad who seems fun, a little bit reckless and, above all, different. So the kid goes to live with the dad. And it’s different — and maybe even good for the first few months. Dad lets you stay up late. He doesn’t care how much “Fortnite” you play. Doesn’t check to make sure your homework is done at night. But over time, the differences start to be less appealing. And when he’s got the flu, maybe Dad checks on him once or twice but still winds up going out to dinner with some work friends.
Get it? There’s NO question that the average American voter had grown totally sick of establishment politicians. Political dynasties left them cold. (“Another Clinton as president???”) They wanted something very different. And if there was EVER a presidential candidate who offered something very different, it was Trump. His background was different. His manner of speaking was different. His, well, everything was different.
As the exit poll results make clear, the public was under no illusion about Trump’s character. They knew he wasn’t a role model — or even well-suited to be president. But they were so done with the “normal” sorts of people that ran and won the White House that they were willing to look past all of Trump’s character flaws to give him a chance. How much worse can he be than what we have had? — the logic went. (One data point really drives this home: Of the 64% who said Trump was neither honest or trustworthy, one in five voted for him anyway.)
Michelle Obama’s underlying point is that America has woken up. That spending a few years living with the “divorced dad” has opened their eyes to the idea that having candy for dinner every night isn’t as fun as they thought. That the public has already begun to crave the normalcy that they chafed against in 2016 — and gave us Trump.
I’m less convinced of that. Yes, Trump is deeply unpopular among Democrats. But he’s far more popular among Republicans than he was when he won the White House. And while most polling suggests that independents aren’t huge fans of Trump’s, if the economy is going strong they may well choose not to rock the boat — looking past, again, the fact that they don’t think Trump is, to put a fine point on it, a good guy.
Regardless of what happens in 2020, it’s worth keeping Michelle Obama’s image of America as a “broken family” led by a “divorced dad” in mind as the campaign unwinds. It’s an apt, if depressing, metaphor for where we are at the moment.