Note: My column this week in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune
Just when it seems that our politics can’t possibly produce yet one more head spinning moment we get one.
An amazing thing happened this week. The world laughed at the American president. While he was making a speech. At the United Nations.
Oh, I know, Trump fans will discount the importance of a spontaneous outburst of chuckling from the world’s diplomats. European elites, they will scoff. A reaction coming from African nations that are, well, it rhymes with lit holes.
While it’s tempting to toss off yet another Trump moment as just the latest Trump moment the reaction to the president of the United States boasting about his greatness at the U.N. is really a symptom of a larger, more serious problem for the United States and the world. At the same time the United States has retreated from a position of international leadership we continue to suffer a difficult to correct deterioration of democratic practice at home. Unfortunately we are not alone.
As Edward Luce, a writer for the Financial Times, notes in his brilliant little book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “Since the turn of the millennium, and particularly over the last decade, no fewer than twenty-five democracies have failed around the world, three of them in Europe (Russia, Turkey and Hungary.)” Luce is, of course, using the term “liberal” in the classic sense: liberal democracies encourage people to vote in free elections, they welcome dissent, they value a free press, they respect differences and find ways to compromise in the cause of an unruly, yet broadly universal understanding of progress.
Yet, the prevailing momentum in the world is not toward greater equality either political or economic. By one recent estimate, a third of the world’s people now live in democracies in decline. All the energy from the British exit from the European Union to new U.S. trade wars is in the direction of isolation, retrenchment and conflict. We see the telltale signs of this new world order playing out in real time. For 70 years the NATO alliance has provided security for Europe, Canada and the United States, yet the current administration, apparently ignorant of that history, picks fights those allies and plays nice with a Russian dictator. Rather than thoughtful engagement with China – Ed Luce calls the emergence of China as world power “the most dramatic event in economic history” – we apply time dishonored methods of tariffs and taxation that will soon enough hurt Idaho potato growers, Montana wheat farmers and Iowa soybean growers. China, meanwhile, consolidates its influence across the Pacific basin, while we tax ourselves thinking we will bring them to heel.
Americans are badly, one hopes not fatally, distracted at the moment. The constant political turmoil, the blind partisanship, the disregard for fundamental political and personal decency is part of a pattern across the globe. As the European scholar
Anne Applebaum put it recently, “Polarization is normal. More to the point … skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.”
Ask yourself a question: How much of what you hear and read about politics today do you really trust?
Authoritarians like Putin in Russia or Erdogan in Turkey have mastered manipulation on public opinion, they control the sources of information if they can, intimidate those they can’t and dominate and denigrate the rest. Democracy does not thrive in spaces where leaders label as “fake” or a “hoax” that with which they disagree. But demagogues do get ahead in societies where distracted citizens come to believe that nothing is real, that there are versions of the truth. More and more political leaders, even a candidate for governor in Idaho, seem comfortable with their own versions of Trump’s “fake news” mantra.
It used to be that political leaders, real political leaders, practiced the old political game of addition. How do I add to my support? How do I bring people together? How do we solve problems even if my side can’t prevail completely? How do we strengthen the often-fragile norms that define acceptable behavior? How do we strengthen the rule of law rather that assault it? Those were the days. Now it is all about juicing the base or perhaps even worse, depressing the vote.
The retreat of western liberalism is happening at precisely the moment the United States is fighting to lead the retreat. At a moment that demands American leadership, fresh thinking about old problems and a commitment to pluralistic societies, we are hunkered down building walls and denying climate change. And the world is laughing at words like, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
Ironically, Donald Trump’s moment at the United Nations this week is, like so much of the man’s story, a fulfillment of his own expectations. Trump “has always been obsessed that people are laughing at the president, says Thomas Wright, a European expert at the Brookings Institution. “From the mid-’80s, he’s said: ‘The world is laughing at us. They think we’re fools.’ It’s never been true, but he’s said it about every president. It’s the first time I’m aware of that people actually laughed at a president.”
The laughter is on us, as is the future. It is nowhere ordained that American democracy will forever flourish and carry on. In fact the opposite is true. Modern world history is the story of one democracy after another – Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s and Poland, Brazil and India today – facing internal turmoil, political polarization, decline or worse. We are not immune.
Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher put it succinctly, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, made the extraordinary admission in court on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to keep them from speaking publicly about affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump.
“I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016, Mr. Cohen said.
“We just learned longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg was granted immunity in the Michael Cohen probe, becoming the latest figure close to President Trump to cooperate with investigators. Weisselberg follows Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, David Pecker and, of course, Cohen. Pecker, like Weisselberg, had immunity; the others got plea deals.”
I composed most of what follows before we got the news early Saturday that Arizona Republican Senator John McCain had lost his fight with cancer. McCain, a flawed, often cantankerous politician of the old school, was also amazingly self-aware, a pithy, independent SOB who was tough and smart and funny. It seems strangely appropriate, as sad as it is, that John McCain left us just as Donald Trump, a man who has repeatedly disparaged this genuine American hero, has begun his decent into utter disgrace.
This week, to remember Winston Churchill’s famous line, is not the end for Trump, perhaps not even the beginning of the end, but almost certainly the end of the beginning.
One remarkable thing about Donald Trump’s historic debasement of the American presidency, perhaps the most remarkable, is how completely predictable it was. It was all there to see from the very beginning. Now the only question is how much more damage this profoundly corrupt and ignorant man will do before he’s done, because it is increasingly clear that he will be done.
A characteristic of too many people intimately involved in politics is the ability – or the willingness – to suspend belief in the cause of a partisan victory, no matter the cost. That kind of suspension of belief is an absolute hallmark of the Trump Era and what the man has done to the Republican Party. Normally sane, sober, serious Republicans – many of them in the know from the get go – nevertheless made a devil’s bargain, accepting Trump as their leader in exchange for the hope and expectation of political gain.
Now these Republicans, finally coming to grips with the consequences of suspending belief about their leader, are well down the path toward the chaos and defeat that was all too predictable. If there is any political karma many of them will get precisely what they deserve come November.
The warning signs of where Trump would take Republicans and the country are almost too many to recount – the racially charged announcement speech with references to Mexican rapists, the clown car cast of jokers surrounding the campaign – Steve Bannon, Carter Page, Don, Jr., Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen – the mentally touched boasts, over the top superlatives and need for ego gratification (who talks like that?) and the “only I can fix it” policy pronouncements. All this nonsense was devoid of basic common sense and immune to even elemental fact checking, but Republicans from Paul Ryan to local legislators lapped it up.
When Trump promised to release his tax returns and then didn’t his explanation was as much a sham as a diploma from Trump University. The obvious question was simply “what’s he got to hide?” Plenty it would seem. It was well known that American bankers had long refused to do business with Trump and now his long-time lawyer and chief financial officer have flipped, helping, it would appear, to peel back the multiple layers of corruption that will eventually drive Trump and the political party he now owns over a cliff.
Republicans, at least most of them, have long known that he was a conman, a grifter, and as Melania and the rest of us now know he’s a shameless and constant liar about absolutely everything. None of it was a surprise. None.
Some Republicans have taken to saying the president’s growing body of critics suffer from “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but they have it just backwards. Those who somehow convinced themselves that this profoundly flawed individual would somehow pull off the responsibilities of the most difficult job in the world were the truly deranged ones. His life, his businesses, everything he’s touched amounts to one big con. The derangement was thinking a life-long wise guy, a liar and cheat straight out of central casting fit for an episode of The Sopranos, would change at age 70. No one, of course, really believed the office would change the abhorrent behavior, the boorishness, the cruelty or the racism. Trump is studiously ignorant. That won’t change.
Now, as James Fallows wrote recently in The Atlantic, Republicans “confront a president who has been named in a felony guilty plea as having directed criminal activities. (It didn’t get this far or this crystal-clear with Richard Nixon.) Who is routinely discussed as a potential security risk by his own military and intelligence-agency officials. Who ridicules their former Senate colleague for not bending fully to his will as attorney general. Who is manifestly unable to contain his impulses and resentments, while holding a job whose most important qualification is temperamental control. Who …
“… The list of “who”s could go on, and any one of those 51 senators could complete it. But not a one of them will take a stand against this man, with a vote. Some give speeches. Some write op-eds. Many are “concerned.” Talk is something, but talk is not a vote.”
