The push-and-pull relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News is not new—and not news. His Twitter account has been a sort of rolling recap of the network’s programming for years. It’s no stretch to say that he owes his political career to switching his daily viewing from Access Hollywood to Fox & Friends.
The symbiosis between one vain, lonely, frequently confused older man and the cable news network built to serve/enrage that very demographic is notable, but it’s not a phenomenon unique to Trump. The novel mutation is that Trump is not just a prominent figure in this media ecosystem, but so deeply a creature of it. (As the Hair Club for Men founder put it in his company’s ads, Trump is not just the president, he’s also a client.) He is himself a part of the lore and canon of the Fox News Cinematic Universe.
And so whenever he needs an emotional lift or a break from the rigors of his job, he can turn on a television and find poreless and enunciative anchor-types talking about how handsome and wise and unjustly accused he is. Even modest exposure to such an experience would create serious reality-management issues for people without any kind of preexisting dissociative disorder.
Though there are some ways in which Trump really, actually is adept at exploiting the collapse of any kind of shared national reality, he is in this sense also clearly a victim of it. His latest electoral gambit, an avant-garde exercise in improvisational aspersion that Trump dubbed “OBAMAGATE,” is both the logical and the most profoundly expressionistic outcome of this dynamic. It is a diabolical conspiracy against Trump that is not just impossible to understand in Fox-to-English translation, but which Trump himself seems incapable of explaining. That is because the story itself is still being parceled out to him, one segment at a time, on his personal cable news channel.
Do we all have to use the word "Obamagate" because the president tweeted this word a bunch of times with no explanation? It doesn't seem like that's a rule.
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) May 15, 2020
It is clear to Trump that Obamagate is world-historically big and that all the worst bad guys are involved. Its origins lie in the criminal conviction of disgraced former Trump national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn and, more recently, in a glancing critique from former president Barack Obama. On May 10, Trump retweeted a post from one of his more prolific reply-guys on how untoward Obama’s criticism had been, appending his own “He got caught, OBAMAGATE!” Beyond that, your guess is as good as the president’s.
What followed has been something like a satire of how outmatched the news media is by this moment. The guiding principle that something is news if the president says it—and that it’s the duty of any reporter to cover it with breathless enthusiasm—crumbles when the president doesn’t seem to know what he’s saying.
“IT WAS THE GREATEST political crime in the history of our country,” Trump said to Fox’s Maria Bartiromo, in the plummy tone he assumes in friendly settings. “If I were a Democrat instead of a Republican, I think everybody would have been in jail a long time ago, and I’m talking with fifty-year sentences. It is a disgrace what’s happened. This is the greatest political scam, hoax, in the history of our country.” Because that conversation happened on the channel devoted to how well Trump has done and how badly he has been done wrong, things never got more specific than that.
Obamagate never gets more specific than that. It can’t, because no one can quite name the crimes involved. “The sitting president, exiting president,” Joe Rogan explained on his podcast, “literally hires, gets the FBI to investigate Trump.… You’re essentially using the FBI to spy on Trump. And then it turns out that all that Russia stuff that they were claiming was going to happen didn’t take place, and that they knew it wasn’t really happening to begin with, that what they’re saying was all exaggerating and hyperbole and they were trying to turn it into something that it wasn’t.… It’s all not good.”
This is not quite coherent, but it’s as good as any explanation has gotten to this point. (The story, such as it can be said to exist, pivots on the “unmasking” of Flynn, who seems not even to have been masked in the first place, regarding some sketchy back-channel contacts with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak prior to Trump’s inauguration, all of which Flynn would later lie about to both his White House superiors and the FBI; this all happened in late 2016 and early 2017. The actual crime, if one exists, was someone leaking information to the Washington Post about Flynn’s call with Kislyak, which was recorded by the FBI.)
This is the kind of story that Trump likes to tell; news, for him, is about who will get caught and humiliated. The fun of that story—that is, the journalism-esque television pull of it—lies in the hunt, not just for the hidden enemy but for what any of this is even supposed to be about. None of it has to make sense; imagine a Benny Hill chase scene unfolding endlessly inside an Escher landscape.
This shared sense of discovery is something that Obamagate has in common with the more lurid and sprawling online conspiracies that have marked Trump’s presidency, all of which unfold, with a strange superheated languor, in protracted serialized formats in monetizable online spaces. But the huffy ambiguity of this particular outrage also finally reveals Trump not as a savvy maestro deftly playing the atavism of cable news to his advantage, but as just another customer—a junkie not just wholly beholden to his habit, but sky high on what is very much his own supply.
Because it is literally the president of the United States doing all this, the news media feels compelled to cover it. Because the media’s vestigial reverence for Trump’s high office so outpaces his low capacity for explaining himself, this has mostly amounted to treating Trump’s clammy fibbing and flubby bluster as coded messages that might reveal some ideology or goal, or as political tactics. But since they’re just some sounds that he is making, there is really only so much to do with any of it.
It’s as if, every time the family dog dragged a dead bird to the doorstep, the adults in the scenario opted not to clean up the mess but to ask each other, with all the searching solemnity they could muster, what Patches meant by this and how it might affect the family cat going forward.
This is the bleak comedy at the heart of Obamagate—Trump and his campaign are not strategically pushing it for maximum political advantage so much as they are idly working it out along with everyone else. The result is a devastating Boomer Media Consumption singularity playing out in real time; the president is live-tweeting an episode of a television show whose ending he does not know, and which he has by all indications never even seen before, in the authoritative voice of the showrunner. No, it doesn’t make much sense. But who knows what lies on the other side of the next commercial break?