Beyond weakening the administration, the seemingly incessant wave of Trump scandals seems to reinforce liberals’ narrative of the previous president. As The New Republic remarked after the resignation of Michael Flynn, “Obama went eight years without a major White House scandal. Trump lasted three weeks.” Or as Obama himself boasted in December, “we’re probably the first administration in modern history that hasn’t had a major scandal in the White House.” To the horror of conservatives, who can cite a litany of official misdeeds during the Obama years, the apparent integrity of that era will feature prominently as historians evaluate that presidency. (Spoiler: as those historians are overwhelmingly liberal, they will rate it very highly indeed.)
In a sense, though, both sides are correct. The Obama administration did a great many bad things, but it suffered very few scandals. That paradox raises critical issues about how we report and record political events and how we define a word as apparently simple as “scandal.”
Very little effort is needed to compile a daunting list of horror stories surrounding the Obama administration, including the Justice Department’s disastrous Fast and Furious weapons scheme, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents, and a stunningly lax attitude to security evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s email server and the hacking of millions of files from the Office of Personnel Management. Even on the available evidence, the IRS affair had most of the major elements of something like Watergate, and a detailed investigation might well have turned up a chain of evidence leading to the White House.
But there was no detailed investigation, and that is the central point. Without investigation, the amount of embarrassing material that emerged was limited, and most mainstream media outlets had no interest in publicizing the affair. Concern was strictly limited to partisan conservative outlets, so official malfeasance did not turn into a general public scandal.
Misdeeds themselves, however, are not the sole basis for official statistics or public concern. To understand this, look for instance at the recently publicized issue of sexual assaults on college campuses. The actual behaviors involved have been prevalent for many decades, and have probably declined in recent years as a consequence of changing gender attitudes. In public perception, though, assaults are running at epidemic levels. That change is a consequence of strict new laws, reinforced by new mechanisms for investigation and enforcement. A new legal and bureaucratic environment has caused a massive upsurge of reported criminality, which uninformed people might take as an escalation of the behavior itself.