Travesty in Progress: Part 1

Travesty

Oy. Where to begin?

How about at the beginning, which is to say, at the end….

Barring a deus ex machina, we all pretty much know how this is going to play out. Senate Republicans began this trial by voting 53 to 47 along strict party lines (with one exception, 52 to 48) to block every Democratic motion concerning its conduct, eleven motions in all, including those to subpoena White House officials, demand Defense Department documents, forbid the selective submission of evidence, and everything else resembling the accoutrements of a fair trial as we understand the term.

Notwithstanding the revelations that recently emerged from behind John Bolton’s mustache, this week those same public servants (cough cough) are likely to do the same and block the calling of witnesses, to be followed by a swift acquittal of this cretinous pretender to the presidency. That will be a shameful and disgraceful day for the Republican Party, which no longer resembles anything like a legitimate political organization, but rather a cult of personality comprised of zombies, cynics, quislings, neo-fascists, and low-level mobsters living in terror of their deranged capo.

But it will also be a terrible and disgraceful day for our entire country, marking another steep step down into the abyss of full-blown autocracy.

Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but let’s not be naive. The conduct of the trial so far has been even more risible than most observers expected—which is saying something—and promises to be a dark harbinger of where it’s headed.

On the bright side, the 49ers are in the Super Bowl. Niners GM John Lynch deserves to be NFL Executive of the Year, don’t you think?

TRIAL AND TERROR

The Republicans are in a jawdroppingly frantic rush to shut their ears and eyes to the evidence and hurry through this trial to its inevitable verdict of Trump’s perfection as a president and Olympian model of a human being—nay, demigod.

We started with the farcical spectacle of Republican senators like McConnell and Graham swearing to be impartial after announcing that they had already made up their minds and consider the whole thing illegitimate. (Try that next time you have jury duty.) Moscow Mitch then sprung his rules for the trial on the world without any consultation with Chuck Schumer, a howling breach of the “Clinton rules” he dishonestly claimed to be following. No surprise, those rules are a mockery of justice, in keeping with McConnell’s other preemptive announcement that he—in effect, the foreman of a jury—was going to coordinate his every action and take all his directives from the accused.

Because that’s how trials usually work, right?

Soon after, McConnell further showed his hand with his request for Schumer to “stack his motions,” thus openly admitting that the Republican majority intended to vote down every single one without any serious consideration of any of them. Schumer, rightly sick of the majority leader’s games and wielding what little power he has, admirably refused, icily telling McConnell that “there will be a good number of votes.” By so doing, Chuck forced his Republican colleagues to announce one by one, over and over again, their shameless participation in this blatant obstruction of justice.

They didn’t seem too bothered about doing so.

The House managers went on to lay out a powerful, compelling, meticulously detailed case that was about as ironclad as it could be. The Trump defense team, by contrast, offered arguments filled with misdirection, ad hominem attacks, and outright lies. This is not a Rashomon matter of two equally valid interpretations of events, and saying otherwise is a perfect example of the dangerous false equivalence has bedeviled us throughout the Age of Trump. One side is arguing the facts, hard as those might be for right wing ears to hear. The other side is playing with its own feces.

The defense’s presentation was so weak that even a troglodyte like SCIF-storming Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida dismissed it as embarrassing even by the standards of an eighth grade book report. Doubt it? Witness Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow humiliating himself by publicly demonstrating that he doesn’t know what a FOIA lawsuit is.

Like many on the left, I marveled at the eloquent and powerful performance of lead House manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has already cemented in his place in American history as a kind of present day Mr. Smith meets Atticus Finch meets Joe Welch. I know conservatives are eyerollingly sick of the praise heaped on Schiff from dazzled liberals, sneering that we don’t realize it matters not a whit to half of America. But for those who believe—not without good reason—that the Democratic case, no matter how well presented, is pointless given the GOP’s obvious intransigence, it’s worth noting that not a few of these Republican senators, who normally dine only on Fox News, were being confronted and forced to hear some of these facts for the first time. Even Republicans like the Oxford-educated Foghorn Leghorn impersonator Sen. John N. Kennedy of Louisiana had to give Schiff props. Over on Fox itself, retired judge Andrew Napolitano also spoke the truth in lauding the strength of the Democratic case. (Watch for Andy to be looking for a new gig very soon.)

Another personal favorite of mine was the superb Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) quoting Biggie Smalls as he eviscerated Jay Sekulow’s snide question of why they were there are at all:

We are here, sir, because President Trump abused his power and then he tried to cover it up. And we are here, sir, to follow the facts, follow the law, be guided by the Constitution, and present the truth to the American people. That is why we are here, Mr. Sekulow.

And if you don’t know…..now you know.

(No doubt Ari Melber was as hard as a rock.)

But you really have to hear Mr. Jeffries say it: the printed word does not do it justice. How fitting in a moment when very little justice is being done.

Jerry Nadler had his moments too. Here’s Jennifer Rubin:

Nadler explained that it makes no sense to argue you can neither prosecute a sitting president nor remove him when he poses a danger to the country. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact. It does not leave us stuck with presidents who abuse their power in unforeseen ways that threaten our security and democracy,” he said, invoking the famous phrase uttered by the late Justice Robert H. Jackson. Nadler added dryly, “Until recently, it did not occur to me that our president would call a foreign leader and demand a sham investigation meant to kneecap his political opponents, all in exchange for releasing vital military aid that the president was already required by law to provide.”

The Democrats’ use of multimedia was similarly inspired, particularly the damning clips from the not-so-distant past of Lindsey Graham and fame whore/serial scumbag defender Alan Dershowitz, both vehemently arguing then the exact opposite of what they are arguing equally vehemently now.

Memo to boomers: on the Internet, everything lives forever.

HOW DARE THEE!

So far the Republicans’ unwillingness to do their constitutional duty has been shocking in its sheer brazenness. We have seen them nodding off, doing crossword puzzles, ducking out for extended “bathroom breaks,” and in the case of Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), not only reading a book from the right wing bestseller list during the trial, but even nipping over to give an interview to Fox News while she was supposed to be seated in the Senate listening to testimony. Why John Roberts didn’t complain about that I don’t know.

As Chris Hayes put it on MSNBC (and on Twitter), I’m sorry that these Republican senators are so inconvenienced by being asked to do their goddam job. (Profanity mine.)

Ted Cruz apparently thinks this whole thing is so hilarious that he made a joke about a drinking game. I’m glad he’s enjoying himself, but I would humbly suggest that the people of Texas ask themselves whether they want a man with so little regard for the gravity of these proceedings representing them in the United States Senate. As if that is Ted’s only flaw.

Meanwhile, those who were paying attention got their skivvies in a bunch over precisely the wrong things. The odious Susan Collins was so aghast at Jerry Nadler‘s verbiage that she had to pass a note to Chief Justice Roberts, middle school style. (“I like you…..do you like me?”) So what exactly did Nadler say that so offended Susan and prompted her to whip out her quill and write to the grand poobah of the United States Supreme Court? This:

NADLER: So far, I’m sad to say, I see a lot of senators voting for a coverup, voting to deny witnesses—an absolutely indefensible vote, obviously a treacherous vote. Either you want the truth, and you must permit the witnesses, or you want a shameful coverup. History will judge and so will the electorate.

He clearly hit a nerve. But the fact is, unless you want to quibble over whether by “treacherous” he literally meant “guilty of treason” or merely “fraught,” every single thing Nadler said was 100% correct. That is what so enraged the Republicans.

Jonathan Zasloff writes:

(Collins) wasn’t stunned by Pat Cipollone’s lying about the House impeachment proceedings. She wasn’t stunned by Jay Sekulow mendaciously accusing Val Demings about “lawyer lawsuits.” She wasn’t stunned by #MoscowMitch putting on a show trial. But when Jerry Nadler pointed out accurately that the Senate could be an accomplice to cover-up, THEN she fell on her fainting couch.

She is really a complete fraud. But you knew that.

Collins is emblematic of the haughty attitude Senate Republicans, who have made a histrionic Sarah Bernhardt-like spectacle of how offended they are at the mere suggestion that maybe, just maybe they’ve been letting a con man-cum-wannabe dictator run roughshod over them. They damn near have the vapors! How we got to the point where the fragile feelings of our senators is more important than their duty to the Constitution, I don’t know. (Snowflakes.) Their offense-taking is ridiculous, of course, but nevertheless may provide enough of a handhold for them as they seek a rationalization, any rationalization at all, for further protecting this asshole.

MISTER ROBERTS

More to the point, for Roberts to act on Collins’s complaint and rebuke Nadler (and Jay Sekulow for his angry reply) speaks to the cruel hoax at the heart of this pitiful excuse for a trial. Much like our eggshell-skinned senators, what does it say that the lone moment that stirs the presiding judge to umbrage is when one of the prosecutors dares speak the plain truth?

The author Steven Beschloss notes that the demand for “civility” is often a weapon deployed by the powerful to control and suppress those who dare question their rule, the American civil rights movement being a prime example:

Civility deployed this way is not about improving the quality of our body politic and public discourse, but aimed at keeping critics quiet.

