What is “Obamagate” anyway? No one seems to really know, least of all Donald Trump, even though he has tweeted about it dozens of times over the last week. Asked by The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker on Monday what crimes he was accusing Barack Obama of committing, Trump kept it vague: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody.”
Obamagate began more than three years ago, with a tweet in which Trump accused Obama of having his “wires tapped” during the 2016 election. Since then, the various threads that make up Obamagate have failed to come together in any way that makes much sense. Former Obama adviser David Plouffe has called it a “sideshow to distract from a shitshow,” Trump’s attempt to pull the public’s attention away from his administration’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus.
There’s some truth to that, but it may be more useful to think of Obamagate as the culmination of Trump’s various obsessions: with his predecessor; with his own ineptitude; and, above all, with the sense of grievance that has guided his political project from its inception.
Though the wire-tapping accusation in 2017 had its origins in talk radio, the logic was pure Trump, an inversion of the Russia scandal that was engulfing his administration at the time. In this version of events, the puppet master was Obama, rather than Vladimir Putin. Never mind that a slew of Trump cronies and confidants would go to jail for a variety of offenses connected to the Russia controversy. It was Obama and his cronies, particularly former national security adviser Susan Rice, who had committed crimes by illegally spying on innocent Americans.
This narrative has gone through various permutations over the past three years but has retained its basic shape. Its utility, for both Trump and his allies, is obvious. It brings back Barack Obama, one of the right’s great enemies, into a spotlight he has largely shunned, casting him as a mustache-twirling villain destroying all that was once good and true about America. It portrays Trump’s cronyism and corruption as nothing to see here: Those former campaign officials and Cabinet members now sitting in jail are good Americans, undone by the machinations of the deep state. And it places the great political scandal of Trump’s first term on the doorstep of the Democrats.
With the encouragement of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, Trump has returned to Obamagate during this coronavirus spring because of the Justice Department’s outrageous, politically motivated decision to drop charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn—charges that he had pleaded guilty to.
The problem with the idea that Trump is using Obamagate as a distraction is that it gives Trump too much credit. It may rile up a base that never seems to be unriled, but it does little else for him. It doesn’t help that Trump has trouble articulating the charges against Obama: According to Politico, even Benghazi-happy Republicans in Congress have no interest in running show trials during an election year. Far from distracting the public, ranting and raving about a popular ex-president in the midst of a pandemic only underscores how pathetic and unfocused the administration’s response to the coronavirus has been.
Obamagate is actually the center of Trump’s entire political project of channeling his base’s various grievances. This is the reality that Trump would like to live in, in which he is the victim of a vast conspiracy and his myriad failures are the fault of others, starting with the country’s first black president. For the president’s allies in the right-wing media, it is the latest plot point in a decades-long narrative project, the latest and greatest example of sinister Democrats undermining the country.
Trump has been rewarded for this behavior in the past. His birtherism turned him into a viable contender for the Republican nomination. His endless badgering about Hillary Clinton’s emails helped him win the White House. He was aided by a media that was all too willing to amplify his charges and, in the latter case, to legitimize them. It remains to be seen whether legitimate media outlets will bite on Obamagate, but conservative media is doing its best to make it a thing. So far, the real story is this: At a moment when tens of thousands of Americans are dying, thanks in large part to the Trump administration’s failure to adequately prepare for a pandemic, the president wants everyone to know that the real victim here is himself.