“Obamagate” Is Niche Programming for Trump Superfans
Donald Trump will not shut up about Barack Obama—not now, not ever. On Thursday morning, amid the gravest economic crisis in a century and a deadly pandemic that will have killed more than a hundred thousand Americans by the end of this month, Trump yet again accused his predecessor of culpability in “the biggest political crime and scandal in the history of the USA.” Obama, he said, should be hauled before the Senate to testify. “He knew EVERYTHING,” Trump added in his tweet, one of dozens of attacks in the past few days in which he has targeted “Obamagate.” What crime, exactly, was Trump accusing Obama of? What should he testify about? Trump never said, and it’s a safe bet that he never will.
On Monday afternoon, at a press conference on the White House lawn, Trump made that clear, in a memorable exchange with Phil Rucker, of the Washington Post, that echoed the paranoid fulminations of Trump’s hero Joseph McCarthy at his worst. “What crime, exactly, are you accusing President Obama of committing?” Rucker asked. “Obamagate,” Trump replied. “It’s been going on for a long time,” he added, without offering specifics. “What is the crime, exactly, that you’re accusing him of?” Rucker asked again. “You know what the crime is,” Trump answered. “The crime is very obvious to everybody.” Days later, that is still where we are: Trump is accusing Obama of a grave crime but refusing even to say what Obama allegedly did, while repeating over and over that the former President is guilty of something, a technique of political agitprop that recalls not only McCarthy but every wannabe dictator for whom the rule of law has little or nothing to do with accusations of illegality.
Perhaps, to Trump and his defenders, “Obamagate” really is such a known commodity that defining it is superfluous, even if it is not at all obvious to those who don’t populate Trump’s alternate reality of conspiracy theories and outright lies, a world in which Obama figures as a regular and sinister presence. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that the gap between partisan truths in Washington is so wide it’s practically a vortex. In many ways, the “Obamagate” exchange on Monday reminded me of the first day of the public impeachment hearings last fall in the House Intelligence Committee, in which Democrats spent hours outlining what they knew of the Trump Ukraine-shakedown scheme that had triggered the impeachment proceedings, while Devin Nunes, the Republican ranking member, offered up an array of little-known intrigues that seemed entirely unrelated to the matter at hand, including an alleged plot to “obtain nude pictures of Trump,” which, he said, was part of a “three-year-long operation” by Democrats, “the corrupt media,” and “partisan bureaucrats to overturn the results of the 2016 election.” I remember thinking: Naked pictures? What was he even talking about? It appeared to have something to do with a 2017 phone call to Representative Adam Schiff from two Russian pranksters claiming to represent the Ukrainian government and offering nude pictures of Trump with a Russian celebrity. Or something. If you had been following along with Fox News and the darker corners of the right, you knew exactly what Nunes was talking about.
The same is true right now with Trump, who, starting with an anti-Obama tweet storm on Mother’s Day that does not seem to have ended yet, has been trying to deflect attention from the pandemic by pursuing a similar strategy to the one that he, Nunes, and other supporters used during the impeachment proceedings. To the extent we can even discern what Trump is talking about, “Obamagate” seems to be the perfect crime for someone like Trump to allege: it is vague and all-encompassing, a conspiracy against the current President so broad that it apparently began before he won an election nobody expected him to win while simultaneously explaining away everything from the Mueller investigation’s findings to the Ukraine-extortion scheme that got Trump impeached. Inasmuch as Trump’s allegations are connected to a real criminal case, it is the still-unravelling mess involving his own former national-security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired by Trump and pleaded guilty twice to lying to investigators about his dealings with Russia, but who now claims he was framed by the F.B.I. and has got Trump’s Justice Department to abandon the case that was successfully mounted by its own career prosecutors. These, needless to say, are not the kind of facts that Trump has brought up when slinging his accusations against Obama, which seem to currently revolve around a list of former Obama Administration officials who—completely legally, as far as anyone can tell—asked to “unmask” the name of an unidentified American dealing with foreign officials after the election, who turned out to be Flynn. “People should be going to jail for this stuff,” Trump told an interviewer on Thursday. “This was all Obama. This was all Biden. These people were corrupt, the whole thing was corrupt, and we caught them.”
To outside observers, the charges—like Trump’s original political sin, lying about the easily provable fact of Obama’s birth in the United States—seem so absurd as to be the mere caricature of a conspiracy, as sketched by a con man who couldn’t even bother to offer convincing details. The point, though, is not to convince those who aren’t already in the know.
