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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 13: Unclear What Trump Gains From “Obamagate”

After puzzling over our president’s latest wild twitter-storm, I offered some thoughts at New York:

It’s a well-established fact of contemporary politics that partisan polarization has reached the point where “base mobilization” has become more important than swing-voter persuasion in winning close elections. And a supreme emphasis on the Republican base has been particularly notable in Trumpworld, with its strategy of scorching the ground between the two parties and demonizing the opposition.

From that perspective, the cluster of revisionist-history lessons and conspiracy theories the president likes to call “Obamagate” has been especially useful, in that it provides an innocent explanation for many of the very bad things Trump himself has been credibly accused of doing. Tim Miller provides a simple explanation of Obamagate:

“Four years ago, there was a global conspiracy — comprised of President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director Jim Comey, much of the FBI, the DNC, a company called CrowdStrike, multiple foreign-intelligence services, and Ukrainian oligarchs — to undermine Donald Trump by planting a phony conspiracy theory that he was colluding with the Russians to win the 2016 election. These deep-state operators framed several top Trump officials, fabricated evidence, and spied on the campaign with the end goal of committing the biggest fraud in American history in order to derail Trump.”

In one fell swoop, “Obamagate” turns Trump from a sleazy practitioner of corrupt and arguably unpatriotic campaign tactics into a victim of those same tactics, perpetrated by a “deep state” liberal Establishment whose depredations account for virtually every negative “story” coming out of the Trump administration from the day it took power. As House Republicans argued vociferously during the impeachment proceedings against Trump late last year, this conspiracy not only cooked up the findings of the Mueller investigation (to the extent said investigation didn’t exonerate Trump), but also the Ukraine scandal involving Trump’s efforts to smear Joe Biden, which got it all exactly backward.

Instead of serving as an alternative account of recent history that undermines the conventional understanding of Trump as a scofflaw who would do anything to seize or retain power, Obamagate in Trump’s own hands looks to be a wild and insanely complicated tale of liberal perfidy, by which the 45th president accuses the 44th president of perpetrating “the biggest political crime in American history, by far!”

As David Frum notes, Obamagate is so complicated and implausible that it cannot possibly serve as a persuasive argument for Trump’s reelection:

“The ‘Obamagate’ that Trump tweets about — like the comic-book universes on which it seems to be modeled — is a tangle of backstories. The main characters do things for reasons that make no objective sense, things that can be decoded only by obsessive superfans on long Reddit threads.

“So you’re saying that the deep state set up this whole elaborate plot to entrap Trump, but instead of using any of that material, it instead sabotaged Hillary Clinton ten days before the election?

“No, no, you don’t get it. You’ve gotta go back to the Benghazi episode four seasons back. Well, really to Troopergate, but that’s only available on DVD …”

It all makes sense in MAGA-land, but does Trump really need any enhancement of his support in those regions? As Obamagate becomes an ever-more-complicated tale, is anyone going to read it other than those who are already convinced of its veracity and importance?

Probably not. And that makes you wonder if Trump is drinking his own Kool-Aid, and shirking swing-voter persuasion in an endless effort to fire up troops who are already psyched out of their skulls. Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade says Trump wants this election to be “Obama against Trump” rather than “Biden against Trump.” What is he thinking? Obama is a lot more popular than either 2020 candidate. But the Tea Party–turned-MAGA folk from whom Trump draws his energy are still hating on the 44th president in a way that probably mystifies swing voters. The 45th president doesn’t seem to care. It could be a fatal mistake.

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