It is worth noting that Trump, throughout his career, has exploited the civil process of US courts and the general civility of those who refuse to assume the worst. The societal expectation of civility (and the disbelief toward the utter lack of it) has made it easier for him to get away with so much—tearing apart migrant families and losing track of the children’s whereabouts, for example, or covering for Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and the Saudis after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi….

But if you believe your house is on fire and your family faces death and destruction, is it appropriate to engage in pleasant and polite tones when speaking to the alleged arsonist and his accomplices? Is that not the time to speak and act with clarity to spur action and put out the fire?

Speaking of the Chief Justice, in a piece titled “John Roberts Comes Face to Face with the Mess He Made,” Dana Milbank notes the bitter irony that Roberts should be forced to sit almost powerlessly and watch this charade:

Roberts’s captivity is entirely fitting: He is forced to witness, with his own eyes, the mess he and his colleagues on the Supreme Court have made of the US political system. As representatives of all three branches of government attend this unhappy family reunion, the living consequences of the Roberts Court’s decisions, and their corrosive effect on democracy, are plain to see…..

Now, we are in a crisis of democratic legitimacy: A president who has plainly abused his office and broken the law, a legislature too paralyzed to do anything about it—and a chief justice coming face to face with the system he broke.

But Roberts is not as powerless as he has chosen to be, which makes him not merely a witness to this travesty but a willing accomplice to it. Roberts’ only substantive act so far has been that scolding of “both sides“ (each of which features some very fine people, I’m sure). Meanwhile, he didn’t say boo when the Republicans spewed outright lies, or when Marsha Blackburn ran over to do an interview on Fox, or any other time. Ruth Marcus has written that he is doing the right thing on that first point, and that senators are to be smart enough to decide for themselves what is true and untrue. Fair enough, though she has more faith in the collective intelligence and integrity of the US Senate than I do. However, many others have noted that Roberts has in effect put his thumb on the scale on behalf of his fellow Republicans with his inaction, and further, by loaning the majesty and imprimatur of the Supreme Court to this laughable show trial without complaint.

For a man who is reportedly so concerned with his legacy, this performance may not go down into posterity very well. Marcus ends her piece applauding Roberts’ discretion with a reference to the Chief Justice in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, the unfortunately named Salmon Chase, who was openly in Johnson’s pocket, and how unseemly that was. No doubt. But the true analogy here is with McConnell’s GOP caucus, which in this case is the party brazenly league with the accused. Roberts’ failure to account for that in any appreciable way is undeniable, and represents his real culpability, and his real kinship with his 19th century predecessor.

Should this pattern continue, rather than being remembered as an honest broker, or an umpire who just called balls and strikes, as SCOTUS nominees like to portray themselves during their confirmation hearings (exception: Brett Kavanaugh), Roberts—contra Schiff—may well be remembered as a craven collaborator in this farce.

JOHN BOLTON’S APACHE DANCE

So all in all it was a helluva Week 1.

And then came Mr. Bolton.

Word of what is in John Bolton’s soon-to-be published kiss-and-tell memoir, uncovered and printed by the New York Times Sunday afternoon, has thrown a juicy plot twist into this otherwise predictable story. It was certainly a strategic leak, and its timing—smack in the middle of the White House’s presentation of its defense (such as it is) and ahead of a vote on hearing from witnesses—was impeccable.

For those Trumpkins who are furious about that, please note that Bolton’s book leaked only because the White House itself recklessly made multiple copies of the single advance manuscript it was given. (D’oh!) Even better, the book apparently is called The Room Where It Happened, raising the unlikely possibility that John might rival Ari and Hakeem as a hip hop aficionado.

In any event, the man is clearly not throwing away his shot.

The account of events in Bolton’s manuscript obliterates a chief pillar of the White House defense, implicates multiple administration officials as well as Trump himself in the illegal withholding of aid to Kyiv, and fills in several other holes in the Ukrainian whodunit. For Republican senators to now continue to claim that there is no need to hear from this man, or from any other witnesses, will be a Herculean task of denial and dishonesty, not that that aren’t up to it. Dozens of them will continue to cling to that absurd and shameful position, but going forward it will be much harder for the handful who have been on the fence—Romney, Murkowski, Portman, Collins, et al—to remain perched there. Romney has already stated outright that he supports a subpoena for the former National Security Advisor-turned-coldblooded political assassin, for which he inevitably has earned the ire of some of his more vile GOP colleagues.

As a New York Times editorial noted, Bolton’s detailed description of the Ukrainegate mess—a “drug deal,” in his words—and Trump’s centrality to it not only rattles the Republican defense, but throws a glaring 10,000 kW Klieg light on the hypocrisy of his Senate defenders……like—surprise!—a certain someone from the Palmetto State:

The most galling part is that Republicans have already admitted how bad the president’s behavior was. Back in September, Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest defenders, said: “What would’ve been wrong is if the president had suggested to the Ukrainian government that if you don’t do what I want you to do regarding the Bidens, we’re not going to give you the aid. That was the accusation; that did not remotely happen.” 

Except that it did, as Mr. Bolton is apparently willing to say under oath.

Bolton is an unlikely hero in this increasingly Shakespearean saga. Let’s leave aside for now his long history as a chickenhawk, a rabid jingoist, and an advocate for aggressive US military intervention almost everywhere on Earth. His bellicosity was a perfect fit in this idiotic administration, but also at odds with its America Firstism (an already pre-existing contradiction in Trumpworld of which Bolton was merely the most extreme manifestation). He and Trump were destined to clash, and they did, and John left—“I quit, no you’re fired” style—swearing vengeance.

Of course, that very hawkishness is precisely what makes Bolton such an especially credible witness for conservative viewers, and such an existential threat to Trump. John Kelly’s endorsement of Bolton this afternoon suggests that a revenge of the Deep State might be building, as Trump’s habitual mistreatment of his top staff is karmically coming back to bite him in his big fat white ass.

Could there be a more fitting role for a man whose whole brand is the love of dropping bombs?

The coy, will-he-or-won’t-he of Bolton’s testimony has been a bit of a farce within this larger farce. If he wanted to take revenge on Trump—or, less plausibly, act on principle and just do the right thing—he could have done so at any time. He was under no legal obligation to keep silent. He could have volunteered to testify before the House during its impeachment proceedings. He could have held a press conference. For his lawyers to announce, as they did on January 6th, that he would obey a Senate subpoena, if issued, was welcome, but also a bit frustrating and disingenuous.

Obviously, one reason he has kept quiet until now is that he wants to drive up interest in (and sales of) his forthcoming book. In noting that profit motive, it must be said, Team Trump is correct. But Old Testament-style vengeance, even more than love of filthy lucre, seems to be the motivating force here. In any event, Bolton’s self-aggrandizement does not change the substance of what he has to say in the slightest, nor its import. He would hardly be the first lowlife gangster to turn on his former family and aid the prosecution and the public it serves, whatever his motives.

In purely practical terms, a live TV appearance before the Senate would likely be the best advertising for his book for which John Bolton and his publishers could ever hope. Graeme Wood of the Atlantic writes that Bolton is an ice cold motherfucker who has patiently bided his time, waiting for the moment when he can do maximum damage to Trump, while still maintaining his right wing cred, with an eye on his position in the post-Trumpian Republican world, should one ever come to be.

OK with me. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and if Bolton’s bruised ego causes him to become an improbable John Dean and bring Trump down, God bless him. We can return to enmity another day.

One last note:

Reportedly, several GOP senators are furious with the White House, having now learned that it has known the contents of Bolton’s book since late December, and put them in this extremely awkward position. And it gets worse. At the time of the January 3rd drone strike on Qasem Suleimani, I was among many to half-joke that Trump was trying to buy Bolton’s silence with this high-risk step toward Johnny’s longtime dream of a shooting war with Iran. (“Might Trump even have privately offered to start that war in exchange for Bolton’s cooperation? Does Brett Kavanaugh like beer?”) Now we find that that is not such a joke after all. Laurence Tribe notes that the White House was given its advance copy of Bolton’s book on December 30, and killed Suleimani three days later.

Just in case you thought there was anything that was beneath this insane clown president and his grotesque collective of business-suited henchmen.

NOT NOW JOHN

Bolton’s bombshell may or may not force the Senate to hear from witnesses. Even in the wake of these revelations, I would not be at all surprised to see the GOP stick to its “move along, folks, nothing to see here” stance. In fact, they might need to dig in even further, given the growing threat. Going on four years now, I have not yet overestimated their venality.

For the time being the GOP remains sickeningly servile to the monstrous leader with whom it has made its Faustian bargain. Trump’s alleged comment that any Republican who votes against him will have his or her “head on the pike” (you know, the way the accused talks to a jury?) sure rings true, despite the inevitable White House denials. I’m sure Donald is privately proud of it and how well it’s worked. This is the language of a mob boss, as many have noted. To watch the Republican senators tremble in such fear of this has-been game show host is appalling to behold. Does not one of them have a single working vertebra?