“Obamagate” is niche programming for the Trump superfan audience. If you don’t get it, that doesn’t matter; you’re not supposed to. It’s a slogan, a rallying cry. Details are all but irrelevant. At 8:57 p.m. on Wednesday, Trump sent out an all-caps tweet. The message consisted solely of the word “OBAMAGATE” followed by an exclamation point. To those not following Trump as a daily soap opera, it might seem like a desperate diversionary tactic from a floundering President. To his supporters, it made perfect sense.
Which is why, when Trump followed up on Thursday morning with an equally angry and cryptic demand that Obama be called to testify before the Senate—about what was entirely unclear—news organizations mostly ignored him in favor of the morning’s testimony by the recently fired head of vaccines at the Department of Health and Human Services, or, as the Drudge Report called Richard Bright, the “whistleblower of doom.” Except for Fox News, that is, which obliged the President with a banner headline.
Hating on Obama, lying about him, blaming him: these long ago became the default settings of Trump’s Presidency. When Trump is troubled or cornered or simply deciding what to do, he often finds a way to bring Obama into it, no matter how tenuous or even absurd the connection. He has called Obama a “bad” person, a “sick” person, “a disaster,” “the most ignorant President in our history,” and even the “founder of isis.” Barely more than a month into his Administration, in early March of 2017, Trump accused Obama of secretly wiretapping him at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, an allegation that was no more true than any of the other nutty things Trump has said about Obama since then. During the course of the pandemic in the past couple of months, Trump has repeatedly invoked Obama and sought to blame his predecessor for everything from the lack of a sufficient national stockpile of medical supplies to inadequate testing for the coronavirus, which did not exist when Obama was President. Trump often mentions Obama’s handling of the H1N1 swine flu, which killed twelve thousand Americans, but which Trump nonetheless claims was a disastrous contrast to his own deft handling of a national crisis that has so far tanked the American economy and killed more citizens than the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. In fact, the President made a point of it again on Thursday afternoon during an appearance in Pennsylvania. For Trump, spending the week attacking Obama, no matter what the subject, is the political equivalent of retreating to his bedroom and hiding under the blanket. It’s his safe space, his comfort zone.
Since the beginning of his anti-Obama rant on Mother’s Day morning, Trump has tweeted and retweeted attacks on the former President thirty-three times, by my count, with around a dozen of those referring to the vague but nefarious “OBAMAGATE.” On Wednesday, Trump forwarded to his Twitter followers a video, from 2016, of Obama suggesting that Trump could never become President. “Obama was always wrong!” he tweeted.
Although he never did spell out what it is, Trump promised his followers at one point, “OBAMAGATE makes Watergate look small time!” It’s as though he sees an attack on Obama as a political get-out-of-jail-free card, with the mere mention of Obama’s name an incantation of such political force that invoking it can miraculously rally Trump’s Obama-hating base.
But is there really political magic for Trump in this? The numbers don’t suggest it. Obama remains broadly popular with the American public, certainly far more so than Trump has ever been.Trump has been attacking Obama vociferously for the past three years of his Presidency, without those attacks demonstrably affecting either his or Obama’s over-all popularity.
Why should “Obamagate,” coming as it does in the midst of a true national emergency, be any different? Yet, in seeking to explain the latest Trumpian distraction, Brian Kilmeade said on Fox the other day that this was in fact a strategic move by the President, an effort to reset the fall campaign from a race between Trump and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Obama’s former Vice-President, Joe Biden, into “Obama against Trump.”
Maybe, but I don’t buy it. Trump has been running this play for a long time already, and it seems to me not so much about electoral politics as it is a reflection of the ongoing temper tantrum that is Trump’s response to the global pandemic—a catastrophe that has upended Trump’s Presidency and may well spell his political doom. It’s about his fury at being impeached, and his rage at having as an enemy a virus that doesn’t give a damn about his Twitter feed. Trump’s attacks on Barack Obama, above all else, are a barometer for measuring the level of Trump’s raging insecurity, and what they tell us now is that Trump is having an enormous meltdown, almost certainly connected with his diminishing prospects for reëlection.
This seems to be Obama’s interpretation, too. On Friday, in a phone call with several thousand supporters that was quickly leaked, Obama called Trump’s response to the pandemic an “absolute chaotic disaster” and warned that the “rule of law” was at stake in Trump’s efforts to undo Flynn’s conviction. He then refrained from comment for days as Trump’s latest storm against him raged. Finally, at 2:44 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, Obama responded with a one-word tweet of his own. It said, simply, “Vote.”