How do you say you’re against everything—or even just most of what—Donald Trump stands for and not get sucked in to a constant nyah-nyah race to the bottom of being just anti-Trump? People across politics have been trying to figure that out, looking for how to resist a president chipping away at America’s core without having their words reduced to a zinger tweet or monster-truck-rally headline.
This is an issue for the Democrats gearing up to run for president who insist that their campaign can’t be about just Trump, and for the few Republican critics left in Washington who want to have a debate outside of a Twitter feed.
But no one’s grappling with it quite like Barack Obama.
Obama wants to talk about what wasn’t political or personal before Trump made everything political and personal, but every time he does, it feeds into their dynamic—in part because Trump and his supporters and the media want the mud fight, and in part because his exasperation keeps making him slip in jokes at his successor’s expense.
He wanted to be mostly done with politics, but he decided Trump gave him no choice but to step back in through the fall. Now that Obama is done with his midterm campaigning that was all about opposing Trump, he wants to be seen as standing up for civility and facts and an international order. It’s only because those things stand in such contrast to Trump that they become an attack on Trump.