The president and his confederates in the US Congress have spent the last four days manufacturing a controversy for the press corps to report and debate. Donald Trump has dubbed it “Obamagate.” I’m not sure what it means. It has 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 court.
Flynn is free now, thanks to Trump’s goons in the US Department of Justice. That’s the extent of what I know. I don’t need to understand more than that. Neither do you, frankly. What we do need to understand is that the president and his confederates do not themselves understand it, and they do not understand it, because the point of a manufactured controversy isn’t establishing the facts through a rigorous process of inquiry. The point is inventing a scandal out of thin air to bludgeon enemies with.
This manufactured controversy says more about Donald Trump and his GOP confederates than it does about anything else.
This manufactured controversy says more about Trump’s confederates than about anything else. His attorneys have twice argued Trump is immune, by dint of being the president, to the normal rule of law, as normal people are not. During his impeachment trial, and in oral arguments this week before the US 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 were 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 OK for a Republican president to break the law. It’s not OK 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,” said US Rep. Lindsey Graham in 1998.
Hit the tip jar! Click here!
Something else we need to understand. By affixing “gate,” to “Obama,” the current president is attempting to invoke the memory of what had been the biggest political scandal in US history, namely Nixon’s complicity in burglary and espionage at Washington’s Watergate Hotel in the 1970s. But that scandal has since been dwarfed many times over by the one that’s been unfolding over these four years, namely, 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. News came this 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’ 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 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. For many of us, appearing to be desperate to change the subject 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.
“Obamagate” is part of the GOP’s despoliation of morality.
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 he will “cancel” it. I am suggesting states, like, say, Texas, might “postpone” theirs, sending the national process of picking a national leader into chaos. Even if Joe Biden is determined to be the actual winner, the disorder created will cloud his legitimacy.
Which is another thing the “Obamagate” thing reveals. 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. The point is less about bludgeoning one’s enemies than poisoning values, elevating nihilism and reducing ordinary relations to craven considerations of power. It’s not just anti-democratic. It’s anti-republican. A despoliation of human morality.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.