Barack Obama will not be on the ballot in November, but Donald Trump is determined to run against the former president. On Sunday, Trump went on a social media rampage, posting 128 tweets and retweets, many about a spurious scandal he called Obamagate. “He got caught, OBAMAGATE!” Trump wrote.
In a press briefing on Monday, Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker tried to tease out exactly what the nebulous phrase “Obamagate” meant. “In one of your Mother’s Day tweets, you appeared to accuse President Obama of ‘the biggest political crime in American history, by far’—those were your words,” Rucker noted. “What crime exactly are you accusing President Obama of committing, and do you believe the Justice Department should prosecute him?”
Trump’s response didn’t help clear up the matter. “Uh, Obamagate. It’s been going on for a long time,” Trump said. “It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on, and if you look at now, all this information that’s being released—and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning—some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”
Trump’s vagueness is understandable given that Obamagate is less a scandal than a shapeless collection of insinuations and suspicions focusing on the origins of the Russian election interference controversy. Rarely spelled out in a way where it can be tested, Obamagate is the theory that the Russia story was conjured up in 2016 by Obama and his allies in law enforcement and the national security establishment in order to frame Donald Trump for colluding with Russia.
This theory suffers from a paucity of proof. It also has a simple logical problem: If the goal was to railroad Trump, why in 2016 did the FBI make a big show of investigating Hillary Clinton’s e-mails while actively denying that the Trump campaign was being investigated? If there was a conspiracy, it was carried out by bunglers who acted in a manner that seemed calculated to ensure Trump’s victory.
Nate Silver, the polling guru of FiveThirtyEight, was puzzled by Trump’s focusing his ire on a former president. “Turning the election into a referendum on Obama vs. Trump would seem to be one of the dumbest possible moves for Trump given Obama’s popularity, which was pretty good when he left office and has improved since,” Silver contends.
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From a purely rational point of view, it’s hard to gainsay Silver’s argument. But Trump’s approach to politics has never been rational. Rather, Trump has won the success he’s achieved by tapping into feral emotions that other politicians are too cautious or prissy to exploit. Trump is well aware that the election of the first black president in 2008 ignited an existential crisis in the minds of many white Americans. Obama’s victory overturned the country’s implicit racial hierarchy with its automatic equation of American identity with whiteness. The panic caused by Obama’s presidency fueled Trump’s own electoral victory.
Racism has been Trump’s alpha and omega. One of his earliest political interventions was his demagogic campaign to exact vindictive retribution on the Central Park Five, the black and Latino teens falsely convicted on a rape charge.
Trump talked about running for president for years, but it was the election of Obama that really provoked him to turn these aspirations into a reality. As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in The Atlantic in 2017, “Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.”
Obama, for Trump, has been more than just a foil. He’s been a raison d’être, Coates argues: “Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own.” The negation of Obama has many manifestations, from birtherism to sabotaging signature achievements like the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.
With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump’s instinct was to immediately cast aspersions on Obama, whom he absurdly blamed for not developing a vaccine for a virus that wasn’t identified until three years after Obama left the White House. Trump also claims Obama is at fault for the lack of medical equipment.
Trump’s path to reelection will be difficult. He’s already been railing in private about poor poll numbers. Returning to Obama-bashing is clearly one way of reassembling the winning Trump coalition of 2016.
But this re-energized racism extends beyond the reelection campaign. The push to reassert racial hierarchy is also shaping Trump’s response to the pandemic. Since mid-April, Trump has been increasingly critical of the efforts to contain the pandemic through social distancing. Instead, Trump has proclaimed that we need to reopen the economy.
As Adam Serwer notes in The Atlantic, this shift from lockdown to reopening also occurred in the right-wing media and coincided with the realization that the pandemic was disproportionately hurting black and brown Americans. Serwer cites the theory of philosopher Charles Mills that America has a racial contract, an implicit assumption that white lives are more important than the lives of people of color.
Even in the best of circumstances, this racial contract governs responses to police shootings or vigilante violence. In times of crisis, the racial contract becomes even grimmer. “But the pandemic has introduced a new clause to the racial contract,” Serwer notes. “The lives of disproportionately black and brown workers are being sacrificed to fuel the engine of a faltering economy, by a president who disdains them. This is the COVID contract.”
It’s this Covid contract that explains the eagerness of the right-wing media, whose loudest voices are working safely from home, to end the lockdown. On April 7, Rush Limbaugh made a telling complaint: “If you dare criticize the mobilization to deal with this, you’re going to be immediately tagged as a racist.”
As Serwer notes, “White Americans are also suffering, but the perception that the coronavirus is largely a black and brown problem licenses elites to dismiss its impact. In America, the racial contract has shaped the terms of class war for centuries; the COVID contract shapes it here.”
With his renewed attacks on Obama and his push for a premature end of the lockdown, Trump makes clear that racism is his legacy. Nor is this surprising. After all, what else does he have left? The economy is a shambles and his unilateralist foreign policy has yielded no clear achievement. Racism is the only card Trump has left to play. There is every reason to think he’ll try to exploit racism to the limit in order to hold on to power.