Americans have long divided our nearly 244-year history into eras. There was the Era of Good Feelings in the 1810s and 1820s; the Gilded Age in the late 19th century; the New Deal Era in the 1930s; the Reagan Era in the 1980s; and, more recently, the era of the War on Terror.
I have a suggestion for how we should define the Trump Years: The Era of Stupid.
Granted, “stupid” is not a highbrow word, and I’m dubious that it will catch on in the same way as the “Jazz Age.” But in its simplicity and crudeness, it vividly captures the absurdity of our times.
There are so many “stupid” examples one can choose from: Sharpie-gate; the president’s talk of buying Greenland; his musing on whether it’s possible to nuke a hurricane or inject people with disinfectants; his refusal, aped by many of his followers, to wear a mask in the midst of a global pandemic. The list goes on and on.
But president’s latest fixation is perhaps Peak Stupid — “Obamagate.”
I should say from the outset that writing about Obamagate raises a tricky question: How does one pass judgment on something that doesn’t actually exist?
As best I can tell, Obamagate refers to a charge that former president Barack Obama and former vice president Joe Biden knew in advance about, or perhaps conspired in plotting, the FBI interview of former national security adviser Michael Flynn that led to his prosecution. It also appears to refer to efforts in late 2016 to “unmask” Flynn, which describes a routine national security process to reveal the identity of Americans mentioned in National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence reports.
The problem with these accusations is that they elide some rather pertinent facts.
For example, the FBI interview of Flynn happened after Trump took office in January 2017. And how exactly was the Obama Administration targeting Flynn for unmasking when they could not have known Flynn’s identity before the unmasking? (I feel stupid even writing this question.)
All of this is somehow connected to the Russia investigation, Trump suggests. But many of the unmasking requests from Obama administration officials appeared to revolve around Flynn’s shady dealings with the Turkish government, for whom he was lobbying. And the vast majority came before he got entangled in the Russia affair with his controversial call to Sergei Kisylak, the Russian ambassador to the United States — a call he lied about to the FBI. That lie was a crime, to which he later pleaded guilty.
Far be it from me to inject facts into the Obamagate fever swamp, but there does seem to be a simple reason Flynn was regularly being unmasked by Obama administration officials — he was engaging in behavior that merited unmasking requests.
Of course, facts don’t really matter here because trying to untangle the web of inanity at the core of Obamagate is like trying to debate molecular biology with a 2-year-old. Indeed, when pushed at a White House press conference to identify what crime former President Obama allegedly committed, Trump answered, "You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody, all you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”
These are words. Any connection to reality is purely coincidental.
Of course, the goal here is not to prove a crime, it’s to suggest with raised eyebrows, declarative tones, and a wink and a nod that something bad happened. What is that bad thing? Well no one really knows, but believe me — it’s bad. Really bad. It’s bad like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Because we live in the Era of Stupid, many people seem primed to believe this bad thing they can’t actually describe. The president said it’s true. So did Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. It’s all over Facebook and Fox News: Michael Flynn is the most persecuted man since Nelson Mandela.
There has been speculation that the Obamagate stuff is an effort to distract attention from Trump’s catastrophic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the president appears to actually believe that Obamagate is real. Just as he clearly believes that the Russia investigation is a hoax. Just as he once believed, and may still believe, that climate change is a Chinese plot. Like his committed followers, he spends much of his day religiously watching Fox News. He fervently believes right-wing conspiracy theories. And because he’s president, he has a large and influential platform for regurgitating them for mass consumption.
It creates an almost perfect feedback loop, because when he spouts off, fellow Republicans, the White House staff, and conservative media embrace and amplify it. The result is an entire political ecosystem devoted to the propagation of stupid.
To be sure, inane conspiracy theories are not the province of one political party or ideology. It’s long been a bipartisan exercise. But rare is the moment when an entire political party, and its titular head, are taken captive by it. Alas, this is the time in which we are living; when the stupid, mindless, and inane have not just entered the political mainstream, but have come to define it. All of us, whether we believe it or not, are stupider as a result.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.