The greatest trick the Trumpists ever pulled was to equate the innuendo of crime with actual crime. It started when Donald Trump was able to falsely equate Hillary’s emails with Trump’s Access Hollywood tape. One hour after the tape dropped, around 5 p.m. that Oct. 7, Julian Assange started dumping emails that Russian intelligence services had hacked from Clinton’s campaign onto WikiLeaks for the world to see. The idea was simple: distract, obfuscate, and confuse.
And it worked. It worked very, very well. It was the cornerstone of an empire of conspiracies and lies, the birth of a cottage industry of far-right hucksters who put the “con” in conspiracy.
“But her emails” became such a common refrain it rose to the highest level of internet content: the meme. Sure, Trump had bragged about sexually assaulting women, but have you seen John Podesta’s risotto recipe?
Well, it turned out that much like Al Capone’s safe, Hillary’s emails contained almost entirely what all our emails contain: the trivial and the commonplace, the quotidian paper trail of a complex but ultimately explicable life. There was no smoking gun, no moment where the “j’accuse!” crew could link her to child sex rings in pizza restaurants or the murder of Seth Rich.
There was nothing. But unfortunately, the word that she had been exonerated came about three years too late. “A multiyear State Department probe of emails that were sent to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s private computer server concluded there was no systemic or deliberate mishandling of classified information by department employees,” according to a report submitted to Congress on Oct. 19. Hillary was exonerated but has no recourse to justice, political or otherwise.
Meanwhile a steady stream of sexual assault allegations against Trump continues, the most recent being All the President’s Women, a book that revealed another 43 new sexual assault allegations, each more studiously ignored by his evangelical base than the last. A false equivalency was created, “whataboutism” triumphed over facts and truth, and thus Trump was elected.
In fact, this innuendo stuff worked so well that Trumpworld decided to do it again. Giuliani went to Ukraine in the hopes of bullying them into opening an investigation into the 2016 election and Joe Biden. Giuliani was in Ukraine, looking for Biden’s “but her emails.” And he found something: not emails exactly but a son, a train wreck of a son. And the innuendo of Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine was born.
It’s a perfect counterbalance to Trump’s quid pro quo in Ukraine. It’s the same weird Trumpian mass innuendo, equating Trump’s actual, obvious, and blatant malfeasance with the hint of some enormous scandal that based on what we know so far does not exist. “But Hunter” will be the “but her emails” of 2020, if Biden is the nominee.
What happens if Elizabeth Warren is the nominee? What is her “but her emails?” Well, the most recent Warren innuendo was born where much Republican oppo research is published on the website most famous for originally funding the fusion GPS Steele Dossier, The Washington Free Beacon.
The story is that in 1971, Warren says she was fired for being pregnant. The Free Beacon cast doubt onto Warren’s story after finding minutes of an April 21, 1971, school board meeting in which a second-year teaching contract for her was approved. The story is unprovable, a lot of women were fired (and continue to be) for being pregnant.
Even in 1971, school boards tend not to record discrimination, but it doesn’t matter: The whiff of innuendo was enough for the conservative media to try and run with it. It was another story that could muddy the waters. The story went from the Free Beacon to The New York Post and soon enough had made its way to The Wall Street Journal’s very Trumpy Opinion page. The Warren pregnancy story went on a magical trip, from oppo-research to news in just under three days.
Why is innuendo treated with the same weight as actual crimes? Is it something about Trump’s mastery of bullshit? Is it a flaw in the character and management of the American media? Perhaps part of the reason is inherent to writing; writing is about comparisons, about making connections. As writers, we are supposed to bring things together. But that’s also part of the problem. Trump isn’t like any other American president in history. He is a serial liar. He makes Nixon look like Lincoln.
He does not operate in the normal parameters. The Washington Post fact checker has Trump at 13,435 false or misleading claims in the last 993 days. Also, there is no precedent for Trumpism. The American press has never been confronted with this kind of “lite fascism.”
We are in completely new journalistic territory. How does objectivity survive in a world were one side is so completely nefarious? I don’t know the answer. I just know that Trump has been incredibly successful at conflating his enormous scandals with accusations that rarely rise above the possibility of a scandal in the Democrats’ cases.
Trump has managed to use whataboutism to “but her emails” for everything that’s come down the pike so far. But what’s going on in Adam Schiff’s SCIF may be so big that it turns out to be impossible to obfuscate. That doesn’t mean he won’t try.