We are about to find out.

**********

In part two of this essay, we’ll look at what effect the Bolton Bombshell is likely to have, the GOP’s flimsy defense of Trump, and gaze into the crystal ball to imagine what the post-Trump world might look like, should it ever arrive…..

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Images

Smog Machine

Smog Machine

And so the long overdue trial of President Donald John Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors has at last begun. We pretty much know where it’s going to go, but if there’s one thing the past four years ought to have taught us, it’s that even the most outrageous surprises and shocks ought not to surprise or shock us. So buckle the fuck up.

Already it’s been head-spinning.

For starters, the past week saw the Senate open its impeachment proceedings with momentarily reassuring solemnity and ceremony……until one realized that this is precisely the kind of charade that the GOP wants, a veneer of gravitas and seriousness that masks the utter depravity of the highway robbery actually about to go on.

The tip off was the surreal spectacle of Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham raising their right hands and swearing an oath that they would be impartial jurors, after bragging to the press (and the President, and their voters back home) that they were going to be anything but. Predictions that someone, anyone on the Democratic side would say boo in objection proved laughable.

As if to make the point, even as that farce was unfolding, last week also saw stunning new evidence of Trump’s complicity in Rudy Giuliani’s “drug deal” (John Bolton’s words, not mine), and a jawdropping TV interview in which Lev Parnas calmly implicated just about every swinging richard in the administration in the crudest kind of political gangsterism imaginable.

(The president’s defenders immediately attacked Parnas as a disreputable thug and indicted felon out only  to save his own skin—much like they once attacked Michael Cohen on the same grounds. And as with Michael Cohen, I feel compelled to point out that Trump hired this guy.)

Last week also gave us an except from Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker’s new book A Very Stable Genius which details a 2017 incident in a classified Pentagon briefing room in which a draft-dodging ex-game show host and serial grifter–cum-Russian stooge berated decorated four-star generals who’d devoted their lives to serving this country, calling them “dopes and babies.” It saw the mainstream media behaving like TMZ in breathlessly manufacturing a fight between Bernie and Elizabeth Warren….Susan Collins continue to disgrace herself…..Trump poaching Jeffrey Epstein’s legal team (perfect!)…..and the emergence of the newest member of the rogues’ gallery of Trump associates, the grotesque Robert F. Hyde, congressional candidate and amateur US ambassador-stalker. (Can I just ask: what the hell is up with that guy?)

And then there was Republican Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, who made news with a sneering, contrived putdown of CNN reporter Manu Raju calculated to thrill the right wing electorate.

Dig it: When McSally ran for the Senate in November 2018, she lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. (I repeat. She lost to a Democrat. In Arizona.) She is only in the Senate now because Arizona’s Republican governor appointed her to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Senator Jon Kyl, who himself had stepped in only temporarily after John McCain died. Now McSally is locked in a desperate fight to stay in office, with threats both from her right flank in the upcoming GOP primary, and from the left in the subsequent general election, in the person of her popular Democratic opponent, former astronaut Mark Kelly (also Gabby Giffords’ husband, by the by).

In that context, it is generally assumed that McSally’s performance was a deliberate ploy aimed at shoring up the mouthbreather vote, rather than a genuine expression of her contempt for the widely respected Mr. Raju as a “liberal hack.” Which raises the question: if you’re only pretending to be a troglodyte in order to win over the troglodytes, at what point does that behavior actually make you a troglodyte?

The ever-incisive Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post:

In a perverse way, it’s fitting that this episode is going viral at exactly the moment when President Trump’s impeachment trial is getting underway—that is, when Trump’s defenders in the Senate are set to put on a great show of pretending to give serious consideration to the case against Trump, before voting to acquit him. McSally’s vile little performance puts the lie to that notion as effectively as anything possibly could.

PRO WRESTLING IN THE CAPITOL

So now the main event is about to begin, even if the fix is clearly in.

For its opening stages, the first questions are whether the GOP will vote to dismiss right off the bat, and whether any witnesses are going to be called before Moscow Mitch pronounces Trump sinless as Jesus Christ and twice as good on camera.

Dismissal seems unlikely, if only for tactical reasons. For once, Team Trump may be smart enough to avoid asking for an embarrassing losing vote, while McConnell knows there’s no need to be even more brazen than usual when he can just as easily arrange an acquittal in a couple weeks’ time. (Then again, no one has yet overestimated either one’s arrogance, so let’s wait and see.)

When it comes to the latter question, Charlie Sykes noted in the Bulwark that Trump’s repeated, histrionic calls for the Senate to hear witnesses will of course soon be revealed as “bullshit, as the president will make every effort to block any witnesses from testifying at the trial.”

And no wonder. We are getting a fuller picture of the cloud of sleaze, corruption, and sheer stupidity that surrounds his presidency and his dealings with Ukraine. As David French notes, the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his “team” (including Lev Parnas) were a virtual traveling Mos Eisley cantina of crooks, grifters, and amateurs…..

But on that point of just how kangarooish this trial is going to be, the most pertinent thing I read all week was satire from the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, in a piece called “Sure, Whatever, Let’s Have Witnesses. Maybe That’ll Finally Convince Me Trump Is Guilty”:

I thought I was at a point where no fact, however compelling, could possibly break through my blissful fog of ignorant support for President Trump, but—I’d love to be proved wrong!….

So, why not have witnesses! Sure, let’s hear from John Bolton! Let’s hear from Lev Parnas! Maybe reading a note on some Ritz-Carlton stationery describing the president’s involvement in withholding aid in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into his political rival will turn out to be the thing that changes my mind.

Ouch. She’s dead right, of course. Nothing is going to open the hermetically sealed minds of MAGA Nation, not even a time-stamped video of Donald dressed like a French maid and giving Vlad Putin a Robert Kraft-style happy ending.

Don’t get me wrong. There are numerous very good reasons why the Senate ought to hear from fact witnesses: in order to discharge its constitutional duty, to let the truth be known, and to demonstrate to the country and the world the manifest criminality that Senate Republicans are about to shamelessly excuse. Indeed, there are no good reasons it should not hear witnesses.

But Petri’s point—that nothing is going to change the minds of Trump’s faithful, least of all facts, no matter how irrefutable—speaks to the broader truth at the core of this entire national nightmare, one that I’ve written about over and over: millions of Americans simply do not care about Trump’s crimes, or his shocking unfitness for the presidency, or the danger he poses to the republic and the world.

And that is only a subset of a larger and even more alarming fact: that belief in objective reality itself—truth, as it quaintly used to be called—is vanishing. But it is not vanishing of its own accord. It is vanishing because it is under relentless attack by forces that benefit from its obliteration.

Guess who.

THE TRIUMPH OF TRUTHINESS

The destruction of objective reality as a commonly accepted metric has been widely remarked upon as probably the most dangerous aspect of Trump’s reign, one that promises to have lasting and deleterious consequences long after this oranged-hued pustule of an alleged human being has been lanced.

To understand why, and how it came to be, let’s look to Russia, global leader in ballet, ice hockey, and radioactive teacups.

Unlike old-fashioned dictators, Vladimir Putin has pioneered the art of despotism that gives the illusion of freedom, making it all the more insidious. Freedom of speech exists in Putin’s Russia, but is toothless. The mass of the Russian people willingly, even eagerly, submit to his authoritarian reign (a la À Nous la Liberté), having been beaten into a state of collective cynicism. For Putin, the preferred mindset of his loyal subjects is that all politicians are corrupt and dishonest, the truth is unknowable, and liberal democracy is just as much a sham as post-Soviet autocracy.

To achieve this state of intellectual paralysis and submission, Vlad has mounted a war on the very idea of truth itself. As Dave Roberts wrote in Vox last November:

As Putin and other modern autocrats have realized, in the modern media environment—a chaotic Wild West where traditional gatekeepers are in decline—it is not necessary for a repressive regime to construct its own coherent account of events. There are no broadly respected, nonpartisan referees left to hold it to account for consistency or accuracy. All it needs, to get away with whatever it wants, is for the information environment to be so polluted that no one can figure out what’s true and what isn’t, or what’s really going on.

Or as Garry Kasparov famously said (and he oughta know): “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

I have written previously about this, in Rudy Giuliani: Post-Modern Philosopher (August 20, 2018), The Death of Hypocrisy (October 22, 2018), The Right Wing Loop of Malicious Ignorance (March 1, 2019), and The End of Outrage (June 20, 2019). But the most exhaustive exploration of the topic to my knowledge is British filmmaker Adam Curtis’s stunning documentary HyperNormalisation, available for free on his preferred platform, YouTube. Curtis’s movie explores the origins of this effort in (not kidding) Russian avant garde theater, and its weaponization by Putin to neutralize meaningful dissent and political opposition. And it’s a model he is successfully exporting to his client state the USA even as we speak.

More recently there was a brilliant deconstruction of this phenomenon by Sean Illing, also in Vox. Let me quote from it at length:

We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism. The issue for many people isn’t exactly a denial of truth as such. It’s more a growing weariness over the process of finding the truth at all. And that weariness leads more and more people to abandon the idea that the truth is knowable….

