Welcome to 'Stupid Watergate'

Dahlia Lithwick

Way back in 2017, John Oliver started calling the early Trump-era scandals ‘Stupid Watergates.’ This blossomed over the years into a series of segments on episodes in the Donald Trump presidency that could be characterised as ‘a scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything.’ He could have aired such episodes almost daily, but at some juncture, the Stupid Watergates just morphed into our daily political lives. As Oliver would continue to argue, the question was always less ‘What did the president know and when did he know it,’ as it was ‘Is the president physically capable of knowing things at all?’

Later, Oliver would say of the series that ‘unfortunately, it was supposed to be just a self-contained joke, but current events are making it more and more relevant. Which is not normally how jokes work.’ Stupid Watergate lived on, but the formulation also helps explain the speed with which we seem to be waking up to the joke. As my colleague Lili Loofbourow explains, ‘Americans still don’t quite believe that things that are done in the open are bad; it might be a joke, or a bit, or a performance, or a mistake. (We can’t even agree that Trump is lying because maybe he believes in his heart that the ‘falsehood’ is true.) Convincing the public of ill intent seems to require a ‘revelation’ or an ‘exposure’ or a secret.’ Everyone was so persuaded Donald Trump was always joking that we couldn’t quite get John Oliver’s joke.

As a general matter, jokes are funny because they are at least partially true. Here, we have crossed a line where the joke is so true, it’s hardly funny. Donald Trump is not competent and many of the people with whom he surrounds himself—until he fires them—are not competent either. The primary work of his highest officials appears to have been hiding evidence of his malfeasance and ineptitude from us and pretending that work was heroic. Donald Trump never made sense in gatherings of foreign leaders, or among the victims of tragedies, or in any setting that wasn’t a staged stadium rally or photo-op. But somehow, we stopped believing that he would be caught out for this gross incompetence and absurdity, or even for the inherent lawlessness and corruption, and tried to laugh it all off. In the face of outrageous immorality, we were told we had a derangement problem.

That seems to have changed. Welcome to Stupid Watergate, Part 1,000, in which the joke is finally not on you. Welcome to Stupid Watergate, in which somehow, after nearly three years of pinging around inside the ‘nothing matters‘ shruggy emoji, within the span of one week, something is finally, possibly, maybe going to stick. Donald Trump may actually be brought down—by an entirely unforced error involving his obsession with an insane Fox News talking point about Ukrainian ‘corruption,’ Joe Biden, and, of course—because it’s Stupid Watergate—Hillary’s emails. The spectacular flameout of Rudy Giuliani, the implosion at the State Department, and the president’s mounting incoherence also swirled together to propel the meltdown along. As the days roll on, nobody can seemingly help themselves from implicating everybody else, which makes the fast-track impeachment inquiry more a clipping service than an imponderable mystery.

And because it’s Stupid Watergate, it’s not just the cover-up, or even just the crime, but also the scorching ineptitude. Don’t for a moment forget about the myriad people who were alarmed by Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to find dirt on his political opponent and yet did nothing, as well as the deeply stupid people who were alarmed by Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to find dirt on his political opponent and tried to bury it. Because there is some next-level stupid. And that too continues to unspool as we learn that other phone calls, with Russia and Saudi Arabia, were similarly disappeared.

From even the early days of Oliver’s ‘Stupid Watergate,’ these scandals have followed the same general arc. Generally the pattern has been that Trump and his incandescently mediocre family and hapless enablers do something moronic (such as suggesting that Obama wiretapped him) and we all recoil in horror. That is followed by hasty claims that this was just Trump being Trump, and what can you do. As a result of the soft bigotry of ever-lowered expectations, the Trumpier Trump acted, the shruggier we became, until it actually appeared that he was slyly enrolling Americans in tolerating the stupidity and training us to accept yet more of the same. At some midpoint in this incubus, it seemed that nothing would ever seem stupid, or at least surprisingly stupid, ever again. And that is where the joke went to die.

Why is this instance of Stupid Watergate different?

Read the rest of this article at Slate.