Devoid of empathy, imbued with a mean temper and an even nastier mean streak Trump was not the least bit prepared for the presidency and virtually every Republican who finally, sometimes reluctantly, but always with full knowledge, embraced him knew it. They knew all that has happened in recent days was not just possible, but likely. They knew even under the best case that a Trump presidency would be a certain kind of crappy show, a roiling cesspool of narcissism and self-interest. Yet, they have gone along settling for a tax cut for the best off and a Supreme Court that will be much more conservative than the country; going along all the way to seeing him implicated by his own lawyer in a felony meant to deceive voters about just what he is. The con man is now the “unindicted co-conspirator.”
Now what do Republicans do? They took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, but they won’t even authorize a subcommittee to investigate porn star hush money that was designed to minimize political damage days before a presidential election.
“It’s getting a little ugly,” Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican and next year’s presumptive GOP whip told Politico in what must be the most understated thing to come out of South Dakota this year. “Most of us need to work with the president where we can to move our agenda … it’s definitely a fairly big sideshow.” Right.
Trouble is “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” – Section 4, Article 2 of the United States Constitution – is a bit more than a sideshow. We knew all this was going to happen. It has. Now what?
What a remarkable contrast between the beginning of last week and the end. The week began with two men close to the president confessing to and convicted of felonies and the man with likely the most intimate knowledge of Trump’s “business empire” began cooperating with prosecutors. Meanwhile, the president verbally assaulted – yet again – his own attorney general (and seems close to firing him) for refusing to interfere with an investigation into Trump’s campaign and personal conduct. Hardly a cricket is heard from elected Republicans.
The week ends with bipartisan tributes to Senator McCain, a crusty, candid, principled Republican who repeatedly stood up to Trump, called out Vladimir Putin and suffered multiple insults from a man who couldn’t carry his briefcase or come close to matching his courage. In the scope of seven days we have all the proof we’ll ever need of the extent of the intellectual and moral rot that has overtaken the Grand Old Party.
Yet, Congressional Republicans know, and their tributes to McCain make clear, what they should be doing. The Arizona senator should be their model. That he is not is a national tragedy.
“[Putin] became convinced that the Western strategy was a regime change vis-à-vis Russia. That’s his distorted version of history. He believes that even Gorbachev may have been an unwitting dupe of the West, but he certainly sees Yeltsin, and the whole experience of Russia in the ’90s, as a period in which the West took advantage of Russia and tried to marginalize it as a global power.”
Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow from 2001-2005 under President George W. Bush
We now know – again – that agents of Russian military intelligence hacked emails of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, her staff, the Democratic National Committee and the party’s congressional campaign committee. Special Counsel Robert Mueller acting, we should remember as a result of a “true bill” approved by a grand jury made up of everyday ordinary Americans, indicted twelve Russian military operatives for those crimes last week.
The indictment alleges “a detailed and wide-ranging conspiracy to hack into the computers” of the aforementioned political people and organizations “and to reveal information in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
The latest Mueller indictment also indicates that Wikileaks conspired with the Russians to inject the stolen material into the American political bloodstream and that more than one American citizen communicated with the foreign agents during the 2016 campaign.
As they say just before the commercial break: stay tuned we will be back with more.
“I would call it the rigged witch hunt, after watching some of the little clips. … I think that really hurts our country, and it really hurts our relationship with Russia.”
Despite the president’s many and fervent denials, I have always believed that someone in the Trump campaign orbit “colluded” with these Russians in order to maximize the timing and impact of the release of the stolen Democratic documents. The Trump campaign motive is pretty obvious. They wanted to win. They wanted to win so badly they were willing to countenance widespread foreign interference in an American presidential election. We don’t know this for sure, yet, but the Mueller indictment last week is clearly beginning to connect a lot of dots.
There are, of course, other plausible explanations for why a campaign would get caught up in this kind of sleazy, illegal, borderline treasonous activity. Maybe the Russians really do have some incriminating information on Donald Trump. Maybe he and his family are in hock up to their eyeballs to Russian banks and oligarchs close to Putin. Maybe a naïve Donald Trump, Jr. just got played when he took the now infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian operatives during the campaign. Any one of these explanations has the ring of truth. Perhaps they all ring in unison.
People still wonder why the smart guys around Richard Nixon, not to mention Nixon himself, thought they needed to break in to the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972. Nixon was going to win re-election against any conceivable Democratic opponent that year, but still he (perhaps) authorized the break in and certainly sanctioned the subsequent cover up. People have long done stupid things in pursuit of political power.
But, while Mueller continues his careful, even scholarly pursuit of the truth in the Trump-Russia matter, it would be wise for Americans – those appalled by what we already know as well as those Trump fans who are still unbelieving that this is as serious as it is – to ponder another question. What did Vladimir Putin want from this Russian meddling with American democracy? What is his game? Why did he authorize this? The Mueller indictment makes clear the Russians, perhaps with American assistance, committed a crime. They clearly had the means and opportunity, but what was the motive?
What Putin Wants….
Here are some educated guesses as to the “why” on the Russian side.
First, Putin, like all dictators, has one overriding objective: he wants to stay in power. One can imagine that he has loved the international attention lavished on the latest news of Russian cyber espionage designed to stir discord in the American body politic. The image provided by the revelations is one of power and that image fits like a glove with Putin’s overarching objective: be seen as powerful to stay in power.
In a particularly perceptive piece in The Atlantic earlier this year, journalist Julia Ioffe recounted a fascinating story of how Putin has created the illusion of success – the U.S. hacking operation helps with this – out of the shambles that is the Russian economy and culture.
Ioffe wrote that, “A businessman who is high up in Putin’s United Russia party said over an espresso at a Moscow café: ‘You’re telling me that everything in Russia works as poorly as it does, except our hackers? Rosneft’—the state-owned oil giant—‘doesn’t work well. Our health-care system doesn’t work well. Our education system doesn’t work well. And here, all of a sudden, are our hackers, and they’re amazing?’”
Ioffe writes that many Russians think the political hacking effort was, at least initially, less a strategic operation than a spontaneous reaction to the release of the Panama Papers, the trove of secret banking information that detailed, among other things, how Putin and his cronies have become very rich while looting the Russian economy. And remember Putin is, if he’s anything, an opportunistic, improvisational former KGB spy.
It doesn’t take the imagination of John Le Carre to see that once Russian military intelligence hacked all that political information and the release of the information deepened divides in the Democratic Party, divides that Trump skillfully capitalized on, and the opportunistic improviser doubled down. Why not implicate the Trump campaign, his son and campaign manager, in the scheme?
After all, if the Kremlin really does have something incriminating on an American political candidate, that leverage is only useful if the compromised candidate actually wins. Therefore they had to do all they could to make sure he won.
Putin’s second objective – remember he is a Soviet era KGB operative – is the age old Russian goal of being taken seriously, to be a world power, to influence events. To him the glory days of his country were when Russia had an empire, a sphere of influence in eastern and southern Europe which insured any Russian leader was a man of worldwide importance and, above all, power.
How best to recreate the old Soviet Empire with its Marxist ideology replaced by oligarchy? How to do what Stalin and every successive Soviet and Russian leader failed to do – divide and conquer the democratic West? Annex Crimea. Destabilize Ukraine. Threaten the Baltic republics. All were once part of the empire and they can be again.
Putin’s tactics aimed at the western alliance were transparently obvious. Sow discord in Britain and weaken the European Union by messing with the Brexit referendum. The same types of anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist agenda that powered Trump to the White House works for the fringe of the political right in the UK, in France, in Austria, in Italy. Putin, often funding such movements, has fanned those flames.
He must be surprised at how completely this strategy has prevailed in the United States. A recent Pew study found that 25 percent of Republican voters now have a favorable opinion of Putin, up from just 11 percent in 2015. A political party that once defined itself by its full-throated support for NATO and its embrace of world trade, a party that would have relegated to the dustbin of history a preening, ignorant con man like its current leader now cheers his every move, including a private meeting with Putin.
Pause for a moment to consider the events of the past week. The president of the United States, having already imposed punitive tariffs on most of our most faithful allies, publicly insults the German chancellor, ironically for being a captive of Russia, a charge on its face that is ludicrous. That performance roils the NATO summit. Then he verbally assaults the British prime minister, rattling the oldest, most enduring American foreign policy relationship. Then on the domestic front twelve Russian spies are indicted for interference with an American election – the president says nothing at all about this development in his Twitter account and dismisses the seriousness in other comments. Meanwhile, he heads to Helsinki to meet with the man who benefits most by this chaos, this assault on the western alliance.
