Welcome to “Stupid Watergate”

John Oliver’s formulation has applied for years. But there’s one critical distinction between Trump and Nixon that will make this whole experience much stranger.

Trump's head imposed on top of the whistleblower's complaint
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images and Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images.

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 characterized 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 that 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? Part of it might just be that Rudy Giuliani is truly terrible at everything. And yet Donald Trump seems to have dispatched Giuliani, his modern-day Roy Cohn/Michael Cohen/Watergate plumber, not to pay hush money to porn stars, as any respectable fixer might, but to advance Trump’s personal political ambitions under the guise of international diplomacy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Giuliani, who has soaked far too long in the Hofstadter bath bomb of deep state/Biden-gate/but-her-emails logic, actually believes he should be lauded as a hero for his efforts to follow through on Trump’s requests. But even the staunchest of Trump’s defenders must be wondering who authorized Trump’s personal attorney to lope around the globe, possibly without security clearance, pressuring sovereign leaders of foreign nations into interning for the Trump 2020 campaign. The State Department was unequivocal on this one point: “Mr. Giuliani is a private citizen and acts in a personal capacity as a lawyer for President Trump. He does not speak on behalf of the U.S. Government.” When Giuliani defended himself by insisting that he was authorized because he was working alongside actual government employees Kurt Volker and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it turned out he was just accidentally throwing these men under the bus to be flattened right along with him.

Giuliani aside, the other reason it’s taken some time for the country to figure out how to respond to the onslaught of Stupid Watergates is because Donald Trump, while certainly often his own worst enemy, has perennially managed to also be his own best asset. His lies are so outlandish that everyone believes they must be jokes; his jokes are so grotesque everyone believes they must be lies. His contempt for the law is so acute, everyone starts to doubt that the law is of any fundamental utility. In this case, it’s not even clear that Trump has realized he did anything wrong—the whistleblower’s original complaint makes apparent that everyone in the White House assumed the now-infamous Ukrainian phone call would be routine, probably because Trump thought it was. It seems entirely possible he never saw a problem. (The complaint suggests that while staffers realized they’d need to do something to hide the full substance of the call, Trump was not worried about it.) He was not worried about confessing to two Russian visitors or Lester Holt his real reasons for firing James Comey, either.

That’s because Trump has one fatal flaw, one that Richard Nixon did not quite share. As a lifelong narcissist, Donald Trump genuinely believes he can do nothing wrong. He perhaps even genuinely believes that anything he has ever done that has been wrong is not, in fact, wrong. He further believes that the presidency is the perfect gig for him because presidents can do nothing illegal. And, somewhat pathetically, he apparently seems to think that if he could just explain his rightness about all things to everyone, we would finally give him the love he so desperately craves. And so, unlike Nixon, who at some point did give himself over to the cover-up, Donald Trump just keeps trying to publicly justify the crimes.

In the past week alone, instead of just keeping quiet, Donald Trump has instead directed his energies to try to convince us that he is right and we are wrong. He wants us to understand and accept that his threatening calls to foreign leaders are “very legal and very good,” and also “perfect,” and that a whistleblower and those who spoke to the whistleblower are in fact “close to” spies who should be executed for treason. When hundreds of former foreign service officers express horror at Trump’s antics, and his behavior shows him to be manifestly unwell, he keeps repeating that he is perfect and stable and good, because he thinks he is (and after all, his assumption on this point has until now been proved correct).

It’s unfortunately not even a little bit clear that the Ukraine scandal will be the bracing smack on the nose that brings a majority of a narcotized public back to something that approximates reality. It is clear that we’re hurtling faster and faster toward a reckoning of some kind. It seems perfectly possible that the more Trump tries to cajole and browbeat us into accepting his awesomeness, the worse it will become for him. Perhaps at some point his enablers will have to admit that they’ve wasted three years kissing the ring of an emperor who’s wearing … well … nothing but a ring. But it also seems perfectly possible that whatever we’re about to experience will continue to split us into two countries, living two irreconcilable realities, inhabiting two un-gettable jokes—on Sunday night, Trump, quoting Fox News, tweeted that if the impeachment inquiry into him is successful, it will cause a “Civil War like fracture” in America. Welcome to Stupid Watergate. Admitting the problem is the first step.