What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age. And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable….

Illing goes on to quote the smug and insufferable (but not wrong) Steve Bannon, who in 2018 notoriously said that, “The Democrats don’t matter; the real opposition is the media.” In other words, the Republicans’ true enemy are facts themselves, and those who would point them out. Bannon’s solution, which he proudly touts, has been “to flood the zone with shit”…..that is, to apply those Russian-pioneered and tested principles detailed in HyperNormalisation. Illing again:

We live in a media ecosystem that overwhelms people with information. Some of that information is accurate, some of it is bogus, and much of it is intentionally misleading. The result is a polity that has increasingly given up on finding out the truth. As Sabrina Tavernise and Aidan Gardiner put it in a New York Times piece, “people are numb and disoriented, struggling to discern what is real in a sea of slant, fake, and fact.” This is partly why an earth-shattering historical event like a president’s impeachment has done very little to move public opinion….

(Zone-flooding) produces a certain nihilism in which people are so skeptical about the possibility of finding the truth that they give up the search. Putin uses the media to engineer a fog of disinformation, producing just enough distrust to ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative.

Illing goes on to quote Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born reality TV producer turned academic and the author of a book on the subject, who contends that Putin’s aim “wasn’t to sell an ideology or a vision of the future; instead, it was to convince people that ‘the truth is unknowable’ and that the only sensible choice is ‘to follow a strong leader.’”

That terrifying epistemological void represents the exact dynamics described in Erich Fromm’s seminal 1941 book Escape from Freedom…..which is to say, the human impulse to trade freedom for security, accounting for the otherwise mysterious appeal of a tyrant.

Though Illing refers above to an informational “fog” (even Petri uses that term in her satire), it’s actually something much more sinister than that naturally occurring phenomenon, with its benign Sandburgian associations. It’s more like smog: a toxic miasma, one deliberately produced by folks with ill intent, meant to obscure and choke.

The evidence suggests it is working depressingly well.

INK-STAINED WRETCHES AND UNWITTING ACCOMPLICES

Like a frivolous lawsuit, this Putin/Bannon-style disinformation does not have to have any credibility to achieve its goal: just sowing doubt is enough. Inserting into the media bloodstream an unfounded rumor—sometimes called a “lie”—or scurrilous innuendo, or outright slander, poisons the informational system by definition. It doesn’t matter if it’s untrue, or easily disproven: its mere existence creates at least some believers, and enough confusion to achieve its intended, malicious effect. The goal is simply to create a false equivalence in which an absurd contention—the earth is flat, climate change is a hoax, Trump understands the nuclear triad—is given just as much credence and weight as a demonstrably true one.

The media’s inherent impulse toward “objectivity” only exacerbates the problem. In another Vox piece called “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology,” published early in the Trump administration, the aforementioned David Roberts argued that “journalism cannot be neutral toward a threat to the conditions that make it possible.” Yet even after being played for suckers in 2016, the mainstream US media continues to treat Trump like an ordinary politician, not the dangerous, lie-spewing psychopath he is. A prime example was the response to Trump’s  batshit six-page letter of last December 17, which was reported with headlines like “Trump Savages Impeachment Proceedings in Letter to Pelosi” (from Politico), and “Trump Slams Impeachment as an ‘Illegal, Partisan Attempted Coup’” (CNBC), and not the more accurate and appropriate “Trump Goes on Unhinged Rant; SWAT Team of Psychiatrists Called In.”

But even when pushing back, as they occasionally do, presents journalists with a dilemma which speaks to the difficulty of reporting on a player operating in bad faith. Illing cites UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff on the “framing effect,” which holds that the more a lie is repeated—even in the process of debunking it—the more we begin to believe it, as the sheer repetition inevitably cements it in the mind and gives it the halo of truth.

That puts Trump’s critics in a real bind. As Illing writes:

Debunking it is still useful, of course, but there’s a cost to dignifying it in the first place…. There are too many claims to debunk and too many conflicting narratives. And the decision to cover something is a decision to amplify it and, in some cases, normalize it.

Another toxic effect of “flooding the zone” is that it dishonestly tars legitimate news organizations as being no better than their underhanded and untruthful rivals:

The left overwhelmingly receives its news from organizations like the New York Times, the Washington Post, or cable news networks like MSNBC or CNN. Some of the reporting is surely biased, and probably biased in favor of liberals, but it’s still (mostly) anchored to basic journalistic ethics.

As a recent book by three Harvard researchers explains, this just isn’t true of the right. American conservative media functions like a closed system, with Fox News at the center. Right-wing outlets are less tethered to conventional journalistic ethics and exist mostly to propagate the bullshit they produce.

Ironically, Trump’s supporters viciously distrust the media—but only the legitimate media, while eagerly ingesting “news” from a wanton disinformation machine like Fox. But that is the very point: that these fellow Americans of ours are in a Bizarro World where up is down, right is wrong, and day is night, projecting on the other side (and especially the “other side’s” media, as they view it) their own side’s most grievous sins.

In addition to the debasement of traditional journalism, the rise of social media and technological developments in just the last ten years have turbocharged this already dangerous situation, as Illing alluded to above:

One major reason for the (Bannon) strategy’s success, both in the US and Russia, is that it coincided with a moment when the technological and political conditions were in place for it to thrive. Media fragmentation, the explosion of the internet, political polarization, curated timelines, and echo chambers—all of this allows a “flood the zone with shit” strategy to work.

Today, gatekeepers still matter in terms of setting a baseline for political knowledge, but there’s much more competition for clicks and audiences, and that alters the incentives for what’s declared newsworthy in the first place. At the same time, traditional media outlets remain committed to a set of norms that are ill adapted to the modern environment.

To that end, the scariest horror movie of the past year might have been the feature documentary The Great Hack by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, detailing how Cambridge Analytica ratfucked the 2016 election, and how the exponential growth of data mining is feeding a vast global campaign of meticulously specific and targeted disinformation, with a sophistication never before possible in human history.

WHAT, ME WORRY?

In some ways, though, this story is not all that alarming. After all, we’re not talking about covert manipulation of voting machines. (We should be, but we’re not.) In the end, no matter how intense or sophisticated this disinformation may be, what it comes down to is nothing more than trying to change people’s minds. No one is forcing anyone to vote for Trump, or surreptitiously changing their vote (as far as we know). All they’re doing is barraging us 24/7 with propaganda and lies that browbeat, deceive, and otherwise manipulate us into supporting political positions that are in opposition to the facts, our own true interests, and anything approaching defensible morality.

Yeah. That’s all.

It’s true that millions of thoughtful Americans have proven resistant to the firehose of bullshit that is aimed at them every day. Critical thinking remains the hazmat suit that protects against such venomous informational warfare.

Even so, it goes without saying that it is not healthy for a representative democracy to be under this kind of malicious, non-stop, psychological assault. Even if you personally are clear-thinking enough to see through the propaganda, not everyone is. We all know (and many of us are related to) otherwise intelligent, educated people—some of them very intelligent and very well-educated—who for one reason or another have been taken in by the con artistry of the current moment. And we flatter ourselves even to think that we ourselves are immune to it. Brainwashing works, and Stockholm syndrome is real; sufficient repetition of a lie will eventually crack even the most rational mind and the strongest will. The smog machine is a severe threat to democracy that we ignore at our peril.

Now the good news: I am told by professionals in the field that we can use this law of informational physics for our own purposes as well, to counter dark propaganda and obliterate the lies. It ain’t easy. But if we continue to hammer our own message—which has the advantage of being true—small cracks will begin to appear in the red wall of ignorance and slavish blind faith that feeds the Trumpian cult of personality. And once those cracks appear, they can be widened. People do leave cults, after all.

Of course, others drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and die.

CUI BONO

Illing explains how this dynamic has played out in the impeachment saga:

The Trump administration has been remarkably successful at muddying the waters on Ukraine and impeachment, and Republicans in Congress have helped by parroting the administration’s talking points.

The fact is, Trump did what Democrats have accused him of doing. We know, with absolute certainty, that the president tried to get a foreign government to investigate a family member of one of his political rivals. And we know this because of the witnesses who testified before the House Intelligence Committee and because Trump’s own White House released a record of the call proving it.

Yet all the polling data we have suggests that public opinion on Trump and Ukraine has basically held steady. Again, some of this is pure partisan recalcitrance. But there’s good reason to believe that the right’s muddying of the waters—making the story about Ukraine and Hunter Biden, pushing out conspiracy theories, repeatedly trumpeting Trump’s own version of events, etc.—has played a role.

The issue is that the coverage of the trials, in both the mainstream press and right-wing outlets, ensures that these counternarratives are part of the public conversation. It adds to the general atmosphere of doubt and confusion. And that’s why zone flooding presents a near-insoluble problem for the press.

Roberts again: “This is what Republicans need more than anything on impeachment: for the general public to see it as just another round of partisan squabbling, another illustration of how ‘Washington’ is broken.”