And what does Putin get? Precisely the optics he wants back home.
“The mere fact of the meeting, followed by a joint press conference with the American President, will be a demonstration of power for Putin,” writes Masha Gessen in The New Yorker. “He needs to deliver nothing else. If, however, he is also able to nudge Trump toward a verbal acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Russia’s interests in its old sphere of influence—something that Putin will almost certainly bring up in conversation, making Trump likely to parrot an attitude he instinctively understands—Russians will perceive it as Putin restoring Russia’s superpower status. Putin may also suggest a deal whereby the United States pulls out of Syria. Being able to make such an announcement would make Trump feel like the dealmaker he longs to be. To Russians, it would look like they had won the war. If any deal happens, though, it will be merely an accidental substantive bonus attached to a performance designed to be empty.”
Putin’s game is to preserve his power at home and extend it abroad. He controls, with the firmness of a secret police thug, all the Russian levers of power – the courts, the press, the economy. He is the master manipulator of Russian opinion. For most Russians the economy is a shambles and daily life a constant struggle, but Russian nationalism is a powerful thing. Putin is the symbol of that nationalism and he is poised, with the help of a profoundly flawed American president, to stand astride the globe as the powerful man of history he longs to be.
How did we get here? Why have so many once wise Republican politicians, foreign policy experts and Russian skeptics allowed Donald Trump to let Vladimir Putin win? The mere fact that a Republican president and the party that now slavishly follows him have so warmly embraced such a thuggish dictator is Trump’s greatest con and Putin’s greatest win.
Russian strongmen once based foreign policy on the acquisition of “warm water ports” – the last Czar thought his spoils of the Great War would be control of Istanbul – but Putin has something even better now. He is enjoying the spectacle an increasing divided western alliance, relishing an American sponsored trade war that holds the potential to destabilize the western economy; he delights in the rise right wing populism in Europe and U.S., particularly including its racist, nationalist, press hating authoritarian antecedents. And Putin has, perhaps most importantly, the luxury of having helped put in place a compliant, ignorant American president who revels in the kind of democracy busting behavior that Putin himself has mastered.
In 1954, Republican Dwight Eisenhower struggled mightily to dissuade British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from meeting with Russian leaders in the wake of Stalin’s death. Ike fearing a “propaganda feast” for the Russians at the expense of the western alliance. “[We must] throw back the Russian threat and allow civilization, as we have known it, to continue its progress,” Eisenhower wrote Churchill. “Unless [we] are successful . . . there will be no history of any kind, as we know it. There will be only a concocted story made up by the Communist conquerors of the world.”
The Communists are gone, as are the Eisenhower Republicans. But the motives of Stalin and a succession of Russian dictators, the motives of Vladimir Putin, remain very much with us. It is a truly amazing turn in American politics that a Republican president and the Republican Party are enabling this history-bending occurrence.
“This is the United States of America. It isn’t Nazi Germany.”
– Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), in an interview on MSNBC, about the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.
The venerable Senator Feinstein is correct; we are not Nazi Germany – at least not yet.
But we are beginning, in some remarkably troubling ways, to resemble the ill-fated Weimar Republic that preceded Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. A chilling new book – The Death of Democracy – tells the story of how a cultured, sophisticated people – Weimar Germany was the land of Richard Strauss and Bertolt Brecht, the home to Nobel Prize winners – tumbled into deep political division and then widespread street violence and then a dictatorship and tragedy.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic “created a state-of-the-art modern democracy, with a scrupulously just proportional electoral system and protection of individual rights and freedoms.”
“If Germany had long prided itself on being the ‘land of poets and thinkers’ then in the 1920s it seemed to surpass even itself. And yet somehow, out of this enlightened, creative, ultramodern democracy, grew the most evil regime in human history.”
We still wonder how it happened and why.
Part of the answer, Hett writes, was a breakdown in what was regarded in Germany as acceptable political behavior. Brown shirted toughs took to the streets intimidating political opponents and “others” – Jews and Communists, in particular. German politics became deeply polarized, while nationalism and a national sense of grievance grew. Jews were scapegoated as part of a vast global conspiracy that was somehow tied to Communism.
Hett argues, compellingly and disturbingly, that the rise of the Nazis was in large part a response to globalization and economic change. Major Nazi political theorists actually adopted a policy of “autarky,” the notion that “a country can cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, no imports, no exports, or foreign investments.”
Proving the old saying that “the only thing new is the history we haven’t read” is this remarkable statement from Hitler in 1928. “The German people have no interest,” he wrote, in a “German financial group or a German shipyard establishing a so-called subsidiary shipyard in Shanghai to build ships for China with Chinese workers and foreign steel.” Such an arrangement would not benefit Germany since, Hitler said, jobs that should benefit Germany would not be created in Germany. As the historian Hett notes, “The political mobilization of the late 1920s, especially among those Protestant groups who would become the Nazi base, was mostly about Germany’s vulnerable position in the world economy and financial system.”
When the German conservative establishment – business leaders, the military, Protestant evangelicals and importantly Great War hero Paul von Hindenburg – eventually turned to a bombastic Austrian veteran who preached a virulent form of nationalism heavily doused with racial animus – Jews were his “vermin” – Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. His Nationalist Socialist Workers Party had never commanded more than about 30% of the popular vote before he reached the top of German politics.
“These conservatives could have stopped Hitler in his tracks,” Hett writes. “Instead, they chose to use him.” Business leaders liked his talk of an expanding German economy, higher tariffs and his plans to crack down on labor unions. Military leaders, smarting from how the Great War had ended, appreciated Hitler’s pledge to rebuild Germany’s armed forces. Evangelical Christians flocked to him because he seemed to promise that he would marginalize other Catholic backed political parties.
Within a matter of weeks after being appointed chancellor, Hitler, a brilliant communicator with a flair for the theatrical, had consolidated power to himself. The burning of the Reichstag – the German parliament building – four weeks after he took office was a galvanizing event, an excuse to create a police state. Hitler blamed the fire on Communist conspirators, almost certainly a lie, and historians still debate whether the Nazis staged the whole thing.
Without regard to facts, Nazi paramilitary brown shirts began locking up political opponents, silenced the independent press and deepened the Nazi party’s appeal to very conservative German farmers and small business people who craved stability.
“The key to understanding why many Germans supported him,” Hett writes, “lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world. Hitler himself, in the words of his biographer Joachim Fest, was ‘always thinking the unthinkable,’ and ‘in his statements an element of bitter refusal to submit to reality invariably emerged.’”
Hitler assumed dictatorial powers in Germany thanks to a series of lies, boasts, grand promises and raw appeals to emotion, racism, hatred and strength. Many Germans thought the strutting, one-time postcard painter with the pasty complexion simply wouldn’t last. But while he played his role Hitler could be a necessary evil – a tool – to crush the liberal left, the trade unions, intellectuals and elites. History is made of such horrible miscalculations.
There are, of course, no perfect historic analogies. Each generation stumbles ahead or falls behind on it’s own accord, but it is also true that history contains valuable lessons that we would be wise to heed. This is such a moment.
When politicians say, as the American president did recently, that “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents.” We would be well advised to take them at face value. The American Constitution, of course, guarantees due process – to everyone regardless of legal status.
Dehumanizing your opponents is a tried and true tactic of authoritarians. When the president of the United States calls Hispanic or Latino human beings “animals” or “thugs” or “vermin” and refers to an African-American congresswoman as “an extraordinarily low IQ person” it is impossible to see such language as anything but dehumanizing.
By responding to the congresswoman’s incendiary and profoundly improper encouragement of harassment against Trump Administration officials with his own taunts – “be careful what you wish for” – the president doubles down on a politics of confrontation and demonization.
Former first lady Laura Bush explicitly compared the administration’s recent border separation strategy with the infamous “internment” of Japanese-Americans in 1942, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in modern American history. The actor George Takei, who with his parents was interned in one of the camps, has written that two big lies, including the fiction that a law exists demanding the separations, have fueled the authoritarian border policy.
“The second lie is that those at our borders are criminals, and therefore deserve no rights. But the asylum-seekers at our borders are breaking no laws at all, nor are their children who accompany them. The broad brush of ‘criminal’ today raises echoes of the wartime ‘enemy’ to my ears. Once painted, both marks are impossible to wash off. Trump prepared his followers for this day long ago, when he began to dehumanize Mexican migrants as drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and animals. Animals might belong in cages. Humans don’t.”
