Why Barr's 'October Surprise' Will Be The Least Surprising One Yet

With fewer than 100 days left to go before the election in November, the campaign schedule is noticeably lacking in events this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The national conventions for both parties have been all but canceled, the usual breakneck pace of the rally-to-town-hall-to-meet-and-greet campaign momentum has been nixed, and with crowd size restrictions in place, even the debates will be toned down from their usual raucous mood to a more concentrated tension. But one event that is never on the schedule (yet is highly anticipated) is the so-called “October Surprise,” and this week, Attorney General William Barr made it clear that this election’s October Surprise (or at least one of them) will come from his office.

October Surprises are a quadrennial tradition of the culture of American elections. The term refers to a late-breaking event in an election year that has the potential to turn the favor of an electorate for or against one candidate or the other. Since such events tend to occur in early to mid-October, about 2 weeks before the election when voters have just enough time to form final opinions before heading to the polls, these surprise events have become associated with October. They are usually seen as deliberately timed for maximum effect in the news media and planned in such a way as to hit a candidate’s weaknesses or boost a candidate’s strengths, though almost always these events have the veneer of spontaneity. 

This election’s October Surprise, however, is shaping up to be less of a spontaneous surprise and more of a well-orchestrated, highly anticipated, universally expected strategic event. We might call it Barr’s October Plan, instead. During the House hearings this past week, Barr appeared before the judiciary committee to answer questions on a wide range of topics relating to the justice department’s brutal treatment of peaceful protesters. So many newsworthy revelations came out of the hearing that one can be forgiven for missing a smaller moment of disclosure when Barr was asked about the current status of an investigation he launched last year into the Mueller investigation that led to President Trump’s impeachment. The probe of the probe is being spearheaded by U.S. Attorney John Durham, a key Barr ally and loyal Trump henchman. When asked by Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) if Barr would “commit to not releasing any report by Mr. Durham before the November election?” Barr responded bluntly: “No.”

The brevity of his reply should not be mistaken for an off-handed remark or a meaningless dismissal. As we know by now, the years of analyzing remarks such as this one have shown us that such minor comments often hold subterranean promises of future action. No doubt, Durham will present a report in mid-October cobbled together from bits and pieces of nothings and minor indiscretions into an outlandish tale of international conspiracies and deep state espionage. The end result will probably be something something Hunter Biden. Or perhaps it will be a brand new revelation that such and such operative told so and so that something something Robert Mueller. Or maybe, be still our hearts, it will be even more salacious, the scandal we’ve all been waiting for, but also the one thing no one saw coming: that something something Biden, Obama, Mueller, Pelosi, Steele, Pizzagate, and most unpredictable of all, Hillary. Rodham. Clinton.

The fact that Barr has completely eschewed any attempt to manufacture such a veneer of spontaneity as he concocts this year’s October “Surprise,” however, is notable for a number of reasons. Barr is definitely aware that his statements will fuel speculation about his October Plan, but he also knows that such speculation will not stop whatever he intends to reveal from landing a heavy blow to the Biden campaign. On the contrary, building such speculation ahead of time will only heighten the Plan’s impact when it lands, much the way a marketing agency will try to build hype around a product ahead of its release. And this marks the next evolution of the use of scandal in American politics. As I wrote in a piece about the ill-conceived response of the Democrats to the Mueller investigation around a year and a half ago, “We’ve witnessed the dawning of an age when neither a sex scandal nor a financial scandal — any scandal at all, really — is enough to bring down a president.” But built into this analysis is the assumption that scandalous accusations are at least possibly true. Indeed, what makes scandals damaging in the first place is that they have the potential to be true. At least, that’s how things used to be.

What Barr and his bandits realize is that we live in an age when scandals need not be grounded in truth in order for them to be damaging. Take for instance the rise of cancel culture. As I’ve written previously and many others have pointed out before, one of the main ways that cancel culture inflicts mob justice is by flooding the audience with accusations and drowning the accused in the sheer volume of character assassinations and public humiliation. In these instances, scandals need not have the weight of truth behind them for them to effectively alter the course of someone’s life. The scandals must simply be outrageous enough to enough people that the public berates the accused until they are forced to retreat from the fray or risk their own sanity. Truth is at most an inconvenience when it contradicts the prevailing narrative. In other words, the truth is incidental.

When released from the bonds of truth, a curious thing happens in the realm of the muckrakers and scandalmongers. They are liberated from the need to rely on the natural course of events in the world. It no longer matters who, what, when, where, why, or how something happened. The only thing that matters is that a lot of people believe something happened in some way. One of the more pesky interrogatives in that list is the ‘when’ of a something something. When realism is considered a necessary feature of a political strategy, the ‘when’ cannot always be controlled. After all, one of the things that makes a something something true is that it happened at a certain time, and that timing is not usually predictable. This is where the ‘surprise’ part of October Surprise comes from. What makes an October Surprise surprising is that is supposedly unpredictable, or at least pretends to be. But, freed from the moral imperative to tie accusations to truths, scandals can be methodically manufactured and timed to break into the news cycle just when they would be most damaging.

The freedom to inform us ahead of time of a coming scandal such that we anticipate it the way we would anticipate the release of the next iPhone is a power that Barr is exploiting purposefully and with masterful skills. He has done this before, after all, though in reverse. Recall how Barr undercut the debut of the Mueller Report by delivering his own flawed summary a week ahead of its release. In that instance, instead of pumping up a planned release, he deflated a planned release. But the principle is the same. Like other scandals, October surprises are only surprising if they can’t be controlled. But just because a scandal is not surprising does not mean it is not scandalous. In fact, it is quite the opposite: a well planned minor scandal can be elevated to ‘presidential campaign ending’ status with enough marketing and build up. The growing anticipation of the release will ensure that whatever nonsense Durham can drum up will land with more oomph than it deserves. Barr knows we know his October Plan is coming. He wants us to know. He’s planning on it.

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