Every distraction distracts from another distraction, which in turn, distracts from yet another. It’s distractions, all the way down.
President Donald Trump’s latest obsession involves what he and the far right have termed “Obamagate”—or, as Trump often styles it in his tweets, “OBAMAGATE!” The core of the conspiracy theory comprises dramatic and terrible wrongdoing by Trump’s predecessor in office. That wrongdoing somehow includes illegal surveillance, malicious prosecution, coup plotting, and treason, and it invariably involves a lot of superlatives and exclamation points—though precisely what Barack Obama is supposed to have done remains unclear. Asked by a reporter what exactly he was accusing Obama of, Trump mused: “It’s been going on for a very long time … You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody.” On May 15, Trump declared it to be “the greatest political scandal in the history of the United States.”
The specifics of “Obamagate” are less important than what it is not about: the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 90,000 Americans partly as a consequence of Trump’s own catastrophic and ongoing failures of governance. Trump’s invocation of “Obamagate” gives his fans something to seize on—and the political press something to cover—instead of the ineptitude of Jared Kushner’s pandemic task force or the consistent lack of personal protective equipment at hospitals or the government’s failure to establish the many drive-through testing centers Trump promised in mid-March.
Tweeting about “Obamagate” also draws attention away from Trump’s firing of four successive inspectors general since the pandemic began, a decapitation of government oversight that The Washington Post describes as the president’s “push to rid the federal bureaucracy of officials he considers insufficiently loyal to or protective of him and his administration.” So far, the inspectors general of the intelligence community, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department have all been removed, along with the chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. The more focus there is on figuring out what Trump is asking for when he demands accountability for the Obama administration’s many and unspecified crimes, the less there is on the accountability Trump is systematically eliminating within his own administration.
But, of course, firing inspectors general is itself a distraction, as well as a retaliation. Fire an inspector general who is looking at potential misconduct, and the public may wave its arms in the air about the firing, and it may even note that the removed inspector general was looking at the potential misconduct. But somehow, that misconduct does not become the focal point of the conversation. At most, it becomes a tile in a mosaic. Be honest: Have you spent any time in the past few days thinking about the allegations, reportedly under investigation by the State Department inspector general when Trump dismissed him, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife have been improperly using political employees to perform quotidian tasks such as picking up the family dog from the groomer?
And while “Obamagate” and the firings of inspectors general distract from COVID-19, Trump’s failures in responding to the pandemic also distract from one another. The president demands that Americans focus on economic impacts and “opening up” to the exclusion of the ongoing health impacts of the virus. And he talks about imagined cures—everything from injecting disinfectants to ingesting the supposed panacea of hydroxychloroquine—and a magical vanishing of the virus to distract from the ongoing devastation, including to the economy. Yes, maybe 40 million jobs have been lost, but don’t look over there. Look over here, where the economy is roaring back to life because a cure has been discovered or a vaccine is in wide circulation by the end of the year, or the virus has just miraculously disappeared.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s decision to drop the case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn is a distraction from the pandemic altogether, on both the economic and public-health fronts. Trump seemed almost relieved to be able to once again complain about Flynn’s terrible mistreatment by FBI investigators—a key part of “Obamagate” and a theme with which he is far more comfortable than leading the nation through a catastrophic public-health crisis. But again, we are in the world of mutual distraction—because the pandemic also distracts attention from the Flynn debacle, which got far less attention than it would have had the Justice Department taken the same steps three months earlier. After all, who can get too worked up over a corrupt ploy to turn the Justice Department into a tool for advantaging the president’s friends when a global pandemic is raging outside?
China, of course, usefully distracts from it all. Whatever the political differences among Americans, surely the country can unite behind the cause of holding China accountable for its secrecy about the outbreak in Wuhan—or maybe for allowing the virus to escape from a laboratory in the city. Or maybe, and we have to say this part in hushed tones, it was worse than that.
But remember, too, that the virus itself distracted attention from impeachment. We are old enough to remember that way back when, at the beginning of the year, Trump was on trial in the Senate on two articles of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives. These involved extorting a foreign head of state to engage in meritless political investigations of the man who is now the presumptive Democratic nominee to run against the president in the fall. They also involved the stonewalling of Congress in the legitimate investigation of that shakedown scheme. But who can focus on the details of presidential misconduct in foreign policy far off in Eastern Europe when the president is staging multi-hour infomercials in the form of White House briefings day after day?
And impeachment was merely the second coming of L’Affaire Russe—the president’s effort to entice a foreign power to intervene on his behalf in a federal election by smearing a political opponent. Even back then, in the Pleistocene epoch, the president was engaged in distraction from the Russia investigation. In March 2017, as reporters began to ramp up their coverage of the Trump campaign’s links to Russia, Trump first tweeted the lie that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. Weeks later, the White House worked with Trump’s allies in Congress to engineer a faux controversy over the “unmasking” of Trump campaign officials by the intelligence community. By May 2018, as the Russia investigation continued, all of this had transformed into what the president called “Spygate.”
Which was really just a protoplasmic form of “Obamagate.”
“Obamagate” is just the latest effort to divert attention from the original sin of the Trump administration and thus deny its reality. That original sin is the disloyalty associated with getting elected amid the active intervention of a foreign power and the embrace of—if not the active collusion with—the efforts of that foreign power. “Obamagate” is still—and always has been—an effort to absolve Trump by impugning the investigations that examined the sin, by questioning the motives of those who exposed it, and by describing its revelation as a coup.
This sin was so grievous, and so profoundly delegitimizing, that discrediting it has become the distraction strategy for all failures, no matter how much of a non sequitur the strategy may create. Manage the pandemic badly and get a lot of people killed? The answer is “Obamagate.” Tens of millions of jobs are lost? Same reply. That one answer becomes an article of faith for the true believer, a source of confusion for others, and a kind of mantra to be repeated in response to all problems by the president himself.
Because in the discrediting of the original sin lies the discrediting of all other claimed failures.
There can be no failure, after all, when the subject is always changing—and always returning to the myth of an amorphous evil assembled against Trump. Then there is only endless struggle.