As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote last week: “It is worth noting how often the president repeatedly conflates refugees with illegal immigrants and MS-13 gang members. This is not an accident: He has targeted a group and given them characteristics — they are violent, they are rapists, they are gang members — that don’t belong to most of them. He then describes them with dehumanizing language. Democrats, he has tweeted, ‘want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.’ The image of ‘infestation’ evokes, again, vermin and lice. A few weeks earlier, he spoke of MS-13 as ‘animals,’ once again making it unclear whether he meant actual gang members or simply those who distantly resemble them.”
Or as conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote recently, “Dehumanization has a natural progression. It starts by defining a whole race or ethnicity by its worst members — say, rapists and other criminals. It moves on to enforce generally applicable laws and rules that especially hurt a target group. Then, as the public becomes desensitized, the group can be singled out for hatred and harm. It is the descent, step by step, into a moral abyss.”
When the president of the United States, against most credible advice and in the face of much history about how global trade works, imposes tariffs on imports from the nation’s closest allies and threatens retaliation against American companies it’s difficult not to conclude that he is playing on old fears about globalization.
Denigrating a Free Press…
When the president of the United States on a daily basis denigrates “the fake news” and criticizes news organizations and reporters by name it is impossible not to see parallels to the Nazi manifesto that declared that editors and contributors to newspapers “be people’s comrades” and that “newspapers which violate the general good are to be banned.”
The president has now actually uttered the words “enemy of the people,” a term Stalin often used, to label the press that routinely still calls out his lies and incompetence.
“One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialed in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.”
Americans, long content to embrace our myth of “exceptionalism,” now are grouped with a growing list of nations around the world where democracy is in retreat. Yes, it is happening here. We are exceptional, but not in the way Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt envisioned.
A new report by European researchers contend that 2.5 billion people – a third of the world’s population – now live in countries where democracy is on the run. As the study indicates, “In recent years, the number of nations that are becoming more democratic has declined, while the number ‘registering significant change toward autocracy’ has increased. Even worse, ‘the population living in the 24 countries backsliding on liberal democracy”—a list that includes Russia, India, Brazil, and, yes, the United States—‘far outnumbers the population living in advancing countries.’”
“A much larger share of the world population is experiencing autocratization [than] democratization,” the researchers note. “This translates to a major reduction in the enjoyment of rights and freedoms.”
One can look back over the tumultuous last 18 months of American history in one of two ways.
One type of analysis would say: True enough, Donald J. Trump has upset a lot of traditions and norms in American politics. Other presidents have been liars, exaggerators, provocateurs who upset the status quo. We may not like all his language or emphasis, but the United States has been around a long time and navigated many challenging times. Trump has attacked judges and journalists, trashed Democrats and tarnished his GOP critics, but the system still works. We’ll be fine.
Another version of the same facts might well reach an altogether bleaker conclusion. The systematic dehumanizing of refugees and immigrants will last well beyond the current occupant of the White House. The disparagement of the independent press undermines, perhaps permanently, a vital check on misconduct and abuse of power. The criticism of judges, the claim that a special counsel investigation is “a witch hunt” and the suggestion that due process is an outdated concept are broadly damaging to the concept of the rule of law. The widespread abrogation by Congress of oversight of the executive branch – few oversight hearings, little if any complaint about manifest ethical transgressions and embracing policies and approaches Republicans would once have rejected totally – is an historic erosion of the time-tested systems of checks and balances. Nationalism, anti-globalism, trade wars, a growing cult of personality around Trump all show a clear and dramatic break with American values. This cannot end well.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett notes several times in his profoundly important book about the fall of the Weimar Republic that most Germans in the 1920s and early 1930s really didn’t want violence in the streets, didn’t want to see the “liberal” values of an enlightened society crushed, but for most it was difficult to tell in real time how bad things were becoming. And then it was too late.
“Few Germans in 1933 could imagine Treblinka or Auschwitz, the mass shooting of Babi Yar or the death marches of the last month of the Second World War,” Hett says in summing up what happened. “It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable. Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”
“We are in a strange place. I mean, it’s almost, it’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? And it’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of — purportedly, of the same party.”
Of all the astounding things that have happened since Donald J. Trump took office – the serial lying, the trade wars, the bizarre North Korean summit, the gruesome separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the U.S. border, the Scott Pruitt scandals, the indictments, the embrace of despots and the savaging of allies just to name a few – the most astounding thing is how easily Trump has co-opted an entire political party. There is simply no parallel in American history.
Republicans, most quaking with political fear that crossing Trump or pushing back on his myriad outrages will get them the Jeff Flake treatment have, of course, only themselves to blame. They let an amoral, lying charlatan capture their party and imperil our democracy. Still, amid the craziness, it is an amazing thing to watch the destruction of the Republican Party in real time.
For years most Republicans have chosen to tolerate and then embrace the crazy La-La Land of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, conspiracy theories and systematic denial of obvious truths. Most of the Republican base finally came to embrace the racist notion that the 44thpresident of the United States is a foreign-born Muslim.
“There is no seeming consequence to the president and lies. And if we accept that as a society, it is going to have incredibly harmful consequences in the way that we operate going forward, based on the construct of the Founding Fathers.”
Steve Schmidt now says he is a non-practicing Republican and he wonders if the party, even after Trump, can ever find its way again. And Charlie Skyes, a conservative with a sense of gallows humor, titled his latest book How the Right Lost its Mind.
The answer to that question is simple: It all began with lying, half-truths, fabrications, blind anger and disdain for the arts of governing.
Rather than offering serious alternatives Republicans chose to demonize Democratic efforts to address the health insurance crisis, turning tail on the very policies one-time GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney embraced as governor of Massachusetts. They spent decades bemoaning spending and debt then passed a massive tax cut for the most well off Americans arguing that their policies won’t balloon the debt and actually help the middle class. The truth is precisely the opposite.
Republicans have doubled down on climate change denial by putting a corrupt grifter in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. They savaged, then abandoned an international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and now hold their breath hoping to get an agreement as tenth as good with North Korea.
The Republican base now thinks better of a murderous North Korean dictator than of Nancy Pelosi. Let that sink in. And Trump’s efforts to destroy generations of foreign policy consensus regarding NATO, the G7, etc., while celebrating dictators from Moscow to Pyongyang will have lasting impact.
A Republican Party of Ronald Reagan that once celebrated world leadership now celebrates a guy who is on his third national security advisor, his second secretary of state and insists on “happy talk” intelligence briefings because he won’t read his homework. One former senior intelligence officer told the Washington Post that “Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally.”
He barely listens, and won’t read.
In the GOP’s La-La Land one-time critics in the Congress are cowed and running scared. Even worse are the true believers, people like Idaho’s Jim Risch who would have levitated over the Capitol had Barack Obama taken a meeting with the North Korean dictator, handed over concessions and gotten nothing at all in return save a photo op.
Risch, who regularly brags of his many conversations with Trump, dismisses any concern about the president as being the product of “tremendous hate and vitriol against President Trump from the other side in this town.” This isn’t your father’s GOP. It is a cult of personality built on lies, unethical misbehavior, craven love of power and – did I mention – lies?
Republicans steadfastly refuse to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act, while putting a white supremacist in charge of the Justice Department. Meanwhile, at the state level the GOP perfected the ancient art of gerrymandering allowing most House Republicans to pick their voters instead of the other way around and in the process making voting much more difficult for millions of Americans.
Needing an issue to enflame the nativist base of the party they now own an immoral, barbaric, un-American policy that separates kids from parents seeking asylum in the land built by immigrants.
Fearing – and likely knowing – that Trump is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg they trash the American justice system and consider the Republican special counsel investigating Russian interference in our politics as some dark “deep state” conspirator.
To repeat for emphasis Robert Mueller is a registered Republican, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and a man of sterling personal qualities and professional ethics. The president of the United States repeatedly labels his work “a witch hunt” and guys like Graham and Risch smile and pray not to get a primary challenge.
