“I love Jeff Bezos for what he’s done for the Washington Post, but their headline on top of the paper, the motto, ‘democracy dies in darkness’ — no, democracy dies in broad daylight. Again and again, it’s the lesson in history. You retain the appearance of democracy without having it. I think that’s where this country is right now.”
The journalist and biographer Jon Meacham has a new book – The Soul of America – that makes the case that as bad as things now seem for American democracy that things have actually been much worse at points in our checkered past.
“Let’s learn the lessons of the past,” Meacham says. “Resist tribalism, deploy reason and remember that fair play for others is the best way to ensure fair play for you. If we can do that, then we’ll rise above the corrosive tweets, the presidential bullying and the narcissism of our reality-TV president,” he says. “It feels dark and insuperable, but it’s felt that way before.”
Agreed. We did have a Civil War. That was pretty awful. Before that war human bondage as a political issue ripped the country apart and even when slavery ended after the slaughter of more than 700,000 Americans it took another hundred years to legislatively guarantee voting rights for citizens of color. (Of course, the Supreme Court threw out the most important parts of the Voting Rights Act a while back, but keep the faith we’re still working the problem, sort of.)
The McCarthy Era was bad news. A demagogue paralyzed the United State Senate, gained a legion of followers and destroyed countless lives. Joe McCarthy eventually drank himself to death eliminating the need for his ultimate repudiation at the ballot box and the Senate did censure him, but not before he poisoned American politics for generations.
Vietnam. Bloody battles over Civil Rights. The Klan. Assassinations. An ever-expanding interpretation of the Second Amendment. (Where do you sign up to be part of that “well-regulated militia,” by the way?) Endless war in places we don’t understand and couldn’t impact if we did.
American strife and division, particularly the poisonous variety, as Jon Meacham says, “are in some ways the rule in American life rather than the exception.”
Fair enough, but, but … we have never before had a Donald J. Trump.
Richard Nixon was mean, vindictive and despite his statement to the contrary a crook, it least in the political sense. Harding surrounded himself with a loathsome collection of grifters and political hacks. Bill Clinton did have sex with that woman and history has not been kind to a clueless James Buchanan or a bumbling Franklin Pierce. Yet, none have done what Trump, the ignorant, arrogant, self-obsessed, serial lying, three-times married, hush money porno star paying faux billionaire has done.
The Trump coup d’etat . . .
As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently – read her stuff in Harper’s and elsewhere – Trump has effectively staged a coup: “It happened on November 8, 2016, when an unqualified candidate won a minority victory in a corrupted election thanks in part to foreign intervention … The evidence that the candidate and his goons were aided by and enthusiastically collaborating with a foreign power was pretty clear before that election, and at this point, they are so entangled there isn’t really a reason to regard the born-again alt-right Republican Party and the Putin Regime as separate entities.”
Consider just a few bits of news from the past few days.
The president of the United States has done publicly what Nixon only did in the privacy of the Oval Office, namely attempt to discredit a legitimate investigation into his own conduct. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may have temporarily defused the crisis by referring the matter to the department’s Inspector General. Still make no mistake this is a very, very, very big departure from previous presidential behavior. Trump’s coup has now made such unprecedented action – certainly unprecedented post-Nixon – standard operating procedure in the White House.
As Jonathan Bernstein wrote in Bloomberg: “Once upon a time, President Richard Nixon turned the Department of Justice into his personal flunkies in various different conspiracies to break the law. Before it was over, his first two attorneys general wound up in legal trouble. A third attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than carry out the further demands of the president.” We may still be in the early days of Trump’s attempts to manipulate and rig his own Justice Department and rip to shreds the notion of “the rule of law,” but it is increasingly clear we are in very deep and unchartered waters.
And then there is Trump’s attempt to pressure the Post Office to retaliate against Amazon and its billionaire owner Jeff Bezos. Bezos, of course, also owns the Washington Post, one of the news organizations attempting to keep alive the flame of presidential accountability.
“[Postmaster General Megan] Brennan [a career official who worked her way up from letter carrier to boss] has so far resisted Trump’s demand, explaining in multiple conversations occurring this year and last that these arrangements are bound by contracts and must be reviewed by a regulatory commission,” the Post reported recently. “She has told the president that the Amazon relationship is beneficial for the Postal Service and gave him a set of slides that showed the variety of companies, in addition to Amazon, that also partner for deliveries.”
Other presidents have certainly attempted to intimidate various businesses for various reasons, but Trump’s action is in a new category. His behavior is the conduct of a man who relentlessly seeks to punish his perceived political enemies and he’s proving he will pull whatever handy levers he stumbles on to inflict the punishment. This is not politics or ideology, but rather rank authoritarianism on an American scale.
It’s the corruption – stupid . . .
Or consider this lede on a recent New York Times (non-fake) story: “HONG KONG — The Trump Organization’s partner in a lavish Indonesian development project boasting a six-star hotel and golf course with President Trump’s name has brought on a new ally: a Chinese state-owned company.
“The Indonesian partner, the MNC Group, said Tuesday that it had struck a deal with an arm of Metallurgical Corporation of China, a state-owned construction company, to build a theme park next door to the planned Trump properties.”
The Times concluded, “The timing is awkward.” We should hope to shout it is awkward.
