'Obamagate' and the end of scandal
As far as I can tell, what is now being referred to by Donald Trump and some of his more enthusiastic supporters as "Obamagate" does not involve a discrete scandal. Instead, umbrage is being taken at the fact that, in addition to refusing to throw his attorney general, Eric Holder, under the bus in 2011, Barack Obama did not shed many tears on behalf of right-wing 501(c)(3) groups on the receiving end of extra attention from the IRS or seriously object to the investigation of a presidential candidate he thought unlikely to win office.
Whatever one thinks of these things, there is no "gate" here. The conspiratorial framing is an implicit rejection of Obama's entire presidency, as if every aspect of it, from his famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention until the day Donald Trump took the oath of office had been part of a single overarching plot against the American people.
The gate suffix is nearly as old as the original scandal to which it owes in name. As early as 1974, William Safire (whose reputation as an authority on good English has always baffled me) was denouncing the iniquities of "Vietgate," which he would follow up with "Billygate," "Briefingate," "Contragate," "Debategate," and goodness knows how many more without his editors telling him to find another metaphor. The first of these was a reference to the issuing of presidential pardons for draft dodgers, a policy open to criticism but not a common-law offense punishable under any jurisdiction carried out at the behest of a sitting president. Like so many subsequent gates, it did not involve an underlying crime that became the object of a cover-up — certainly not a crime as brazen as the burglarizing of a hotel room in the hope of obtaining a dubious advantage in an election whose outcome was never remotely in doubt.
It is astonishing how rare it is to encounter both of these conditions — the specific offense and the conspiracy to obscure it from public view — fulfilled in the vast gate-related literature. Instead one finds offenses that were never hidden from the world ("Hailgate," a video of white supremacists openly employing the Nazi salute at a conference) or simply crimes against taste ("Donutgate," i.e., the time Ariana Grande licked a doughnut); there are procedural offenses ("Emailgate"), accidents ("Elbowgate," i.e., Justin Trudeau's elbowing of a female member of the Canadian parliament), mean-spirited public remarks ("Faceliftgate," when President Trump asserted that MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski had undergone the aforementioned surgical procedure), embarrassments ("Fartgate," which doomed Congressman Eric Swalwell's never very serious presidential aspirations), and government policies worthy of criticism ("Pastygate," widespread disagreement with taxes levied in 2012 upon meat pies and other cooked snacks by the Conservative government in Britain). There are also cases in which there does not appear to be any underlying offense ("Russiagate") but in which attempts at journalistic investigation are met with resistance comparable to that of the Nixon administration. In some instances ("Gamergate") there is neither a crime nor a conspiracy but a kind of generalized resentment in search of an incident that might justify it after the fact. Obamagate most resembles the last of these: an insinuation of conspiracy so wide ranging that it cannot by definition be refuted, even by Trump's attorney general.
Why do we insist on appending this meaningless suffix to everything from using the profits of arms sales to fund right-wing militias to doubts about Hillary Clinton's ability to open a pickle jar? I suspect it is because Watergate is the founding myth of contemporary journalism, the lens through which we insist upon seeing all of reality. The urgency with which we lavish attention upon insignificant events (and journalistic attempts to place them inside an implied meta-narrative of cover-up) becomes self-justifying; the currency of scandal is thoroughly debased even as it remains the only acceptable journalistic tender. This is what made Trump's presidency possible: politics re-conceived not as the pursuit of the common good but as an agon of irreconcilable totalizing worldviews, each the product of its own bespoke mythology complete with heroes, villains, bards, noble deeds, and ancient wrongs. So far from being the perfect object of journalists' meta-investigative obsession, he is its totally predictable consequences.
Meanwhile the destruction of the post-war consensus on the mixed economy, the disastrous consequences of globalized free trade, the downside of unregulated instantaneous mass communication, the rise in drug addiction and so-called "deaths of despair" are all stories that became tragedies before they were ever seriously reported. A country whose attention was fixed instead upon Valerie Plame, Dan Rather, one of Janet Jackson's breasts, lane closures in New Jersey, and how Tom Cruise felt about being mocked in an episode of South Park was astonished to learn facts about ordinary life, such as the decline in the American life expectancy during the last decade.
When everything becomes a scandal, nothing is.
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