But in truth, any reasonable, clear-eyed evaluation of the simple facts of Ukrainegate blows that “both sides have a point”-ism right out of the water. And that’s just what we know. Lev Parnas’s TV appearances last week made it very clear that there is still a helluva lot we don’t know, and none of it is likely very good news for Trump.

But will any of it matter?

In his Vox piece from last November, David Roberts wondered “what would happen if Robert Mueller offered clear, incontrovertible evidence of Trump’s guilt. Would Republicans be able to prevent supporters from ever finding out? What if the truth was revealed but it had no power, no effect at all, because half the country had been walled off from it? What if there is no longer any evidentiary standard that can overcome our polarization?”

Now, with Ukrainegate, that scenario looks like it is about to come to pass.

This is the point I have been hammering on about for months: that we would not be in this fix if millions of Americans were not totally onboard with this monstrosity of a US presidency. Even though they are in the minority, their political clout is sufficient to empower the venal Republican leadership to keep a chokehold on the republic.

Another way to look at it is that the rest of America—the majority, that is—has been insufficiently militant in getting to our feet and making our voices heard that we will not stand for this shit.

As impeachment remains unlikely to evict Trump, and exercise of the 25th Amendment is hopeless, the ballot box remains our last best hope to save the United States as we once knew it. Last week the WaPo ran article titled, “Poll Finds Black Americans Determined to Limit Trump to One Term.” Oh let it be so, for we all know that the African-American vote is critical to getting this sonofabitch out of office. So let’s translate that anger into levers pulled and boxes checked and chads punched at the polls in November.

But oh the irony that we are counting on black Americans to save the republic. After all it’s done for them.

STARR CHAMBER

All of which brings us back to Trump’s trial itself. As the author Erick Kelemen writes, Ken Starr couldn’t get a conviction in the last impeachment; maybe he’ll do better this time.

Jonathan Chait has already pre-emptively destroyed the GOP’s absurd defense, per Starr’s colleague Alan Dershowitz, which seems to hinge on the monarchist notion that a US president cannot be removed for abuse of power, an absolutely ass-backwards inversion of the entire impeachment clause.

Trump believes profoundly that a president can use the government exactly as he sees fit. In his mind, “abuse of power” is an oxymoron. To charge him with “abusing” the presidency makes no more sense than charging him with abusing the Trump Organization for personal gain. And now the authoritarian conviction that Trump believes as a matter of instinct has been sanctified as a formal legal theory, endorsed by presidential lawyers.

As my friend Susan Koppenhaver writes, let’s try swapping “Obama” for “Trump” in this above-the-law defense and see how long Republicans stick with that theory.

Dershowitz is arguing that the Founders didn’t really mean “high crimes and misdemeanors” when they wrote “high crimes and misdemeanors”….they meant ordinary crimes, like robbing a bank, or shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. (Ahem.)

Two problems with that.

First, as Chait points out, the GAO just publicly announced its conclusion that Trump did commit a literal crime in withholding aid to Ukraine. And second, it didn’t take long for the press to dig up video of Dersh telling CNN exactly the opposite in 1998:

It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime, if you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president, and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime.

But even as risible and utterly without merit as this defense is, it may well be enough of a fig leaf—more than enough, in fact—for Republicans to hold in front of their tiny tiny testicles as they vote to acquit (and thereby further embolden) Donald Trump. Even less credible is the Republican argument that we ought to leave it to the next election to decide what we should do about a president who is trying to steal that election.

Charlie Sykes again:

It would almost be funny, if the stakes were not so high. We are, after all, watching a bad reality television show with nuclear weapons and a president whose contempt for the rule of law will be unleashed by the near-inevitable vote to acquit.

The conduct involved is serious enough, but this is what makes this trial unique: it involves an ongoing high crime and misdemeanor. The key difference between this investigation and the Mueller probe is that his misconduct in Ukraine is prospective—it involves attempts to meddle with the upcoming election, not the last one. His presidency remains an active crime scene….

(Republicans’) eventual vote to acquit Trump will be even more dangerous because “exoneration” will further embolden a president who already runs his government like a gangster. How might he react? What might he do? Never forget: This Ukraine adventure began literally the day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress and Trump thought that he had been let off the hook for obstructing justice.

So tomorrow, when the impeachment trial begins in earnest, the effect of this epistemological shitshow will be on full display. Every indication is that the Republicans will make an absolute sham of it. But their ability to do so, and get away with it, will be predicated on the willingness of millions of Americans to ignore indisputable evidence in favor of immersion in counter-factual fantasy and post-modern rejection of the very concept of objective reality.

********

Illustration: National Geographic

Acts of War in the Age of Endless War

Trump-Globe-12-22-16 copy

Let’s start by dispensing with the patently obvious.

Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian major general and Quds Force commander Qasem Suleimani was driven by a number of factors, but none of them involved prudent forethought and counsel with foreign policy advisors, Middle East experts, and military officers.

We can debate the merits and demerits of such a radically destabilizing move all day. (Spoiler alert: the demerits have the upper hand.) But what we can’t do is pretend that the decision was made in any kind of rational, well-considered way that bespeaks a thoughtful commander-in-chief with an awareness of the implications—or even any curiosity about them—or acting with the best interests of the United States at heart.

It was more like the act of a severely maladjusted seventh grader who got first into his parents’ liquor cabinet, and then their gun rack.

Unquestionably Suleimani was a bad hombre, as the saying goes, with buckets of American blood on his hands from the Iraq war. Good riddance to him. But the wisdom of taking him out right now is highly debatable. It was an order that reportedly shocked even Trump’s top military advisors, who by some accounts only mentioned the possibility as a hypothetical, never thinking he’d go for it. (Have them met him?) Michelle Goldberg writes in the New York Times:

According to Peter Bergen’s book Trump and His Generals, James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense, instructed his subordinates not to provide the president with options for a military showdown with Iran. But with Mattis gone, military officials, The Times reported, presented Trump with the possibility of killing Suleimani as the “most extreme” option on a menu of choices, and were “flabbergasted” when he picked it.

So much for Trump as Sun Tzu.

Here in the reality-based world, there can be no plausibly denying that Trump’s chief motivations were as follows, in no particular order:

1) A wag-the-dog attempt to defend against impeachment, which—Mitch McConnell’s machinations notwithstanding—is closing on Trump like a vise.

Ironically, Donald remains likely to escape conviction, which is a howling travesty of justice and indictment of the illness of our political system. But instead of celebrating his continuing lifelong streak of insanely undeserved good luck, just the idea of impeachment is clearly driving the already batty Mr. Trump even battier, resulting in all kinds of erratic and self-destructive behavior, from record-breaking tweetstorms to ordering assassinations that might destabilize the entire global order.

Of course, distracting us from impeachment is merely a sub-task of Trump’s broader effort to get re-elected, which not coincidentally also motivated his unconstitutional skullduggery in Ukraine, which is why he is being impeached in the first place. So in one sense we can look at Suleimani’s killing as little more than an aspect of his re-election campaign, like kissing babies or offering coal subsidies.

2) His instinctive belligerence and knee-jerk tendency to opt for the most extreme, hamhanded, and clumsily faux macho option in any given scenario, regardless of whether he is being impeached or not.

3) Related to #2 above, wanton indulgence of Trump’s massive ego—perhaps the defining principle of his entire presidency.

The Washington Post reports:

Trump was also motivated to act by what he felt was negative coverage after his 2019 decision to call off the airstrike after Iran downed the US surveillance drone, officials said. Trump was also frustrated that the details of his internal deliberations had leaked out and felt he looked weak, the officials said.

This is how we make decisions now.

Needless to say, a huge part of this megalomaniacal insecurity is Trump’s raging, unquenchable jealousy toward Barack Obama, manifested in a desire to undo all of his predecessor’s accomplishments, from the ACA to the JCPOA, and to impulsively take any action that Obama—often wisely—declined to, especially when it comes to the use of force.

Earlier I compared Trump to a twelve-year-old. But this is the mentality of a toddler. And one who never gets hugged.

This dynamic began early in Donald’s presidency when he authorized a risky covert operation in Yemen after some gung ho Pentagon advisors informed him that “Obama wouldn’t do it,” a mission that subsequently went awry and wound up killing a Navy SEAL and several children.

Surely there are other equally petty and appalling reasons Trump decided to launch the strike on on Suleimani, but I suspect they fall roughly under these three headings.

In short, the claim that the strike was twelve dimensional chess, or bold leadership, or anything but classic Trumpian impulsivity and egotism, is hogwash. So please don’t pester me with the fairy tale that Donald Trump is some military genius.

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE CREDIBILITY GAP

The odious Mike Pompeo claimed with a straight face that the White House ordered the strike to preempt an “imminent attack” on US lives. But this is Lucy-holding-the-football territory, recalling previous lies that led us into other disastrous foreign wars, from the sinking of the Maine to the Gulf of Tonkin to Iraq’s mythical WMD.

Numerous experts have attested that Suleimani was always in the process of planning such attacks, giving the lie to the notion that there was some urgency to killing him now when we could have done so at numerous points in the past. (Like Obama, George W. Bush also declined to pull the trigger on Suleimani, despite being given the chance—also like Obama, on the wise counsel of his foreign policy advisors.) And we know that Pompeo and his lieutenants had actually been lobbying Trump to order this killing for months, not because of any new emergency.

Conveniently, the alleged evidence of this “imminent attack” was initially classified. When the administration finally got around to briefing Congress—four days after the strike—the response was less than effusive. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah—I say again, a Republican senator—called it “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate,” as well as “insulting” and “demeaning.” (In response, Trump’s pet water carrier Lindsey Graham wasted no time violating Reagan’s 11th Commandment and attacking his fellow Republican for “empowering” Tehran. )

Writing in the Atlantic, George Packer neatly dismantled Pompeo’s specious claim, as well as the administration’s flimsy argument for killing Suleimani on broader strategic grounds:

Suleimani was a supremely powerful leader of a state apparatus, with his own cult of personality, but he was not a terror kingpin. His death doesn’t decapitate anything. He had the blood of tens of thousands of people—overwhelmingly fellow Muslims—on his hands, but he was only the agent of a government policy that preceded him and will continue without him. His deeds are beside the point; so is the display of American resolve. The only reason to kill Suleimani is to enter a new war that the United States can win.

What would that war look like? How will Iran fight it? How will the U.S. respond? What credible allies will we have, after Trump’s trashing of the nuclear deal thoroughly alienated Europe? Who will believe any intelligence about Iran’s actions and intentions from an administration that can’t function without telling lies? How will American officials deliberate when Trump has gotten rid of his experts and turned his government into a tool of personal power? What is the point of having a Congress if it has no say about a new American war? What is our war aim, and how can it be aligned with Trump’s obvious desire to be rid of any entanglement in the region? What will happen if Jerusalem becomes a target and Israel enters the conflict? What will the American people accept by way of sacrifice, when nothing has prepared them for this?

There’s no sign that anyone in power, least of all the president, has even asked these questions, let alone knows how to answer them.

Thus we are brought to a moment of bittersweet irony.

Like many administrations before it, this White House is asking us to take its word when it comes to the most violent and consequential actions a government can undertake. But the Trump administration has less than zero credibility when it comes to saying, “Trust us, it was the right thing to do. We can’t tell you exactly why, but it was.” So in this moment when Trump really needs the faith and confidence of American people, there is some grim satisfaction in seeing his record of world-beating mendacity now come back to haunt him.

FORE!

Bullshit excuses aside, no one can say with confidence what all the long term effects of this reckless action will be, but it is all but impossible that any good that comes out of it will outweigh the inevitable bad. That bad has already begun with the humiliating—and debilitating—expulsion of US forces from Iraq, and Iran’s full-bore resumption of its nuclear weapons program. Even if the crisis does not escalate into a full-scale shooting war (as was the initial and widespread fear, now marginally soothed by tentative signs of saber-holstering by both sides), going forward it promises to bring on a raft of unpredictable and potentially nightmarish problems. Chief among these are the further alienation of the US in the international community (yes, isolationists, that matters) and the attendant handicaps that alienation creates in the conduct of US foreign policy; a more dangerous operational climate for US military forces in the region and arguably worldwide; and of course, violent reprisals of one kind or another that might yet engulf us in a deeper military quagmire. Most grim of all now is the near-certainty that Iran will now get the Bomb within the next decade.

Gee, who’d have thought that giving this kind of power to a maliciously ignorant D-list game show host would have those kind of repercussions?

So while his slavish followers high five and fist bump over what a tough guy they believe he is, Trump has in reality dealt the US a grievous setback on the international stage, dramatically escalated the lethal risks to American life and limb, and risked dragging us into the exact kind of Middle Eastern quagmire he breathlessly campaigned against. He even managed to create a second shameful spectacle of US weakness in the space of four months as our troops are forced to scurry out of Iraq tails between legs, much as we did from Syria, where the laughing Russians cruised in and took over our bases without so much as firing a shot.

If that’s your definition of military success, Donald Trump is indeed a martial mastermind after all, bonespurs be damned.

So once again, as with all things Donald, we are confronted with the headshaking consequences of having a deranged man-baby as our fearless leader. As Mehdi Hasan wrote in the Intercept:

This is not a column, however, about the consequences of the US government assassinating the second-most powerful man in Iran….. Rather, this is a column that allows me to express my ongoing astonishment that Donald Trump is president of the United States; my ongoing bewilderment with a world in which an unhinged, know-nothing former reality TV star and property developer, with zero background in foreign affairs or national security, may have just kicked off World War III. (From his golf course, no less.)”

The point—and its direct origin in the existential threat to Trump’s presidency—was expressed even more pointedly in this anonymous meme that is caroming around the Interweb: “Right now there’s an impeached president authorizing international assassinations without Congressional approval while tweeting from a golf course.”

Indeed, every aspect of Trump’s behavior here is emblematic of his awfulness.

It should come as no shock that he didn’t inform the Democratic leadership of the Suleimani strike beforehand, though he did inform the Republican leadership, and of course Vladimir Putin (must keep the boss in the loop). And it goes without saying that this entire horrific crisis is merely an acceleration—albeit a wholly unnecessary one—of the trajectory Trump put us on with his foolhardy withdrawal from the JCPOA back in 2018, itself another example of his pathological obsession with Barack H. Obama. (See Kakistocracy and the Iran Deal in these pages, May 11, 2018.)

The timing of John Bolton’s cryptic announcement earlier this week that he is willing to testify in a Senate impeachment trial was also interesting. The presumption is that Bolton’s testimony would be hostile and disastrous for Trump. But perhaps John is prepared to perjure himself and defend Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine out of gratitude for his former boss finally starting his long-desired war with Tehran. It is tempting to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory here. Might Trump even have privately offered to start that war in exchange for Bolton’s cooperation? Does Brett Kavanaugh like beer? We can leave that one floating. In any case, I am confident that ever since the Suleimani strike John Bolton has been dealing with the kind of permanent erection that ED commercials warn you to see a physician about.

THE DOG WAGS BACK

Already the next phase in this piteous, bloodsoaked farce is unfolding. Trump threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites, which it seems almost petty to point out is a war crime when it is being proposed in the context of a far bigger and broader atrocity. Deep thinkers like Sean Hannity (“Dude, do you even lift?”) encouraged Trump go even further and begin a full-scale strategic bombing of Iran, which I guess looks good on paper, if you’re a fucking moron. Even Tucker Carlson saw the stupidity in that, which suggests that the cognitive dissonance of Trump’s America Firstism colliding with his inner bully’s natural propensity for bombing the shit out of people may be too much even for MAGA Nation.

But even if we avoid a wider war right now, major damage has already been done in terms of decreased US power in the Persian Gulf and the re-acceleration of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, per above. And if matters do take a dark turn at any point in the near future, Trump’s demonstrated willingness to do what is technically known in foreign policy circles as “crazy shit” does not bode well…..especially if he perceives that he obtains a domestic political benefit from such behavior that will help protect him from Nancy Pelosi pulling up in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue behind the wheel of an empty moving truck.

To leapfrog ahead to the darkest possible scenario, were the US and Iran to get into a series tit-for-tat airstrikes, it is not beyond imagination that Trump might even launch a nuclear strike on Tehran. After all, during the 2016 campaign he openly wondered why we have this massive nuclear arsenal if we never get to use it. As Business Insider reports:

“In any other circumstance, I would have argued that the norm against using nuclear weapons is so strong there’s no chance that a president would use a nuclear weapon,” (said) Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey who studies nuclear arms control. “At the end of the day, though, it’s just a norm. And this president delights in smashing norms.” 

Given his innate tendency to always go for the stupidest response, and his juvenile desire to do “bold” things his predecessors would not do (with good reason), there is in fact every reason to suspect Trump would not hesitate to go there. If so, then we will see just how much moral courage the US military establishment has in standing up to him, like Seven Days in May in reverse.

Alarmism, you say? OK, sure. Because Donald Trump would never do something insanely aggressive just in a fit of pique.

Even short of nuclear war, Trump clearly intends to use conflict with Iran to distract from impeachment, thrill his fans, and try to lure wobbly center-right undecideds over to his team with the illusion of strength and patriotism. It’s a time-tested strategy, and one that he histrionically (but incorrectly) predicted Obama would use. In general, Trump’s past attacks on Obama are a master class in projection, providing a reliable roadmap for what he himself will do in any given scenario, as he cannot imagine a leader taking anything other than the most cynical and self-serving path.

Will it work? Here’s Aaron Blake, writing in the WaPo:

Pollsters and political analysts often talk about a “rally around the flag” effect that comes when the United States is attacked or launches new military campaigns. And there is something to that. But it’s often quite short-lived, and there’s little evidence it has actually helped any recent president win reelection.

In fact, Trump’s net gain is likely to be even less than previous wartime presidents, given his aforementioned credibility problem. In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait writes:

Americans historically support their presidents in foreign conflicts, both the wise ones and unwise ones alike, at least initially. Trump no doubt believes the halo effect will last at least through November—that he might undertake an action that would harm his reelection out of some larger sense of duty to the nation or the world is unfathomable. But presidents traditionally benefit from a presumption of competence, or at least moral legitimacy, from their opposition. Trump has forfeited his.

So the Extremely Stable Genius is not likely to get far with this strategy beyond the base that already adores him, and perhaps a few jingoists who have heretofore been fencesitters. Whether that is sufficient to make an electoral difference will be yet another test of the intelligence, gullibility, and moral courage of us as a nation. So far, apparently not even Trump himself is buying his own bullshit, as he was back to tweeting about the impeachment “witchhunt” even as Iranian missiles fell on US troops.

There is also the strong possibility that Trump’s Wag the Dog ploy may even backfire, so transparent are his domestic motives and so stark his record of transactional behavior, particularly if matters with Iran go south fast.

ASSASSIN’S CREED

Moving beyond the details of this specific international incident and its impact on the ongoing domestic US political crisis, we must ask ourselves what Trump’s order to kill Qasem Suleimani says about the state of our democracy and how we conduct war in the 21st century.

On CNN, Pete Buttigieg— lest we forget, a former Navy intelligence officer and Afghanistan vet as well as a Rhodes Scholar—was asked by Jake Tapper if he thought the Suleimani strike qualified as an “assassination.” Wisely refusing to engage in gotcha semantics, Mayor Pete replied:

I am not interested in the terminology. I’m interested in the consequences and I’m interested in the process. Did the president have legal authority to do this? Why wasn’t Congress consulted? It seems like more people at Mar-a-Lago heard about this than people in the United States Congress who are a coequal branch of government with a responsibility to consult. Which of our allies were consulted? The real-world effects of this are going to go far beyond the things that we’re debating today and we need answers quickly.

Pretty good answer. Maybe that kid should run for president.

But let’s dig into the topic, because the exploration is instructive.

Whether carried out by a non-state actor or a sovereign government, assassination is a specific form of killing distinguished by the political nature of the act, its victim, and/or the intended reaction. As such, it is not usually classified as “murder” when carried out (or at least sanctioned) by a nation state, though it is usually is when carried out by an individual acting on their own initiative, even if all the other circumstances are identical. Judge for yourself the wisdom or hypocrisy of that, and the implications for chaos versus justice.

But the verbiage is fungible. An execution of a head of state—even by the mob—is usually not considered “assassination” per se, even when it triggers, or results from, a similar kind of regime change. (Sorry, Charles I and Louis XVI). By contrast, we routinely talk about the “assassination” of John Lennon, which is a measure of his stature as a cultural figure. But in truth, Mark David Chapman didn’t kill Lennon over his antiwar activism. In that sense, assassination is a bit like art or porn, in that it’s hard to define but easy to recognize when you see it: Caesar, Lincoln, Trotsky, the Kennedys, King, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Mountbatten, Bhutto, and so on. Maybe most terrifying of all is Franz Ferdinand, whom Steve Schmidt evoked this week.

As a political tool, assassination is a technique as old as geopolitics itself—if you want to kill a snake, cut off its head. Notwithstanding our pearl-clutching rhetoric when others employ it, the US has certainly not shied away from killing foreign leaders in the past, not only despots but popular elected democratic figures as well, as evidenced by the corpses of Patrice Lumumba and Salvador Allende, and sometimes even our own surrogates, like Ngô Đình Diệm.

Usually the questions swirling about assassination as tool of state power involve the ethics of taking out a civilian representative of a foreign power, even for convincing reasons that advance national objectives. But that is not the question here. Suleimani was a major general in the Iranian army and a uniformed combatant commander. Therefore the issue is not his legitimacy as a target but whether we were plausibly in a true state of war with Iran where we are actively shooting at the bad guys, or if this was an aggressive provocation that risked ratcheting a low intensity conflict into that more dangerous realm without good reason.

Yet even that is a tricky question.

Since 1945 the demise of formal declarations of war has badly blurred the line between peace and war, which is already pretty blurry if one subscribes to Clausewitz’s definition of warfare as the extension of politics by other means, which I do. In the wake of Vietnam, the 1973 War Powers Act was meant to curb an American president’s ability to deploy US forces into harm’s way for an extended period without Congressional approval. But Mohammad Atta and friends definitively rang down the curtain on that era. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress three days after 9/11 amounted to a blank check for the president to order military action as he or she sees fit, without appreciable oversight, and with no expiration date. In the almost two decades since then, the American people have come to accept those parameters without much pushback, but with dire consequences.

Fighting a “terrorist” enemy in a kind of shadow war that lacks the usual metrics for determining not only victory but even concrete benchmarks of success, we as a nation have grown accustomed to a permanent state of war. Some would say that is precisely the Orwellian state of affairs that, in their Adam Curtis-style symbiosis, both the powers-that-be and their terrorist foes would like.

In such a world, the term “assassination” has become almost useless, since it is pejorative by nature, and since 1976, technically illegal as a tool of US policy under Executive Order 11905, not that it has mattered. (Hence the euphemism “targeted killing.”) If we set aside semantics—and also morality, as it is so malleable—the real question, to which Mayor Pete alludes, is whether a specific military action makes sense strategically and pragmatically. In the case of targeting a specific foreign individual, whether a member of an opposition government or a non-state actor, there can be good utilitarian arguments, even in “peacetime.” But in the case of Suleimani, there is reason to fear exactly the opposite.

Infamously, language itself can be weaponized to create the illusion or legitimacy. Last April, the Trump administration made the eyebrow-raising decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, joining only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in formally applying that term. We don’t have to get into a philosophical debate about the definition of terrorism to understand that labeling a uniformed element of a foreign army “terrorists” is problematic for about a dozen different reasons. If the IRGC is a terrorist organization from our point of view, so is the US Air Force from theirs.

Pragmatism aside, the fact that few Americans object to Suleimani’s killing on moral grounds, and only a few on legal grounds, is itself if a measure of how comfortable we as a people have become with the murky waters of endless war. When utilitarianism is the only guide, it is quite easy for that kind of self-styled flinty-eyed fortitude to slip into the indiscriminate application of force—a policy of murder first and rationalization later—with “pragmatism” as an all too convenient cover. A credible justification for a surgical strike on a center of gravity, whether the assassination of an individual, an airstrike on a terrorist camp, or the bombing of a nuclear reactor, can readily be twisted into something more venal (or be a mere veneer in the first place). Many an act of international aggression has been cloaked in the righteous rhetoric of “self-defense.” Few but the Quakers would argue that the world would not have been well-served and spared terrible horrors if a certain failed painter had met with a suspicious traffic accident in 1935. But it is disturbing how easily that same logic can be turned to Vladimir Putin serving up a cup of poison tea over, say, irritation at the mouthiness of a former KGB man turned defector to the West. The slope is as slippery as they come, circling us back to why assassination is reflexively proscribed the first place.

WAR WITHOUT END AMEN

But Trump is plainly not about to be dissuaded from using force however he fucking feels like it, neither by precedent, nor protocol, nor actual law, and certainly not by semantics. He clearly conceives of his commander-in-chief role much like his role in domestic affairs: absolute, not subject to questioning by mere mortals, and definitely unfettered by the Constitution or the requirement to consult with—much less obtain permission—from Congress.

The unitary executive approach to waging war suits Trump terrifyingly well: we could hardly have drawn up a more perfectly awful POTUS to inherit the expanded warmaking powers of the post-9/11 era.

Numerous sages predicted this state of affairs. Drone strikes, clandestine special operations missions, and targeted killings were among the distinguishing aspects of the so-called “Global War on Terror” that began under Bush 43, much of it hidden from public view and carried out with little to no oversight from Capitol Hill. As those shadowy operations grew under his Democratic successor, many on the center-left were comfortable giving Obama such expansive powers, trusting that he would use them judiciously and wisely. But many on the far left were not so sanguine, making them strange bedfellows with Obama-haters on the right, who were fine with the aggressive exercise of US military might, but just didn’t like a black guy in charge. Now, as the Cassandras foretold, those right-wingers have been delighted to take the vast presidential latitude established in the years 2001-2016 and hand it over to the host of “Celebrity Apprentice.”

The result, to return to Hasan’s formulation, is that we now have a criminally unqualified, proudly ignorant cretin and serial grifter with the near-absolute power of life and death, and the authority to order the killing of any single individual he deems a threat, at the mere press of a remote control button, from oceans away, or even the obliteration of the entire planet.

This is the world in which we now live, one of endless war, where victory is not only impossible but undesirable, and where a mad king can run amok, and we the people just nod and go about our day. It will remain so until the American public decides that we have had enough, or until the integrity and decency of the United States has been so thoroughly debased that it no longer matters.