After promising a trade war with China and after the Indonesian hotel deal, Trump suddenly abandoned sanctions against Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE, an organization American intelligence officials says is in the middle of Chinese efforts to evade Iranian and North Korean sanctions. Additionally the director of the FBI told the Senate Intelligence Agency as recently as February that he was “deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.” Top intelligence officials have bluntly told Americans not to use ZTE phones and devices because they constitute an espionage threat.
Perhaps there is a rational explanation for all this, but it would seem the best that could be said for a president making money off a foreign business deal financed by a Chinese company while engaged in trade negotiations with China is, well, “awkward.”
There are new and credible allegations of additional pro-Trump election meddling. The latest involves deep-pocketed Persian Gulf operatives in a second campaign season Trump Tower meeting involving the president’s son Don, Jr. and various foreign agents, one of whom apparently has lied to Congress about his involvement in the campaign. It is worth remembering that it is against the law for foreign citizens, agents, and companies to in any way involve themselves in a U.S. election or to spend money to support or defeat a candidate. Democracy dies in plain sight.
And there is always more with this crowd.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family real estate business has apparently entertained offers for a troubled New York building – 666 Fifth Avenue – from an investment group backed by money from Qatar. The Kushner deal, and of course he’s a top White House advisor, somehow is also caught up in an ongoing diplomatic Middle Eastern brouhaha that Vanity Fair described this way:
“Led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a group of Middle Eastern countries, with Kushner’s backing, led a diplomatic assault that culminated in a blockade of Qatar. Kushner, according to reports at the time, subsequently undermined efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring an end to the standoff.”
I know it’s complicated keeping the conflicts of interest and the world-class grifting all straight, but this is way beyond “awkward” and into the territory of bribery and shakedown. I’ll put it the way special counsel Robert Mueller likely would: Did Kushner pressure Qatar for money for his New York building in exchange for backing off on the blockade?
Or as Slate succinctly put it: “Bribery, corruption, and real estate have always gone hand in hand. If I give you a suitcase containing $500,000 in cash, that’s extremely suspicious. But if I buy a property from you for $1.6 million, it’s almost impossible to determine that the ‘real’ value was only $1.1 million and that therefore $500,000 of the payment was somehow nefarious.”
That we are even considering this kind of thing in relation to the president and his “staff” is an astounding moment in American history.
Whenever there is a choice . . .
Back in 2008 the writer Thomas Frank produced a splendid little book entitled The Wrecking Crew. His basic assertion was that the modern conservative-liberal political debate can now best be explained by the fact that liberals actually continue to believe in government as a force for good and a route to improvement in the human condition, while conservatives are essentially cynics about government. Conservatives not only don’t want much government they want to privatize what little they tolerate. In the process they elevate “bullies and gangsters and CEOs over other humans” – sound familiar – while telling us to get smart and stop expecting anything good from Washington.
“Whenever there is a choice to be made,” Frank wrote back in those pre-Donald Trump days, “between markets and free people – between money and the common good – the conservatives chose money.”
The modern Republican Party, now completely the party of Trump, is daily proving the essential truth of Thomas Frank’s little book.
“I worry that we no longer live in a democracy,” the journalist and historian Tom Ricks said recently. “We live in what the ancient Greeks called an oligarchy — government of the rich, for the rich, by the rich. Money now is much more important in America than people’s votes.”
Scandals 100th the size those that swirl daily around the White House would have in years past set off a mad race to investigate and hold accountable the wrong-doers. What we have instead is an incredibly tepid response from Republican politicians afraid that raising legitimate questions about the president’s conduct will induce blowback from residents of the Fox News fueled fever swamp that is the Republican “base.”
Republican candidates for an open Congressional seat in Idaho all dodged a debate question about whether there was anything Trump has done that caused them heartburn. The joker who won the primary and likely will go to Congress said he hadn’t been following the special counsel investigation deeming it a “distraction.” Democracy dies in broad daylight.
Conservative never-Trumper Max Boot ended a recent column by saying, “Republicans approve of, or pretend not to notice, his flagrant misconduct, while Democrats are inured to it. The sheer number of outrages makes it hard to give each one the attention it deserves. But we must never – ever! – accept the unacceptable.”
Yet, so much damage has been done amid so little pushback from the conservatives who certainly know Trump is a disaster, but cannot bring themselves to speak of the destruction he has created. And the damage is huge and will be long lasting.
“The West as we once knew it no longer exists,” the German magazine Der Spiegel said recently in an remarkable editorial. “Our relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship and can hardly be referred to as a partnership. President Trump has adopted a tone that ignores 70 years of trust. He wants punitive tariffs and demands obedience. It is no longer a question as to whether Germany and Europe will take part in foreign military interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is now about whether trans-Atlantic cooperation on economic, foreign and security policy even exists anymore. The answer: No. It is impossible to overstate what Trump has dismantled in the last 16 months.”
With due respect to Jon Meacham and the “we’ve had it worse” argument, the Republican Party embrace of Trump is not like anything we have ever seen. The embrace of his incompetence and corruption when coupled with a near complete political unwillingness to restrain his attacks on institutions, the law, old alliances and fundamental decency is absolutely frightening.
We retain the appearance of democracy without having it. You have to wonder if we can ever get it back.