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.