Reaping the Whirlwind…
Republicans officeholders have been working on handing the country over to Donald Trump for a generation. They have valued power over principle, polarization over policy. They have been lying to their base for so long that, not surprisingly, people started believing the craziness. Now Trump owns them. They are afraid of losing an election or slipping out of power and they have fully acquiesced to his lies, his personal and moral dishonesty, his dangerous and deranged foreign policy, his racism and, most troubling, his ever more obvious authoritarian ambitions.
Last week Trump told Fox & Friends, the nut job echo chamber that feeds his gargantuan ego, that his new North Korean friend is “the head of a country — and I mean he’s the strong head. He speaks and his people sit up in attention. I want my people to do the same.” Later Trump said it was just a “joke,” but that same “joke” has been used in the past to discount the kind of language that authoritarians regularly use.
The journalist Andrew Sullivan says Trump is “openly living in his own disturbed world” where whatever he says is true and whatever contradicts his truth is “fake news.” And the Republican Party, witness the comment from the party chairwoman, has accepted this new reality.
“Anyone that does not embrace the Donald Trump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake,” says Ronna McDaniel. By the way, Ms. McDaniel for a long time used her maiden name – Romney – until Trump said he didn’t like it – she’s Mitt Romney’s niece – so she quit and now has a name approved by the Great Leader.
“The party of free trade has gone protectionist,” writes Edward-Isaac Dovere in Politico. “The party of spreading freedom and never negotiating with dictators is now full of praise for chumming it up with Kim Jong-un. The party of fighting deficits has blown a trillion dollar hole in the budget. Family values and moralizing have been replaced by porn stars and Twitter tantrums. Trump goes to war with the G-7, and the sum of the Republican reaction is a statement from John McCain and a few comments on Sunday TV from Maine Sen. Susan Collins.”
Democracy Dies With Lies…
Democracy Dies in Darkness is the new motto of the Washington Post, a newspaper that daily tries to sort out the various strains of wretched weirdness that is the Republican Party, but the newspaper motto gets at only part of our problem. Democracy actually dies when lies dominate the daily political discussion, when ethics get ignored and when principle has no place.
I’m reading a new book on an old story, how the Weimar Republic in Germany collapsed amid the lies and nationalism and racial hatred that ushered in the darkest period in modern history.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that a crazed Austrian postcard painter figured out the essential truth of the authoritarian long before we got Donald Trump.
“To sink into the minds of average people,” Hett writes, “a message [or a lie] had to be simple. It had to be emotional – hatred worked well – not intellectual. And it had to be endlessly repeated.”
There is an authoritarian playbook, well worn and often remarkably successful. The would be authoritarian lies about everything to the point that enough people no longer care about the truth. A free press is put to the torch. Convenient enemies – immigrants, Muslims, any opponent of the leader – are daily attacked. The rule of law is subverted. Financial and ethical norms are ignored.
As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently: “Every time Trump extends his ludicrous, ridiculous, and insulting reality show for another season, and every time the Republican Party echoes every delusion within it, there’s a big temptation to give in, give up, or look away. A numbness soon takes over. So many of my friends are turning off and tuning out, their decency reflexes exhausted with the pace of the indecency.”
This is where we are, fellow Americans.
Captured by an unhinged, lying, racist president enabled by a minority of the country thrashing about in a fever swamp of nationalism and rage, while elected members of a political party fearful of their leader, goes along to get along. What’s a little lying compared to a Supreme Court packed for a generation? Personal corruption – no big deal we got the tax cut. A deeply flawed psychopath in the White House, sure but he’s our psychopath
It’s the lies, my friends, it’s the lies. The postcard painter knew the path to power. Lie bigly. Lie always. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie to demonize the other side. Lie to discredit the press. Lie to protect your privilege. Lie often enough, loudly enough and pretty soon no one knows what to believe and the authoritarian has his day. It has happened before. It is happening again.
“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.”
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.
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.
We don’t know the precise path the next few months will take. There will be resistance and denial and counterattacks. But it seems likely that, when we look back on this week, we will see it as a turning point. We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency.
There are now four types of people in the United States.
One type, slightly over 50 percent of white adults according to an ABC News poll, support the president of the United States. Older white folks are the Trump base. But it is still an astounding number and speaks at some level to the fundamental racial divide in the country since it is more and more clear that Donald Trump’s core appeal has always been racial, the oldest, most toxic play in American politics. Yet, it is also clear as Trump has said that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and well, you know do anything and not endanger support from “his base.” The true believers are one type.
A second type of American, perhaps best exemplified by current House Speaker Paul Ryan, enables the president while ignoring him in order to accomplish a handful of highly partisan or personal goals – a giant tax cut for corporate America and the wealthiest among us, a much more conservative judiciary for a generation or victory in a Republican primary where fidelity to Trump is the only issue. The morality of this group is on display if not their patriotism. They see. They might even cringe. But they persist. He is an idiot after all, but a useful one.
A third type of American, a handful of elected Republicans among them, seem to believe that Trump’s ethical and legal misdeeds, his trashing of long-established norms of political behavior, his insult filled rants, and his delusional foreign and economic policy will eventually fade away. We must just let all this run its course. It will all work out they say. Common sense and the American Republic will soon enough return, these optimists hold. One hopes they are right, while suspecting they are not.
And the fourth type is, well, folks like me. People who believe Trump represents an existential threat to our politics and our culture. Indeed his daily shredding of truth and decency, his attacks on a free press, the courts and the rule of law are destroying, as Financial Times columnist Edward Luce has written, the very idea of classic western liberalism.
“Western liberal democracy is not yet dead,” Luce writes in his brilliant and frightening book The Retreat of Western Liberalism, “but it is far closer to collapse than we may wish to believe. It is facing its gravest challenge since the Second World War. This time, however, we have conjured up the enemy from within. At home and abroad, America’s best liberal traditions are under assault from its own president. We have put arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.”
Luce’s 2017 book chillingly describes the retreat of western liberalism in places like Poland and Hungary and he correctly places Trump and America in this context. Trump has shown us at least one thing, which in my lifetime has not been as crystal clear as it now is: our system of checks and balances, the conventions of acceptable political and ethical behavior are really very, very fragile. It has actually been quite easy for a would-be autocrat to drive us to the edge of chaos and political breakdown. All it has taken is a reality show personality, a capacity to lie with abandon, an appeal to racial divide and a Twitter account.
And now after months of constant disruption and the kind of behavior that would have doomed any previous president we have arrived at the point of reckoning of sorts. The president of the United States is increasingly cornered, frightened, more erratic and unfocused than normal. He is at war with his own Justice Department and the FBI. Michael Cohen, his long-time personal lawyer – a wise guy character right out of Goodfellasor A Bronx Tale– is almost certainly going to be indicted, likely for a host of misdeeds directly and indirectly bearing on Trump.
Trump’s legal team has shrunk to Cohen and an in-house White House lawyer whose signature accomplishment has been to restore the handlebar mustache to prominence. On the other hand Special Counsel Robert Mueller, working quietly with the passion of a straight arrow Boy Scout and backed by an A-Team of criminal prosecutors, accumulates documents, interviews, tapes and who knows what related to elections, Russians, assorted shady con men, bank loans and porn star payoffs.
When it all becomes public the Trump story – at its core the story of a profoundly flawed, deeply troubled man who has no business visiting the Oval Office let alone working there – will make Nixon’s Watergate or Harding’s Teapot Dome look like a small time embezzlement job at a church bake sale.
We are about to see with the Trump fiasco, as Churchill said after the long twilight of the first three years of World War II and after a victory at El Alamein, “not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The end of the beginning. And Trump knows it is coming. His Twitter account screams acknowledgement. He may be able to compartmentalize his dishonesty and selectively forget what is inconvenient to remember, but he knows his decade’s long haphazardly constructed house of cards – what an appropriate analogy – is going to crumble.
Paul Ryan, at age 49, heading for Janesville, Wisconsin to spend more time with his family, knows it is coming. Mitch McConnell will try to create a few more federal judges in the interval remaining, but he knows it is coming. The scores of Republicans declining to seek re-election to Congress know it is coming. The Fox News nitwits, even they (we hope) know its coming.
Vladimir Putin, yes even he knows it is coming, Yet, unlike the rest of us Putin is a winner no matter what becomes of Trump because his whole game has been to show how abjectly corrupt American democracy can become. The mess Trump has made – his own corruption and dishonesty, the lying, the Scott Pruitt’s, The Mooches, the Newt Gingrich’s and Rudy Giuliani’s, the degrading of decency, the wholesale cashiering of a once-proud political party – none of that will be automatically fixed when Trump is gone. It will take years to correct this mess, if it is even possible.
