On Tuesday morning, after we spent a few days listening to Donald Trump excoriate Gold Star mothers, fire marshals, and babies, President Obama said it was official: The Republican nominee was "unfit to serve as president."
Obama wasn't the first to apply those words to Trump, although he was undoubtedly the most prominent. Retiring Republican Representative Richard Hanna called Trump “unfit to serve" this week, and said he would vote for Hillary Clinton. Back in September, George Pataki said that Trump was unfit during a debate. "I think he's crazy. I think he's unfit for office," Lindsey Graham told Fox News in February. Future Trump endorser Rick Perry tweeted this last July:
The fact that so many people agree that a man closer to the presidency than most is entirely unsuited for the honor sounds troubling, until you stop and think about the word "unfit" and how often you've heard it applied to other politicians. Although this is finally the moment when "unfit to serve as president" would actually prove useful, it's already been deployed so often as to basically be a prerequisite for running for office in the first place — especially when some of the people who have called Trump "unfit" continue to endorse him, making it unclear how serious the charge could possibly be. (Although these endorsements might have a shorter shelf life if Trump refuses to endorse them back by playing "I'm not quite there yet" tag with Paul Ryan.)
In 2016, it's hard to find any presidential candidates who haven't been written off by someone as woefully inadequate. Trump, an expert in unfitness if the above analysts are correct, said that Hillary Clinton was "unfit to be president" because she doesn't say "radical Islam." Bernie Sanders briefly said that his primary opponent "wasn't qualified." In the same speech where Mitt Romney called Trump unfit for the presidency, he said that a "person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president." California Governor Jerry Brown declared that Ted Cruz was "unfit to be running for office" because of his views, or lack thereof, on climate change.
This game of "No, you're unfit" badminton didn't start with this election, though. Conservatives have been saying that Obama has been unfit for the presidency for years. Back in 2014, Ben Carson, who has himself been called unfit for office, wrote an op-ed about the Obama administration titled "Unfit for Office."
In some ways, the proliferation of pointing fingers and declaring people unfit for office seems like foreshadowing for the "Lock her up" chants that accompanied every speech at the Republican convention. It is no longer enough to simply disagree with a politician's ideology or ideas; anything less than dismantling their résumé until only the oxford commas remain, or tidying up a jail cell for their imminent arrival, won't cut it. But if you've been told that all politicians are unworthy of their power to the point where 81 percent of the public thinks they can trust government "only some of the time" or "never," how do you pick out the ones that would be especially destabilizing? When all the words that you've wanted to use to describe Trump have already been wasted on others, how do you properly convey how much he worries you? Having the President of the United States raise his hand and volunteer to be the latest person to deploy the word is one option. We may have heard politicians being called unfit left and right lately, but usually the sitting president doesn't get involved.
President Obama, in his effort to properly convey how much Trump freaks him out, is trying to remind us of a time before politicians were all drowning in a sea of synonyms for inadequacy. A long time ago, all the way back in 2012, when your cynicism had not yet flowered and videos of puppies making friends with kitties still made you smile, Obama disagreed with Mitt Romney fiercely, and vice versa. "I think I was right and Mitt Romney and John McCain were wrong on certain policy issues," Obama said on Tuesday, "but I never thought they couldn't do the job." Unfortunately, such nuance is unfit for the 2016 election.