Trump supporters in New York City, 2019. Photo credit: SCOOTERCASTER / Shutterstock.com
The president and his confederates in the United States Congress have spent the last several days manufacturing a controversy for the press corps to report and debate. Donald Trump has dubbed it “Obamagate.” It seems to have something to do with the previous administration’s lawful handling of the case of former Trump aide Michael Flynn, who confessed twice to crimes that later landed him in federal prison.
Flynn is out now, thanks to Trump’s goons in the U.S. Department of Justice. That’s the extent of what I know. I don’t need to understand more than that. Neither do you, frankly. The point is not we can’t make sense of “Obamagate.” Nor is it that the president and his confederates also do understand “Obamagate.” The point of a manufactured controversy isn’t establishing the facts through a rigorous process of inquiry. It’s that the point is inventing a scandal out of thin air to bludgeon enemies with. That’s what we need to understand.
This manufactured controversy says more about Trump’s confederates than about anything else. His attorneys have twice argued that Trump is immune, by dint of being the president, to the normal rule of law. During the impeachment trial, and in oral arguments this week before the U.S. Supreme Court, lawyers invoked “temporary presidential immunity,” a concept that does not exist and that revives Richard Nixon’s belief that nothing is illegal when a president does it.
What “Obamagate” reveals is the fraudulence of this legal argument. If nothing is illegal when a president does it, then even if the Obama administration’s criminal investigation of Michael Flynn was unlawful (wrong: it was lawful), what’s the problem? Barack Obama was then president. Presidents should be immune to the rule of law, according to Trump’s lawyers. Nothing is illegal when a president does it.
What “Obamagate” exposes is the Republicans’ imperious double standard. It’s okay for a Republican president to break the law. It’s not okay for a Democratic president. The impeachment of a GOP president is “presidential harassment.” The impeachment of a Democratic president, however, “is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office,” as U.S. Representative Lindsey Graham said in 1998.
Something else we need to understand: By affixing “gate,” to “Obama,” Trump is attempting to invoke the memory of what had been the biggest political scandal in U.S history — namely, Nixon’s complicity in burglary and espionage at Washington’s Watergate Hotel. But that scandal has since been dwarfed many times over by the one that’s been unfolding over these four: the imposition of an illegitimate president by a hostile foreign power; the committing of treason by said illegitimate president; and the acquittal of the same by a separatist movement, disguised as a major political party, bent on advancing a decades-long soft civil war that now includes appeasing an “invisible enemy” rampaging the landscape.
As of this writing, over 85,300 Americans have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The news came Thursday morning that 36.5 million workers have now filed for unemployment benefits. That’s almost certainly an undercount (same for the death toll; experts told the Times’s Nicholas Kristof it could be as high as 110,000). All those numbers will likely go up as states and localities try to return to a semblance of normalcy. Yet the current president yammers on about the former president as if Obama had anything to do with the worst societal calamity since the Great Depression.
For many of us, this may seem like a last-ditch effort, as if Trump were desperate to change the subject to forestall his possible ejection from the White House in the November elections. For many of us, that desperation inspires thinking that he’s toast. After all, two presidents in recent memory (Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992) were ousted amid economic downturns. This being the mother of them all seems to suggest that Trump is a goner.
While this seems reasonable, it presumes too much — namely, that the 2020 election will be fair. I’ll count the ways of voter suppression, foreign interference, and general skulduggery another time. For now, let’s say presuming a fair election in the time of Trump and the coronavirus is an unconscious act of distorting political reality. If he loses, Trump and his confederates will do everything they can to sabotage the winner’s legislative agenda. Even that, however, presumes there will be an election.
I’m not suggesting Trump will “cancel” the election. I am suggesting states, like, say, Texas, might “postpone” theirs, sending the national process of picking a leader into chaos. Even if Joe Biden is determined to be the actual winner, the disorder created will cloud his legitimacy.
The “Obamagate” thing reveals the same strategy. The point is less about bludgeoning one’s enemies than poisoning values, elevating nihilism, and reducing ordinary relations to craven considerations of power. If you thought Trump was bad, Biden’s just as bad, and since Biden’s just as bad, I might as well stick with my party. That’s not just anti-democratic. It’s anti-republican. And it’s a despoliation of human morality.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative.