Among certain citizen bloviators, myself among them, the idea that the modern GOP, embodied by Trump, is too stupid to pull off a genuine authoritarianism is a frequently-pulled-upon comfort blanket. The people in the White House are the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, led by a preening child who is terrified of genuine human thought. Maybe we’ll be lucky!
That idea is easy to understand when you see the actions of Paul Manafort, one of the few people tied to the campaign or the administration who is genuinely smart and a savvy operator. As we found out last night, he’s been acting…not super brightly.
Despite being under house arrest, with multiple ankle bracelets, and certainly under the watchful eye of the Special Counsel for conspiring to sell our election to Russia, he’s been contacting associates and asking them to lie about what happened. I’ll paraphrase the transcripts.
Hey, co-conspirator? Hey, it’s…Paul M. You know who- I’m on the news, and we did the Ukraine thing together. Anyway, I’m not really at liberty to talk, since I’m certainly being watched, but I’m really going to need you to lie about the collus…coolatta. (Wink!)(I mean the collusion).
Smart as Manafort may be, he is also desperate and panicked. As Frank Foer put it in The Atlantic, he’s lost his cool.
Robert Mueller’s allegation that Manafort attempted to tamper with a witness permits us to peer inside Manafort’s mind, as it has functioned in a very different set of circumstances. When it comes to Manafort’s own deep problems, his moment of legal peril, he seems unable to muster strategic thinking. He has shown himself capable of profoundly dunderheaded miscalculations.
As Foer explains, Mueller knows everything. He’s got Rick Gates as a cooperating witness, and so he’s privy to all of Manafort’s dealings and contacts. He’s keeping tabs on everything. He know what’s up.
And that’s where our comfort has, at times, come in. That as Mueller gets closer, rolling up Manafort and maybe Kushner, Don Jr, etc, the rats will grow hungry and gnashingly desperate, terrified of every shadow. They’ll see the rest of their lives unspooling in a prison yard, and they’ll make more mistakes, turn on each other, blunder their way into confessions. God, I’m sweaty just thinking about it.
But then we remember that even when the powerful are idiots, they are, first and foremost, powerful.
This of course was briefly the story of the day when he tweeted it yesterday (yesterday? Jesus christ…). It’s hard to overstate what this means. He’s saying (with his lawyers, most notably Guiliani, confirming) that the President can pardon anyone, can stop any investigation into himself, and can do whatever he can to harass and discredit and law enforcement agency looking into his crimes. In other words: there are no laws to apply to him.
That’s dull and thuggish and not at all the work of a savvy player, but so what? If he’s willing to use the pardon simply to reward loyalty or protect himself, there are very few obstacles to stopping him. He doesn’t need to be smart. He just needs to be angry, and to not care at all about any norms or any decent behavior or anything beside his own impossibly fake tough-guy persona.
And as we see, this dim assumption of authority isn’t an obstacle to his success. Indeed, both pragmatically and emotionally, it is the source of his power.
Trump is the GOP
While his assertion of Presidential perogative is almost certainly untrue, and absolutely insane, and genuinely terrifying. it almost doesn’t matter. If the President pardons himself, I don’t think anyone knows what will happen. Even if the GOP decides to impeach him, would he even leave? What’s the mechanism for forcibly removing a President?
And let’s be clear: the GOP won’t impeach him.
When this “own party” poll came out yesterday, it was solidified for many on the commentariat that the GOP was too scared to go against him for fear of losing the base. And that’s certainly true for some of them. Some of them may not like Trump, but they are willing to play ball to save their own skins.
But really, that’s mostly bullshit. Many of them like Trump because he is willing to do whatever the GOP wants, both for reasons of what passes for his ideology, and because his own pathologies, weaknesses, and vanities (which is to say: his sum total) perfectly align with GOP goals.
Sure, there are some variations, like his obsession with tariffs, but those are few and far between. There is a general policy alignment, but more than that, there is deep-seated cruelty and meanness of spirit, which is the animating principle of today’s GOP.
As an example, let’s look at Kris Kobach, last seen failing entirely to suppress the vote nationwide simply because he didn’t know the first thing about the law. This man, whose entire career has been based around the goal of not letting poor people or minorities vote (that’s no exaggeration), is now running for governor of Kansas. And he has a great idea for how to do that: being the world’s biggest asshole.
Yup…he’s riding around a parade with a big ol’ gun strapped to his jeep, because he’s a genuine tough guy who just accidentally never served. Needless to say, this upset some people, who were not thrilled about seeing a gun at a parade, on account of our citizens, especially students, are frequently massacred.
