Passthrough (Presidential Potsherd)

#PresidentPotsherd | #WhatTheyVotedFor

President-elect Donald Trump delivers his first official news conference since winning the November election, 11 January 2017 in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“I assume ‘let’s blame Obama’ will become a popular rallying cry in far-right circles, because it’s vastly easier than dealing with the facts.”

Steve Benen

It is not quite correct to ask who is surprised. In truth, nobody ought to be surprised. Still, though, if we inquire, for the sake of some decent societal form, what brought on Mr. Benen’s line, well:

This week, the president has moved on to a new explanation: this is all Obama’s fault. USA Today reported this morning:

President Trump said that former president Barack Obama is “behind” the angry protests that have erupted at Republican town halls around the nation during an interview on the Fox News morning program Fox and Friends scheduled to air Tuesday morning.

“I think he is behind it,” Trump said when asked about Obama’s role in the protests. “I also think it’s politics. That’s the way it is.

“No, I think that President Obama is behind it,” Trump said, “because his people are certainly behind it and some of the leaks, possibly come from that group, some of the leaks – which are really very serious leaks because they’re very bad in terms of national security – but I also understand that’s politics. And in terms of him being behind things, that’s politics. And it will probably continue.”

This is, in many ways, the perfect Donald J. Trump Conspiracy Theory.

And this is the Donald J. Trump administration, after all.

While there are better times for running through an abstract self-indictment standard, because it really is a complicated mess, it seems to be worth at least noting something about puerility:

“I think [Barack Obama] is behind it” — In certain way, the reason President Trump thinks this is because it is what he would do. It is not an easy concept to explain, because it is not constant from one individual to the next, with only the most general of classifications available. To wit, it’s not that liberals don’t do it, but, perhaps, that many of their foci by which such suspicions arise are invested in more complex structures. Still, though, wielding the gravity of celebrity in order to influence the public against a president is much more Donald Trump’s gig. The bit about crying, “Fake news!” is both different and the same, for instance. To the one, there is a question of whether or not Mr. Trump or his voters and supporters can tell the difference. To the other, it virtually pure rubber-glue petulance, a more florid but less demonstrative version of, “No puppet, no puppet; you’re the puppet!” It is unfair to call these inclinations childish; we ought not insult children that way. Still, though, to some degree, Barack Obama must be behind it all, because that’s what Donald Trump would do.

“I also think it’s politics. That’s the way it is.” — It certainly is politics, as it is all politics. That is to say, politics is the business of politicians, and that sounds like an extraordinarily stupid retort except, well, this is actually the most probable valence of the president’s rhetoric, thus: What does that actually mean, when we say it’s politics? There seems to be a tacit something that is supposed to be effective in some manner, but as with all such things left unsaid, something goes here about whether or not any two people agree on the actual detail of such tacitry, and this question is further destabilized by the apparent amount of nodding, winking, and open collusion going on. Still, though, when a politician says it’s politics, as if the phrase means something significant, what does it actually mean?

For his part, Benen lays out worthy considerations; the point is not to contest. That the crackpottery would allow Trump, “who remains convinced of his broad popularity, to dismiss the legitimacy of his critics, which he’s obviously desperate to do”, is wrapped up in the fact that the president is “clearly resentful of his popular and successful predecessor” and “has never come up with an anti-Obama conspiracy theory he didn’t immediately embrace”. And it is certainly true this framework suits the President’s apparent need “to believe everything is always Obama’s fault”, which, of course helps with the self absolution. That is to say, he “can continue to argue that he is in no way responsible for his own troubles” because whatever is wrong just happens to be “all part of the ‘mess’ he likes to pretend he ‘inherited'”.

We might, though, consider yet another aspect:

“And look, I have a very thick skin.” — Yes, President Trump actually said that. Note the formulation. This is the point; the conspiracy theory is what it is, and Benen is not wrong. It’s just that conspiracism is so woven into Mr. Trump’s personal and political identies that he breathes the stuff. That is to say, conspiracism is Donald Trump’s natural exhaust, and just like what comes out of the back end of an unkempt ’76 Camaro, it’s pollution. For the record, though, Donald Trump is no bitchin’ Camaro, even if you’re into the things. But more than the contrived swing at President Obama, the complete lack of subtlety about the quick-hit countermessaging stands out. This is a conservative thing, and has been for quite a while.

A reference point might be the idea of cramming how much inaccuracy into your two minutes at the debate that your opponent cannot possibly cover it all. Because, really, amid all else, there are certain petty details we ought not skip over. As Benen noted a week ago, for instance, “It’s the use of the word ‘timely’ that sticks out like a sore thumb.”

Or there was a press briefing a couple weeks ago; Sean Spicer on Valentine’s Day, pushing back against—well, therein lies the question. Ostensibly, the White House was trying to deal with the fallout from National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation in disgrace, but a good deal of what the press secretary had to say pushed the narrative of Donald Trump making his own decisions. Cartoon by Matt Bors, 9 February 2017. And there might be a reason for that, amid rising murmur and buzz daring to wonder just who is actually in charge.

And when it comes to gambling, because, you know, why not, it seems nearly reasonable to observe—so long as basic ethics and societal decency are not of particular consequence to you—there are plenty of cynical reasons to test this notion. Seriously: Just say something, amid all else, that is so utterly inappropriate, minute insofar as there really are bigger things to worry about, but reinforcing of an underlying narrative.α Much like Vice President Pence trying to work the word “timely” into the narrative, what, really, is going to happen if someone calls you out? Does the administration have another go’round with the press? How will that shake out in approval polls? What is the sum effect of challenging the Vice President? It’s a wash, at best. Is it possible that, someday, people will recall President Trump’s timely, indeed, response to the revelation that his intended National Security Advisor wallowed in impropriety ranging into actual security risk? Oh, wait, wait: His unbelievably decisive decision made once he was ready to decide what to do about his National Security Advisor having not really done anything wrong but failing to mention something not wrong that he had apparently done? That’s still not quite … eh … (sigh).

In any case, it’s not like they can convince people a private email server was somehow unprecedented, right?β


Anti-Obama conspiracy theories might be a dime a dozen, but, similarly, should not be overlooked, especially when coming from the White House, but it is, to some degree, symptomatic of Donald Trump, and it’s not that this is somehow trivial; rather, consider the setup for a moment:

KILMEADE: All right, can we talk about President Obama?

You said you personally get along with him. You guys were going at each other for three, four, maybe eight years. It turns out his organization seems to be doing a lot of the organizing for some of the protests that a lot of these Republicans are seeing around the country and against you.

TRUMP: Right.

KILMEADE: Do you believe President Obama is behind it?

And if he is, is that a violation of the—the so-called unsaid president’s code?

TRUMP: No, I think he is behind it. I also think it’s politics. That’s the way it is. And look, I have a very thick skin.

The transcript goes on, as the President and his hosts did. For Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends, it was an opportunity to bash the former president; for Donald Trump, this part was generally a disasterγ, but what really stands out amid all of the meaningless talk is the pointed boast. And that’s it. So, it’s politics? And what does that even mean on this occasion? And, well, you know, “you never know what’s exactly happening behind the scenes”? So, “You know you’re probably right or possibly right”? And, yes, pretty much anyone can anticipate what comes next: “But you never know.” Still, though, “It’s politics”, and he doesn’t want to use the word, “disappoint”, but neither is he surprised, because he understands “the way the world works”. His attempt to roll over into immigration—Kilmeade would steer him away from the issue in order to take after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA12)—didn’t really make sense, so the end result is that the talking points seem to be about self-promotion: Mr. Trump is smarter than Mr. Obama, and has a very thick skin.

Or, you know, something like that.

It seems petty but this is actually important; as time passes, the garden grows.


α The so-called alt-Right lives by saturation, and, really, this newest generation of the conservative kernel, the “germ”―a word we don’t use much in this context, so, you know, who can resist?―isn’t really so unique. Still, though, the best way to explain it is that the futile back and forth where people lob YouTube videos at each other in lieu of writing their own arguments isn’t meant to actually win those arguments. The back and forth, over time, simply normalizes the content without anyone doing much to stop it. That is to say, nobody is sitting through those hours of embedded video, watching and thinking carefully before selecting, with equal vigilance, eighty minutes of another YouTuber to offer up as the perfect retort. It’s all search engine optimization in a very crude form. Think about it before you click on that video from your proverbial crazy relative, friend, or coworker. You happen to be logged into Google, for instance? Well, now YouTube is going to perpetually suggest more of that stuff. That’s one of the points of posting the material in the first place; the other is simply to log it in the search engine rankings. While their method is new compared to, say, Sean Spicer’s braggodocio defense of President Trump (“he instinctively thought that General Flynn did not do anything wrong, and the White House Counsel’s review corroborated that”; “That was what the President believed at the time, from what he had been told, and he was proved to be correct”), the antisocial tendencies seem largely similar—the whole point seems to have something to do with creating an alternate narrative simply by repetition as force of will. Note Spicer’s evasion, when asked what happened over the course of the day to change the Mr. Trump’s outlook on his National Security Advisor: “Well, I’m not going to get into the specifics of what the President’s thinking was,” the press secretary begins, and, having pushed off the question, returned to the subject of the President’s decision skills, eventually going so far as to describe the executive as “unbelievably decisive”. The whole point is to saturate the narrative.

β Something goes here about how we scratched our heads and chuckled at Republican insistence on flogging the word “unprecedented” to death. We should probably take the note, and seriously.

γ We should not, in the moment, presume Benen specifically defending the former president, lest we enter that weird rhetorical trap wherein we show effort toward something we suggest ought to be ignored, because they’re actually both important points. To the one, yes, “the idea that Obama is secretly delivering marching orders is pretty silly”. And, yes, that sounds like the beginning of a spiral, but—and this is important―sometimes we can demonstrate a particular silliness. Benen does so on one count, reminding:

The idea that officials loyal to Obama are leaking information damaging to Trump is also badly flawed—because many of the leaks reveal developments in Trump’s own West Wing, filled with Trump’s political appointees, who appear eager to dish dirt on Trump’s White House.

Furthermore, it seems worth pointing out that Mr. Trump sketched terms describing the former’s culpability at such a valence as to similarly indict both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom host Kilmeade held up as examples to the other. That is to say: If, as Mr. Trump put it, “President Obama is behind it, because his people are certainly behind it”, then, oh, shall we call that wager with, say, Karl Rove? Either President Trump or his host Mr. Kilmeade might have been better off making a more realistic argument, that at least George W. Bush waited over six years before sounding off.

Image note: Top ― Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images. Right ― Cartoon by Matt Bors, 9 February 2017.

Bacon, John. “Pence: ‘I fully support’ decision to dump Flynn”. USA Today. 20 February 2017.

Benen, Steve. “Trump’s new conspiracy theory: Blame Obama for public backlash”. msnbc. 28 February 2017.

—————. “VP Mike Pence offers a curious take on Russia scandal developments”. msnbc. 21 February 2017.

Boot, Max. “The Bannon Administration?” Commentary. 31 January 2017.

Bors, Matt. “President Bannon?”. Daily Kos. 9 February 2017.

Cillizza, Chris. “President Trump’s friendly ‘Fox and Friends’ interview went exactly how you think it would”. The Washington Post. 28 February 2017.

Cummings, William. “Trump says Obama is behind protests against him”. USA Today. 28 February 2017.

Prokop, Andrew. “‘President Bannon’, explained”. Vox. 8 February 2017.

Rogin, Josh. “George W. Bush Bashes Obama on Middle East”. Bloomberg View. 26 April 2015.

Spicer, Sean. “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, 2/14/2017, #12”. The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 14 February 2017.

Thrush, Glenn and Maggie Haberman. “Trump and Staff Rethink Tactics After Stumbles”. The New York Times. 5 February 2017.

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