Putin’s aim was to destroy American leadership around the world, fray the NATO alliance and pit the U.S. against China. He wanted to walk back what until just a few years ago seemed to be the relentless history of democratic expansion around the world. Now, as Ed Luce points out, there are 25 fewer democracies in the world today than there were just 18 years ago.
Putin’s dream has worked better than any KGB plotter could possibly have envisioned. Meanwhile, the thug from St. Petersburg emerges as a new Middle East power broker, the new most interesting man in the world, the man who will keep pointing out that America is broken and corrupt and leaderless.
The only question left is whether Trump burns down what is left of the structure of American law and norms or whether enough righteousness remains in the hollow souls of the president’s GOP enablers to stop him short of political Armageddon.
The Lawfare blog’s Benjamin Wittes wrote recently that we have known for months the ultimate blow up was looming, but it “has ripened slowly and, while in plain view, in a fashion that has permitted people to avert their gaze. Those who wanted to deny that the confrontation was coming at all could convince themselves that perhaps Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would peter out; perhaps it would reveal only misconduct by expendable hangers-on in the president’s entourage; perhaps it would reveal only politically embarrassing conduct rather than conduct that required elements within the executive branch to lock horns over whether the special counsel would be meaningfully permitted to accuse the president.”
The raid on Michael Cohen’s law office, home and hotel room ended all ability to avert our gaze. This is what a Constitutional crisis looks like. If we survive it historians will be studying this moment for years, books will be written and everyone will claim to have seen it coming even though it is often difficult to see things happening in plain sight.
The end of the beginning of the Trump unraveling comes – as Putin and his Kremlin pals must be celebrating – while eight of the top ten jobs at the U.S. State Department sit vacant and while the CIA’s top leader is leaving for State and both he and his announced replacement, an architect of torture policy, face bruising confirmation fights. The unraveling comes while American troops flail away without strategy or leadership in Syria and Afghanistan and while the White House chief of staff has lost all ability to manage the daily drama in the West Wing.
None of this is sustainable. Oh, the 50 percent of white Americans who would cheer Trump if he did something criminal on Fifth Avenue will stay with him to the bitter, bitter end. They are a political lost cause. The GOP base. These white folks will rage on against the dying of the darkness, while their hero fumes on social media. They have made up their minds. They embrace the chaos. Porn stars, Russian meddling, the deepest ethical swamp in modern memory – piffle. He isn’t Hillary. He isn’t Obama. Good enough.
But the rest of us, the Paul Ryan’s, the hopeful Republicans and the worried Democrats, the midnight worriers, must hope the end comes quickly and with minimal collateral damage. But does anyone really think Donald J. Trump will suddenly find reason and common sense and go quietly or reasonably as the circle closes around him? Of course not.
The Boston Globe’s Michael A. Cohen, not to be confused with the Trump Tower wise guy, wrote last week: “we have a president who will do anything to save his own skin. He cares not one whit about the law, ethics, norms, or the good of the country. As has always been the case, Trump’s only concern is Trump.”
Trump will go down. The events of the last week make that all the more certain. How much farther down Trump takes our country is what keeps some of us awake at night. Trump is an existential threat to the long American experiment. And that is no hyperbole and it is certainly no joke.
I grew up in western Nebraska and South Dakota. My mother and dad, and folks on both sides of our family, lived in this part of Middle America for generations. Some still do. These places – the sandhill country of Nebraska, the Black Hills of South Dakota – are part of my personal story. It is impossible, I think, not to be formed by the landscapes, the rhythms, the attitudes of “our” places. I grew up white in white America. It was who I was.
It wasn’t until we moved to Rock Springs, Wyoming – I was entering the seventh grade – that I really had personal exposure to people different than my family and me. It’s not an overstatement to say that place changed my life.
Rock Springs, a tough, blue collar railroad and coal town, remains the most ethnically diverse place I have ever lived. I got acquainted with and played basketball in the high desert of southwestern Wyoming with a couple of African-American teammates, the best players on the team. One kid had a Japanese-American background, another Hispanic, and others could trace their ancestry to southern Europe. Our neighbors played bocce, a game as foreign to me as polo, but as common in Italy as baseball is here. My mother and dad were invited to a Greek wedding in Rock Springs. That was an eye opener for those Cornhuskers.
And she may not have known it, but I had a serious crush on a girl named Johanna. She was Jewish, I think, and as I recall her ancestors emigrated from Poland. She was also the smartest kid in my class – quiet, studious, serious. I wonder to this day if she has had a good life.
Those years in Rock Springs have stuck with me for lots of reasons, but mostly for what the daily exposure to kids and cultures different than me – a kid of modest middle class white privilege – did to change my view of my country and myself. After a few years in Wyoming we moved back to South Dakota, sixty miles as the crow flies from the Pine Ridge reservation, the land “given,” as white folks like to say, to the Oglala Lakota band of Sioux.
I had no immediate epiphany about race and class as I started high school, but something happened, gradually, after that move back to the prairie. The routine white culture stereotyping of Native Americans – they can’t handle their booze, they’re lazy, they’re happy in their poverty – started to sound odd and wrong to me. I had played ball with and against some of these guys. They were anything but lazy.
Billy Mills, a native of the Pine Ridge, won a Gold Medal in the 10,000 meters in the 1964 Olympics. It was the first time – the first time – a U.S. athlete ever won that medal. That’s not lazy.
Would not a Sioux culture that produced a Crazy Horse, a Sitting Bull, or a brilliant historian like a Vine Deloria, Jr. be worthy of celebration? Why did so much of the dominant white culture demean the native culture? Why did folks who had never had a conversation with a Native America make up stories? What did they fear? Why did they say those things?
Coming from people I knew and liked these often-hateful comments, a variation of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” made me understand, really for the first time, that such attitudes are learned behavior. No one is born a bigot. Racism is not genetic. Attitudes about race and class, like table manners, are learned behavior. My native land seemed awash in ignorant stereotypes that made those not like us, less than us.
I found it difficult and awkward to confront someone who said something not just wrong, but hateful. The easy thing to do is to cringe, be quiet and move on. But in the long run that sort of attitude – staying quiet, not speaking, letting it slide, may be even more damaging than the harmful, hateful words of a bigot.
I admit I’ve not always spoken up and too many times I’ve looked at my shoes wondering what to do or say. I knew what I felt. Few of us want to create a scene or risk a relationship by actually exercising the courage of our convictions. Now, I’m too old, seen too much and believe too much in the idea of America to bite my tongue. By not confronting the kind of hate we have seen from the top of American politics for the last two years we encourage it. We condone by not condemning.
The old, enduring Republic we have – and I hope will continue to have – has been confronting over the last few days yet another moment that cries out for moral clarity. I applaud those who have spoken out against obvious racism and I wish many more had voiced objection, spoken moral truth to power. Those who where there and have said nothing are as guilty as I have been when I sat quietly while some joker popped off in a bar, in the office or at a family gathering. Bigots love a moral vacuum. Exposure, condemnation and rejection are the disinfectant racists cannot tolerate. You don’t defeat evil by pretending not to hear it or see it.
The New York Times has produced a useful summary of those who have spoken up at this moment of moral testing. Sadly, the list of those saying nothing is a great deal longer than the list of those who have.
There is no excusing the timid, ignorant, small and bigoted man who happens to occupy the office Lincoln once held. He is a product of his environment. For crying out loud his father marched in a Klan rally. His inherited wealth reeks of his white privilege, even as he fails to acknowledge his own immigrant story or that two of his three wives came here by choice. His entire campaign for the highest office in the land was built on a foundation of division and discord. He is so fundamentally lacking in self-awareness – or so overwhelmingly invested in continually appealing to the very worst among his followers – that he will never be different. We can bemoan that, but we need not accept it or act as if it does not matter. It does matter. Racism thrives in denial.
We can all say, loud and often – not in my country, not given all our history, not in this land we appropriated from those who really are the original Americans. No, it is not going to happen in this country built on the backs of slaves. Not in my country where immigrants – my ancestors and surely yours – did the crappy jobs, believed in the dream and saved and scrimped so that we might go to school, live in a decent house and afford health insurance.