But Kobach was ready for that. He was ready to pounce that it was a FAKE GUN and that he was TRIGGERING THE SNOWFLAKES who HATE THE 2ND ADMENDMENT. I’m not kidding. As the KC Star explains in a fantastic, biting editorial:
Kansas gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach wants us to be very, very angry over his weekend parade appearance with a replica of a machine gun. That’s because he hopes Kansan Republicans will delight in that anger and revel in the idea that he’s triggering the “snowflakes.”
In a fundraising email on Monday, the Republican secretary of state bragged about the reaction to his appearance alongside what only looked like a big gun in Saturday’s Old Shawnee Days parade: “Within seconds of the parade being over, liberals started losing their minds … But the fact is, the only reason why these ‘tolerant’ left snowflakes get so upset over even the sight of me is because they know I will not back down in my defense of the Second Amendment.”
Kobach apparently does need it, though. His campaign couldn’t wait to put out a statement deriding “those who use the excuse of school violence to restrict the right to bear arms.”
There’s a hell of a lot going on here, starting with the language of the internet, in which Kobach, an ostensible grownup, reflects the only language that matters on the right: keyword incantations and barely-literate trollery.
(As for the gun being fake, he’s lucky he wasn’t a black man in a Wal-Mart or a 13-yr-old kid in a playground…)
Obviously, trolling was the only point of this. He wanted us to get upset over his replica gun, so that he could talk about how we’re…intolerant of guns. Think about it: he wanted us to be upset over making people think that a weapon of death was coming down their street so that he could sneer about “the excuse of school violence”, as if that’s not a hideous wailing national tragedy. As if it is something to poke fun at.
And that’s the point: the GOP has been taken over entirely by this wanton cruelty, by this delight and demeaning and belittling (while complaining the whole while that the Ivy League professors are snobby jerks). It’s been an inevitable product of 40+ years of policy, a spreading meanness that mutates into contempt for decency.
Trump’s Tacky Eagles Stunt Is Anything But Foolish
That’s why Trump isn’t an anomaly, but a culmination. It’s why the GOP isn’t going to impeach him or stop him. He enables their success by supporting voter suppression. His authoritarianism is what a minority party needs to stay in power. They are a far-right party aligned with far-right parties around the globe, and democracy is an afterthought, a nicety to be gestured at while the real work of plutocratic looting gets done.
Some, like the American Ambassador to Germany, have stopped pretending to be anything other than a part of a growing anti-democratic right-wing movement. And while we think Trump is different, because he’s dumber, that’s not the case. He doesn’t need to be smart. His small-fisted sense of patriotism is enough.
His statement disinviting the Eagles to the White House, simply because a lot of them wouldn’t come, is proof-positive of that.
Obviously, this is petty and stupid and foolish. For one thing, the Eagles players didn’t kneel during the anthem this season (despite what Fox News grossly pretended). What happened is that fewer than 10 players wanted to go (some reports have it at 3 or 4, probably depending on if you count Riley Cooper as 3 or 4 people), and so Trump cancelled it rather than have it reflect poorly on him.
But that wasn’t enough, of course. They didn’t want to come because they disagree with “their President” (and has any POTUS ever used a term so paternal and possessive?) about something that never happened, and so are essentially unpatriotic. It’s dishonest about the protests, dishonest about the reasons the Eagles weren’t coming, and dishonest about their motivations.
It’s wholly stupid and entirely false, a child’s idea of what patriotism is and a moron’s notion of revenge. It’s a jumble of brass bands and barely-mouthed incantations and symbols that the man calling for them doesn’t even understand. It’s an idiot’s path, designed entirely to rile up the base about angry blacks and ungrateful traitors and spoiled football players who hate the troops and the country by dint of disagreeing with the President.
If you think Trump’s brand of authoritarianism is too stupid to work, you’re wrong. If you think it is too cruel and punitive and obviously histrionic to take hold here, you’re wrong. You have a party that supports him because they revel in the onslaught of cruelties, they power of totems, the both fevered and dull recitation of buzzwords, and the slow stripping away of representative democracy.
They support Trump because of everything he is. We’re in extremely dangerous days, and the fact that they are so dumb and tacky and vulgar isn’t a cause for optimism: it’s a sign of the stompingly gray future to come.
NOTE: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO COME. This is an all-hands-on-deck election year. Don’t just vote, volunteer. Get involved. Democracy relies on everyday engagement.