A Guide to Obamagate-gate

This exchange made news a few days ago.

Whatever Obamagate is, it’s still a big deal on Trump’s Twitter feed. This is from today.

So, what the bleep is he talking about? What is Obamagate? Fortunately, the definitive guide to Obamagate was written for the Washington Post by Alexandra Petri, and you should go there and read her column to fully appreciate what we’re talking about. Then come back.

Back now? Good. Now that we’re all clear about what Obamagate is, we need to consider what it represents to Donald J. Trump. Because he clearly is very worked up about it. David Graham at The Atlantic explains how it all began:

On May 9, CNN reported that Obama had labeled Trump’s pandemic response “an absolute chaotic disaster” the day before, on a call with alumni of his administration. Early the next morning, as part of a long string of Mother’s Day tweets—as these rants exceed themselves, it’s become more and more difficult to find superlatives to adequately describe them—Trump retweeted a user who had mentioned “Obamagate.” The term has quickly become part of Trump’s vernacular, with 13 subsequent uses, including two yesterday.

Precisely what Trump is alleging against Obama is obscure, and probably beside the point. Trump isn’t really interested in alleging any particular crime. The point of “Obamagate” is to try to recapture the force that propelled Trump to political prominence—questioning the legitimacy of the first black president—as he heads toward a difficult reelection campaign in the midst of a global crisis.

Graham calls Obamagate an extension of birtherism. Just as actual proof, including newspaper birth announcements and a long-form birth certificate, could not quell the belief that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and not Hawaii, Obamagate needs no support except the desperate belief that it must be true, whatever it is.

As near as any of us not living in the Trump universe can tell, Obamagate may have started out having something to do with the much-debunked (see also) claim that President Obama personally ordered a wiretap on Trump Tower. But now it is appears to be mostly tied in to the Michael Flynn prosecution and the “unmasking” of Michael Flynn in intelligence reports back in the late days of the Obama Administration. That Obama Administration officials did not know the identity of the person they wanted “unmasked” — the point of the “unmasking” was to see who was being talked about in the reports — kind of eludes the Trumpers. And such “unmasking” is a legal and even routine thing to do when intelligence agencies report hinky activity. But Trump has twisted this around into a conspiracy against him.

Susan Glasser in the New Yorker tells us that Obamagate makes perfect sense, to some:

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.

The lack of details is a feature, not a bug. If no facts are claimed, no facts can be disproved. David Frum:

The “Obamagate” that Trump tweets about—like the comic-book universes on which it seems to be modeled—is a tangle of backstories. The main characters do things for reasons that make no objective sense, things that can be decoded only by obsessive superfans on long Reddit threads.

So you’re saying that the deep state set up this whole elaborate plot to entrap Trump, but instead of using any of that material, it instead sabotaged Hillary Clinton 10 days before the election?

No, no, you don’t get it. You’ve gotta go back to the Benghazi episode four seasons back. Well, really to Troopergate, but that’s only available on DVD …

Now, you might wonder what good it does Trump to promote a scandal that only one’s superfans believe, when the majority of voters are not superfans. Throughout his “presidency,” Trump has shown total disinterest in expanding his base. Those other people don’t count. He may not understand that his base alone can’t re-elect him.

It has to be said that promoting baseless conspiracy theories worked for him before. Birtherism built his political base, and “but her emails” won for him in 2016. However, the endless congressional investigations and news coverage of the damn emails probably hurt Clinton more than anything Trump said. And it’s possible James Comey, not Trump, cost Clinton the election.

On the other hand, some elements of the press don’t seem to have learned the lessons of 2016. Greg Sargent:

The latest developments in the Michael Flynn case should prompt us to revisit one of the most glaring failures in political journalism, one that lends credibility to baseless narratives pushed for purely instrumental purposes, perversely rewarding bad-faith actors in the process.

News accounts constantly claim with no basis that new information “boosts” or “lends ammunition” to a particular political attack, or “raises new questions” about its target. These journalistic conventions are so all-pervasive that we barely notice them. …

…For instance, the Associated Press ran this headline: “Flynn case boosts Trump’s bid to undo Russia probe narrative.” Axios told us:

Biden’s presence on the list could turn it into an election year issue, though the document itself does not show any evidence of wrongdoing.

CNN informed us that this is “the latest salvo to discredit the FBI’s Russia investigation and accuse the previous administration of wrongdoing.”

But here’s the problem: These formulations do not constitute a neutral transmission of information, even though they are supposed to come across that way.

The new information actually does not “boost” Trump’s claims about the Russia investigation or “discredit” it. And if there is “no evidence of wrongdoing,” then it cannot legitimately be “turned into an election issue.”

There will be no House investigations, since Democrats control the House. But Trump has a corrupt Bill Barr and a compromised Justice Department at his disposal to at least engage in investigation theater. And, of course, Republicans still have the Senate. At least Miz Lindsey shot down Trump’s call to have President Obama testify before Congress.

In the end, we may have to hope that the American people will understand that Trump is just trying to change the subject from his pandemic failures. In 2016, Trump dominated election coverage. Now he has to share the stage with a virus.