Last week, President Trump, desperate to distract himself from the coronavirus, turned his attention to promoting a new conspiracy theory: “Obamagate.”
This theory holds that the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn was part of a broader plan against the Trump presidency devised by former President Barack Obama. Her not clear at all how this should come together; Trump was unable to explain when asked at a news conference that “ terrible things have happened ” and that “ the crime is very clear to everyone. ”
But while Obamagate may not make a lot of sense for its merits, it makes perfect sense as an ideological totem. It is eerily reminiscent of the conspiracy theory that drove Trump to the forefront ten years ago: birtherism.
The idea that Obama was not born in the United States was not even plausible from a distance. But it served a certain ideological function: It made another America’s first black president, claiming that he was not born in America at all, and that he and his election were therefore illegal. It took the popular conservative idea that Obama was ideologically foreign to the country (think of his “Kenyan, anti-colonial“Worldview?) And it literally turned.
It’s no coincidence that Trump played a major role in popularizing birtherism and then drove a wave of white grudge to the White House. Birtherism was proof of the concept that a more vulgar white backlash policy could find a real audience in the GOP, evidence that the party was waiting to be captured by Trump’s longstanding racial demagogy.
Trump eventually reluctantly admitted during his 2016 campaign that Obama was born in America. But the spirit of Birtherism has permeated his administration. During his presidency, Trump has positioned his predecessor as a nefarious plotter that undermines the search for Make America Great Again. From Trump’s absurd allegation in 2017 that the 44th President had “bugged” him about his new demand that the Senate have Obama testify about “Obamagate,” he has portrayed Obama’s presidency as illegal and fundamentally criminal.
Delegating Obama is one of the main political goals of the Trump administration. The question today is how much he is willing to corrupt the legal system to pursue it.
Obamagate and birtherism reveal the real heart of Trumpism
Birtherism used a very specific kind of racist criticism of Obama: a free-floating sense that something about him was not really American. You saw a habit in the right-wing media to always use his middle name – Barack Hussein Obama. You saw it in the accusation that when he and his wife punched their fists during the 2008 campaign, it was a “terrorist fist”. You saw in the claim, which some still believe is secretly Muslim.
These arguments, while not explicitly formulated in terms of Obama’s skin color, reflect the way America’s racial caste system operates in a polite society. Everyone knows that the use of the n word is unacceptable, but describing black people through stereotypes in the media and everyday life remains commonplace. Although formal discrimination in recruitment is prohibited, careful studies have shown that black applicants are hired significantly less often than white applicants.
The idea of Obama’s strangeness has always been a way of saying that his race did not make him fit for high positions, only in this coded language. Trump’s advocacy for birtherism, a theory he brutally promoted in media appearances and on Twitter in Obama’s first term, took this abstract idea and turned it into a concrete rallying cry. Obama not only thinks in a foreign way, the idea assumes; he is a literal foreigner who is ineligible for office, a non-American intruder who unlawfully occupies the presidency.
The move involves a generically coded racist attack and turns it into an actual attack on the President’s legitimacy.
The legitimacy of a leader is an essential part of effective government in a liberal democracy. It is the idea that the political authorities have been empowered by the people and the law to exercise authority and thus have the right to exercise power. Democratic legitimacy allows citizens to accept the rule of people with whom they disagree; you may not like how they exercise power, but at least you accept that election results mean they have the right to do it.
Birtherism was the idea that Obama was not quite literally entitled to this legitimacy. Since foreign-born individuals are not legally eligible to run for president, it claimed Obama’s victory was unlawful: the people were deceived by a fake American. It is reason for people affected by general racial panic to justify their belief that Obama did not deserve to work in the Oval Office – and thus did not deserve the respect or authority they gave his white predecessors.
Obamagate essentially works the same way. It is alleged that Obama was not a legitimate leader because he (somehow) broke the law. He devised a conspiracy to undermine Trump, who is the ‘authentic’ people’s representative, and illegally coordinated the ‘deep state’ in his counter-attack on the duly elected president.
Likewise, racial politics are just below the surface. By labeling Obama as “foreign,” Trump placed a black president as an alien to the lawful and correct course of events in the United States. By labeling Obama as “criminal,” he draws on centuries of stereotyping of black people as criminals who must be controlled by white authorities.
Obamagate, like birtherism, directly embodies the grievances many whites have with the recent challenges to white domination. It indicates to them that Trump could not resist the fact of this man’s presence in the office: the political equivalent of describing Obama as a “criminal.”
Conspiracy theories are by their very nature impossible to refute. After Obama released his “longform” birth certificate from Hawaii, Trump repeatedly repeated that it had been falsified. The lack of evidence for the allegation that Obama prosecuted Flynn – a man who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI for clarity – does not hinder Trump from pursuing this.
This allows the crusade to continue as long as it is useful. Whenever Trump needs to rally the political believers to track down his most hardcore supporters, he can put the racism disc at 11 by engaging an anti-Obama conspiracy theory. Just by making these wild claims, Trump is forcing serious reporting about it by gullible reporters – reportedly well-balanced reporting that only wants to teach the controversy, so to speak.
Birtherism was the first iteration of this Trumpian move. Obamagate, while the most recent, may not be the last.
In a recent essay on birtherism, the Adam Serwer of the Atlantic describes it not as an afterthought of the Trump phenomenon, but as its centerpiece:
Birtherism was a statement of values, a way of showing loyalty to a particular idea of American identity, one that became the central theme of the Trump campaign itself: To make America great again, turn the clock back to an era when white political and cultural hegemony was not threatened by black people, by immigrants, by people of different faiths. By people like Barack Obama. The calls to reject birtherism missed the point: Trump’s entire campaign was birtherism …
You could certainly call birtherism a conspiracy theory. But in 2020, if we look at the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce the power of minority voters, lock up child migrants, deny Muslim travelers access to the country and criminalize its political opposition, it could be more accurately described as the prevailing ideology of the United States.
The more Trump pursues Obamagate, the harder this point will be to deny.