Philip Kennicott, writing in the Washington Post, asks the right question about this moment of moral clarity. “What I want to know is how the men in the room with him reacted,” Kennicott wrote this week. “This is the dinner table test: When you are sitting and socializing with a bigot, what do you do when he reveals his bigotry? I’ve seen it happen, once, when I was a young man, and I learned an invaluable lesson. An older guest at a formal dinner said something blatantly anti-Semitic. I was shocked and laughed nervously. Another friend stared at his plate silently. Another excused himself and fled to the bathroom. And then there was the professor, an accomplished and erudite man, who paused for a moment, then slammed his fist on the table and said, ‘I will never listen to that kind of language, so either you will leave, or I will leave.’ The offender looked around the table, found no allies and left the gathering. I don’t know if he felt any shame upon expulsion.”
We know the man who brought us to our moment of clarity knows no shame. But what about those who were there and heard him, observed his body language, wondered if what they had just heard could possibly be in the heart and on the lips of the president of the United States?
There are issues that transcend politics, that speak to bigger, more important truths. The current occupant of the White House again forces us to confront a fundamental question of human existence: who are we and what do we want to be?
If we speak up now we are answering that question.
The President of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounds himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound. He is manifestly unfit for the job. Who knew? Everybody did.
Masha Gessen, The New Yorker
I am not inclined to read the new Michael Wolff blockbuster that purports to detail how utterly unfit for the presidency is Donald J. Trump. Why read the book? We’ve all been watching the play for nearly two years.
The fact that Wolff’s “revelations” have been widely described as an “open secret” among Washington reporters and members of Congress tells us a good deal about how perilously screwed up our politics have become. Virtually everyone knows the president of the United States is a dangerously unbalanced narcissist, hard pressed to control his instincts whether he is eating a second Big Mac or tweeting his daily insult.
Is anyone really surprised? No, of course not. Because we see it all with our own eyes every time we turn on the television. Trump has an attention span to match his tiny hands. He doesn’t read anything – ever. He can hardly string together a coherent thought. His grasp of the details of the most difficult job in the world are way, way beyond him. His grasp of history begins with his birth and ends with The Apprentice. And the president’s court enablers are a shameless collection of hacks, bootlickers and family members and, as is increasingly obvious, there is a lot of corruption in this crowd.
No one save Trump and his sleaziest current operative Stephen Miller – well, OK Sarah Sanders too, but she hardly counts since she has been appropriately cast as the Trumpian Court’s chief prevaricator – is really denying the essentials of the Wolff book. Quibble over the details, if you will, and bemoan Wolff’s own self-importance and his sloppy copy editing, what he writes still has the overwhelming stench of truth. We’ve all seen it for months. Who you gonna believe? Donald Trump or your lyin’ eyes?
The essential truth is this: Trump is not up to the job. He’s not even remotely intelligent in the way leaders must be. He lacks a shred of empathy and Trumpian self-awareness is as rare as a degree from his phony university. The man is a world-class con man who by virtue of a political fluke became president of the United States. To say that Trump is out of his depth is to say that Lincoln was a “political genius.” Neither label does either man justice.
The fact that our political process cannot provide the information and action to correct this disgusting and dangerous show is the real story here. Good for Michael Wolff, I guess, for making a bundle while pointing out the obvious.
Still, this mess – yes, it is a bigly one – does beg a few ongoing questions. I know it is difficult to sort out what really matters from the daily barrage of nonsense, so here goes.
There are increasingly serious questions concerning Trump’s cognitive decline and the fact that we have no realistic way to deal with that issue. A medical doctor, James Hamblin, recently wrote a piece every member of Congress – and the public – should read. Hamblin carefully avoided passing medical judgment on Trump’s mental state, but he did note several issues that raise serious questions.
For example, consider Trump’s practice of repeating and repeating and repeating the same point, while rarely articulating substantive – or coherent – thoughts:
“If Trump’s limited and hyperbolic speech were simply a calculated political move—he repeated the phrase ‘no collusion’ 16 times in the Times interview, which some pundits deemed an advertising technique—then we would also expect an occasional glimpse behind the curtain. In addition to repeating simplistic phrases to inundate the collective subconscious with narratives like “no collusion,” Trump would give at least a few interviews in which he strung together complex sentences, for example to make a case for why Americans should rest assured that there was no collusion.
Or there is this from James Fallows writing recently in The Atlantic: “We have something known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the more limited someone is in reality, the more talented the person imagines himself to be. Or, as David Dunning and Justin Kruger put it in the title of their original scientific-journal article, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”
Trump World has festered into a steamy swamp of tawdry, ludicrous craziness that keeps most of us – and the political press – on edge, all the time. It’s hard to see the forest for the crazy trees. The white nationalist joker Steve Bannon is the latest case in point.
Elevated first by Trump who made Bannon his chief campaign strategist, then brought into the White House where every D.C. reporter vied to be the one to see the chicken scratches on his “strategic” white board – remember this disheveled clown actually sat for a while on the National Security Council – then dismissed by Trump only to re-emerge as the political genius behind Roy Moore’s campaign in Alabama.
Having directly contributed to the loss of a safe Republican Senate seat by embracing a credibly accused child molester, Bannon returned to his click bait, conspiracy theory peddling “news” site to troll Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and preach the old populist gospel of white nationalism, protectionism and retreat on the world stage. Finally, Bannon gets, temporarily one assumes, his comeuppance thanks to Michael Wolff’s word processor.
But wait! Bannon has now, as the Washington phrase describes such things, “walked back” his criticism of Donald Trump, Jr. and kind of apologized. He did not, however, say he was misquoted by Wolff, but instead that he was really trashing a guy under indictment (Paul Manafort) as opposed to the president’s son who will soon be under indictment. For the record, Bannon did not “walk back” his portrayal of Trump he just changed his story in hopes of changing the story.
The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg said it perfectly. “Bannon is a common character in Washington: a megalomaniac who made the mistake of believing his own bullshit.” Anyone in politics for any length of time encounters characters like Bannon – full of themselves, full of BS, and totally devoid of accomplishment, other than, of course, self-aggrandizement. In a curious way, Trump and Bannon deserve each other: two classless, clueless “smartest guys in the room” who wouldn’t last fifteen minutes in a responsible corporate board room or in a serious political office.
And, yes, the D.C. press corps, which should be able to spot this kind of charlatan as far away as “K” Street, has been utterly complicit in Bannon’s rise and now fall and soon his resurrection. It is so completely telling that Bannon offered Trump his faux mea culpa about the Wolff book though the daily newsletter of Axios’ Mike Allen rather than using his own “news” organization. Allen is Washington’s prime example of an access journalist who values nothing more than being the transmission belt for the kind of B.S. Bannon and the White House dish daily. And like Trump, Bannon craves the attention of the establishment that he works so hard to dismiss as evil.
Prediction: And you heard it here first, Bannon will successfully patch things up with Trump. He has to. And Mike Allen will be the first to report it. In order to survive Bannon needs to breathe the same oxygen Trump inhales. Any little slice of this absurdity is all the proof you need that the White House is, as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker said before he subsequently lost his nerve, “an adult day care center.”
So, nothing – nothing – you have read or heard or shook your head about over the last several days represents any shocking new surprise. There are no revelations here really. We’ve seen this level of incompetency, bizarreness, craziness and danger for months and months. And it will get worse.
There are only two questions left to ask: how badly will this end and why does anyone with an ounce of integrity or a thimble full of honor work in this carnival funhouse?
The answer to the second question can only be that power or proximity to power, status or the perception of status, and money or the prospect of making more money are powerful motivators. It may be a circus, but it least the clown suit fits.
But how to explain a Rex Tillerson, a H.R. McMaster, a John Kelly? Serious people, apparently, who one must conclude are just hanging on to keep this runaway train more or less on the tracks. Explaining Congress is easier: Unprincipled, unbridled opportunism is an old, old American political trait.
Still, imagine telling your grandkids: the highlight of our professional life was working in/with the Trump Administration! The grandkids will return the Christmas presents.
The answer to the first question is more difficult – how will this end? Instability breeds instability. Madness begets madness. The immediate future is more instability beset with more madness.
As Masha Gessen says in a New Yorker column, “A year in, the Trump Presidency remains unimaginable. To think that a madman could be running the world’s most powerful country, to think that the Commander-in-Chief would use Twitter to mouth off about whose nuclear button is bigger or to call himself a ‘very stable genius,’ verges on the impossible.”
But, it has become possible. This entire tragic circus exists no matter how defiantly Congressional Republicans avert their eyes or White House aides or Cabinet secretaries abet the emperor with long ties, but no clothes. We are headed for the inevitable Constitutional crisis over Russia – yes, there will be collusion uncovered and money laundering and likely a good deal more – or, perhaps even sooner, we will be forced to confront Trump’s unfitness in some other way. It will happen.
My wish for the New Year: As long as we are going to have a Constitutional crisis let’s get it over with.
“They were careless people. They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The convergence of two monumental political events – a Democratic victory in a weird Senate election in Alabama, of all places, and the emergence of the remarkably cynical and damaging GOP tax bill – bring into stark focus the degenerate state of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
In the Alabama election, the leader of the Republican Party made it clear that he was all in for a reliably accused child molester, while slandering the eventual Democratic winner for being “bad on crime.” The guy who won the Alabama Senate seat, Doug Jones, is a former prosecutor who convicted the Ku Klux Klan murderers of five little girls in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Doug Jones is bad on crime like Donald Trump is good on the facts.
While Trump touted the creepy Roy Moore – the New York Daily News called him “teen-loving Moore” – holding a rally, tweeting and recording robo calls, the rest of the Republican Party, with very few exceptions, sat on its duff, unable to rouse even mild indignation at such moral degeneracy.
As conservative commentator Charlie Sykes put it: “At every stage of the run-up to this special election, Republicans could have resisted, pushed back, or drawn lines, but their failure to do so led them inexorably to this moment: the defeat of an unreconstructed bigot and ignorant crank who had the full-throated backing of the president they have embraced and empowered.”
To assert that the modern GOP – and the man-child heading it – lacks an intellectual, moral or ethical foundation is a little like observing that the décor at Mar a Lago is a bit overdone. The reality of where the new GOP and its supreme leader have taken the country – and increasingly the world – has become difficult to fathom, and that is a major part of our problem. There is so much turmoil, so much wrong, so much corruption and degradation – where to start?
As the country we once knew slips ever closer to authoritarian kleptocracy – and worse – the enablers of this increasingly dystopian nightmare pass tax cuts to enrich themselves and their donors and refuse to bestir themselves to offer even the most tepid condemnation of behavior that just months ago would have produced universal rejection.
We are caught in what the military and diplomatic historian Tom Ricks recently called the tragedy of a Trumpian America, where lying has become governance, where reckless ignorance masquerades as policy and where demagogues are unconstrained and therefore empowered. For the first time, Ricks says, and I agree, we fear for our country, a country were things are bad and all too likely to get much worse.
Ricks wrote recently in Foreign Policy, “People stuck inside tragedies often make the mistake of thinking they are nearing the end when they are only in Act I. And that is where I think we stand, still at the beginning of this long ride. All around us, the selfish and malevolent are thriving, flatterers are rising, and good people feel simply powerless.”
Let’s Cut Taxes for the Wealthy…
The GOP controlled Congress will pass a tax bill this week that violates almost everything the president said about taxes during the last campaign. His supporters, enablers and political functionaries are lapping it up. Lies have become policy.
The tax legislation is not directed at the middle class, as Trump said it would be, but at corporations and the wealthiest among us. After saying the tax legislation won’t benefit him we now know it certainly will, likely to the tune of millions of dollars due to a last minute slight of hand that helps real estate investors. The president’s children benefit, too, of course. Fiddling with the estate tax made sure of that. This is the kind of self-dealing enrichment that we once might have condemned in a third-world country presided over by a tin horn dictator. Rather than preventing this type of corruption, the GOP is writing it into law. And our tin horn dictator, feared by timid Republican souls who don’t dare risk the wrath of his Twitter habit, daily corrupts a government he knows little about and cares about even less.
But, hey, the tax cutters are getting what they dream about. Cutting taxes is, after all, what Republicans do and damn the consequences.
For years we’ve heard Republican politicians – guys like Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, a very conservative, Harvard educated lawyer – take to the stump to howl about exploding annual deficits and warn against the dire consequences of a ballooning national debt. Back in 2011, Crapo said, “The single greatest issue facing the nation is the ever increasing federal deficit. Congress, and particularly the Senate, needs to engage fully on a course of bold and productive actions to end the debt crisis in America that is stifling the economy and stalling the fragile recovery.”
That was then. Now Crapo, who once endorsed the work of the Simpson-Bowles Commission to comprehensively fix tax and revenue problems, is embracing a tax bill that will do precisely what he has spent the last decade warning against. Various estimates say the GOP legislation will add a cool trillion or maybe two trillion to the debt. No remotely sane economist says, as Republican lawmakers do, that the tax cuts will pay for themselves.
Meanwhile, the debt ticker runs on Crapo’s website, while he regularly accumulates a political war chest courtesy of the people he really works for – high rollers in the financial services industry who handsomely reward his service on the Senate Finance and Budget Committees.
The conservative National Review generally praised the GOP tax handiwork, while ignoring the obvious self-deal in the legislation, but even the heirs of Bill Buckley had trouble with the debt issue. “Most Republicans say that the tax cut will generate so much extra growth that it will increase revenues,” the NR said in an editorial. “No economic model of the tax cut, not even any of the models produced by conservative economists, backs this claim. It is convenient, though, in letting Republicans offer tax cuts to various constituencies without having to impose any restraint on spending.”
Crapo, in perhaps the most secure Senate seat this side of Alabama, is surely going to get away with this breathtaking display of intellectual gymnastics now that deficits don’t matter again. Or perhaps we should just mark this type of intellectual rot as the perfect example of the school of “I can say and do whatever I want since alternative facts are all that matter in Trump’s America.” And, of course, “the base” – the folks who voted for Roy Moore – will believe the Fox News spin and all will be good.
GOP tax bill writers ignored the experts, ignored corporate CEO’s who said they would give their new tax breaks to investors rather than workers, and they ignored basic facts. Their legislation doesn’t simplify the tax code, doesn’t address vast income inequality, won’t jump-start the economy and won’t improve wages for middle class workers, but it will please the GOP donor class. Give Republicans credit: once they are bought they stay bought.
Congress or the Russian Duma?
If the policy specifics of the tax legislation don’t give you pause then consider the process used to pass the legislation. In the not to distant past the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee would have produced separate proposals developed during long hours of hearings and committee mark up. The two houses of Congress would then act. There would be ample time for amendments and real debate and the differing versions of legislation would be hashed out in conference.
This process would have seen expert witnesses brought in to discuss issues like whether giving a tax cut to corporations currently sitting on trillions of dollars in cash would really do anything for the economy or for workers. Reducing income inequality, now at the worst level since the Great Depression, might have been discussed and policies incorporated into the legislation to provide a boon to middle class spending, which would really boost the economy. Factual information about how few Americans are impacted by reducing the estate tax might have been brought to light. Perhaps even one Republican would have expressed discomfort in passing legislation that would directly benefit the president and his family. Perhaps even one Republican would have said it would be appropriate to see a certain someone’s tax returns before voting.
None of that happened.
There were no hearings. The slippery Orrin Hatch slipped in sleazy provisions benefiting individual members of Congress and the president of the United States at the absolutely last minute. The conference committee met, but there was no debate or voting on a true conference report. That was all settled out of sight of public or press scrutiny. This isn’t legislating; it is how the Russian Duma makes “laws.”
It requires a willful suspension of common sense to undertake massive cut taxes, while unemployment is low and the economy is in pretty decent shape and while we continue to pile up enormous debt. Only a crackpot economic theory would support such idiocy. Welcome to Trumpian America.
In at least one important respect the Trump presidency has succeeded. The congenital liar has degraded common sense, common decency and common purpose. What a set of accomplishments. His is the tool kit of the authoritarians and his handy enablers are helping him not only enrich himself in the most flagrant manner, but to denigrate the whole public square. It would be shameful if it were not so frightening.
Trump didn’t start us down this path of fact free public policy, but his rants against “fake news” and the steady erosion of public ethics that have been the by-products of his consistently abnormal behavior have now succeeded in polluting an entire political class. It only took a year. That is why we are only in Act I of this tragedy. Or as Tom Ricks writes, “things can get far worse than we ever suspected, and end horribly.”
Fasten your seat belts: The worst is yet to come.
Scott Fitzgerald wrote about them in a novel in the 1920s. The careless people. They are now fully in charge and this is no fiction.