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Illustration by the Norwegian cartoonist Bloom

They Did the Right Thing

DTRT

Donald Trump is now only the third US president in 230 years to have been impeached, the first to suffer that humiliation in his first term, and the first to have it happen while he is running for re-election. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Trump may well go on to win a second term, which will be a sorry comment on the state of the American republic and the gullibility of the American electorate. If that happens, history will not look back kindly on our era, or on us. (We already look not so great having let him into the White House once.) Conversely, this episode may prove to be a mile marker on his well-deserved demise.

But to that point, I have been deeply dismayed at how much of the analysis of his impeachment has been focused on sheer gamesmanship, and whether Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have played this well or badly, and what the impact will be on their collective political fortunes.

Really? How small. How shortsighted. How depressing.

The Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives just took on the somber and sorrowful duty of impeaching a US president for high crimes and misdemeanors, the evidence of which was so overwhelming that it wasn’t even a close call for anyone willing to look at that evidence objectively. (I realize that lets out the entire Republican Party,) The GOP has not substantively tried to deny it; in fact, the White House itself openly admitted to the offenses in a phone conversation readout that it unilaterally released. Trump’s own chief of staff bragged about it on national television. It is depressing of course that many of our fellow Americans—many of them US Congressmen and Senators—stubbornly refuse to admit that, either out of willful ignorance, regular ignorance, or craven Machiavellian cynicism. But it does not alter the facts.

Yet as E.J. Dionne observed in the Washington Post, when the articles of impeachment were unveiled last Tuesday, “a large share of the reporting and commentary was about the political risks facing Democrats for insisting on something that would once have been uncontroversial: It is a chilling threat to freedom and to democracy for the commander in chief to use his power to press a foreign government to investigate a political opponent.”

Last month a Monmouth University poll reported that 62% of Trump supporters said that they would support Donald Trump no matter what he does. Let that sink in a moment. Like religious fanatics, they self-report that there is NOTHING Trump could do that would make them turn on him. Not his famous hypothetical murdering of someone in plain sight on Fifth Avenue. Not outright bribery (which he copped to with Zelinskyy.) Not rape (of which he has been credibly alleged). Not treason (of which he has been credibly alleged). Not, presumably, giving the State of the Union address in blackface, or selling kiddie porn, or advocating lynching, none of which frankly would surprise me.

And apparently the GOP leadership agrees.

FOR THE DEFENSE

From the time the Ukraine scandal broke, the right wing has spent precious little time trying to defend Trump’s actions, fighting instead about “process”—always the sign of a weak hand. Those who even bothered to address the substance mostly argued some variation of the claim that the actions weren’t so bad and don’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses. (That claim is risible, of course. If extorting a foreign power to spread disinformation in an American election isn’t impeachable, nothing is.)

Others—incredibly—have gone further, parroting Trump’s own insane insistence that he did nothing wrong whatsoever, and indeed acted “perfectly.” That was the gist of GOP counsel Stephen Castor’s argument to the House Judiciary Committee, predicated on the absurd claim that ginning up a smear campaign against Joe Biden constitutes a legitimate anti-corruption effort on behalf of US national interests, and not merely to benefit Donald Trump’s own political future.

I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.

Another red herring: For weeks now I have read right wingers on the web refusing even to discuss Ukrainegate on the grounds that some mysterious and much bigger dirty bomb was about to drop that would shower the Democrats in feces. It now seems clear that they were referring to the DOJ IG report that came out last week. You may have noticed that it was disappointingly short on details of Hillary issuing secret orders to her cabal of Illuminati FBI agents, and long on facts that obliterated the right wing’s cherished myth of an ongoing Deep State coup. Not that Bill Barr would acknowledge that.

Yet another related argument we keep hearing—one that also tellingly avoids the substance of the charges against Trump—is that we ought not bother with an impeachment when we are less than a year away from an election in which the people can decide for themselves the president’s fitness to remain in office. Really? When the issue at hand is election interference itself? Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) succinctly summarized that argument as the equivalent of saying, “’Why not let him cheat just one more time? Why not let him have foreign help just one more time?'” Or as Neal Katyal put it, it’s like saying we ought to settle this dispute with a game of Monopoly, when the very crime of which Trump is accused is cheating on Monopoly.

The whole “let’s wait” argument is dishonest in the extreme, especially coming from Republicans, who damn sure would never let a Democrat slide because we were at the two minute warning. And—god forbid—should an opening on the Supreme Court pop up between now and November, don’t look for Mitch McConnell to argue that we ought to wait till after Election Day to fill it.

All this bullshit was on full display on national television today. I watched a lot of the House debate and it’s impossible to pick out which Republican congressmember was the most loathsome, so competitive was the field. It was a remarkable parade of dishonesty, distraction, and demagoguery, a Festival of Yelling White Dudes, many of whom seemed to be channeling their inner Brett Kavanaughs, having seen that that was a winning strategy, at least in appealing to an audience of one.  (Not a few also engaged in juche-style adoration toward their Dear Leader, which he also eats up.) For a preview of how history will remember it, those Republicans would do well to examine how Nixon’s dead-end defenders are viewed today (or Joe McCarthy’s). And everything lives forever on the Internet.

But at the end of the day, here is the height of irony: Trump and his followers claim that with the impeachment, the Democrats are illegitimately interfering with the upcoming election, when in reality the whole reason for the impeachment is that Donald Trump was doing precisely that with his illegal pressure on Ukraine, which only the sadly deluded or the willfully dishonest can try to deny.

WALKING AND CHEWING GUM

I realize that from the start impeachment and the upcoming election have been inextricably connected. But the fixation on gamesmanship over principle is unhealthy to say the least.

I’ve heard the argument (from the left) that Trump is such an existential threat to our republic that his defeat at the polls must be prioritized over all else. Fair enough. Except that I’m not convinced that we will be facing a fair election in November. Is that preemptive, 2016-style Trumpian doubt-casting on the legitimacy of the vote, something I and many others decried when he regularly did it on the campaign trail against Hillary? Feel free to lob that allegation if you wish. But I would call it a well-founded fear, with lots of evidence to back it up, unlike Trump’s wildly unsubstantiated and dangerous claim. In any case, I’m certainly not willing to put all my eggs in that electoral basket when it comes to stopping that existential threat.

Moreover, I’ve argued before that the two are no mutually exclusive—as that argument presumes—but rather complementary. I don’t think impeachment is a losing strategy, politically speaking; on the contrary, a losing strategy is being so afraid of your criminal opponent that you are too meek even to stand up and call him out for his crimes.

Going into this process with the knowledge that Senate Republicans will almost surely refuse to convict, the Democratic Party has made the decision—correct in my view—that principle here demands impeachment even if it fails…..even if Trump gets to disingenuously wave acquittal as a banner of exoneration, as he did with Bill Barr’s distorted four-page non-summary of the 400-plus page Mueller report. It’s true that acquittal might look impressive to some undecided voters, but what would look even worse, IMHO, is handwringing by an insufficiently brave and bold Democratic Party that claims Trump is an unfit criminal pretender, but is unwilling to make that case in Congress as the Constitution demands.

(What worries me more is that if someone is still undecided about Trump at this point, they might be too stupid to be swayed by logic. In that regard, Team Trump has an edge for sure.)

Impeachment is a moral imperative. If Senate Republicans are willing to close ranks and say that the POTUS (at least a Republican POTUS) is above Congressional oversight, then they will have dealt a grievous blow to our representative democracy. But they must be forced to admit it publicly. I for one am not willing to let them get away with it unchallenged, without calling them out and insisting they stand up and demonstrate by a public show of hands if they are indeed that craven and dishonest. (Spoiler alert: they are.)

Will Trump go on to win in 2020? He might, but not because impeachment strengthened him. If he wins it will because of this cult-like support on the right, its willingness to game the system with black propaganda, foreign assistance, voter suppression, and—crucially—because our side didn’t make a sufficient argument for his wrongdoing and unfitness and for the appeal of our own candidate and platform by contrast. Impeachment is part of making that argument. When I see articles about how Trump is allegedly “winning” on impeachment despite the facts, or about how the Democrats are supposedly blowing it, or how Trump’s re-election is a lock, it makes me ill with its too-cool-for-school ennui. And I hear this cynical garbage not only from the right, as we would expect, but also from the center-left, and from ”Saturday Night Live.” In truth, as Democratic strategist Joel Payne recently told Chris Matthews, this impeachment is 20 points more popular right now than Bill Clinton’s ever was. Even Fox News shows fully 50% of voters in favor of impeachment and removal—not just impeachment, but impeachment AND removal. And I say again: that’s a poll from Fox News.

But even if I turn out to be wrong about the political implications (and I am sure that somewhere there may be perhaps one example of me being wrong), the bottom line is that Trump’s actions in Ukrainegate, and his brazen defiance of the US Constitution in obstructing the Congressional investigation thereof, have left us with no choice. We cannot ignore or excuse it. As Michael Luo writes in the New Yorker, “Failing to impeach Trump would have set a dangerous precedent—that Presidents can subvert American foreign policy for their own ends, without fear of consequences.”  It arose in the first place after he was not held to account over Russiagate; even now, he continues to thumb his nose at the rule of law and behave like an absolute monarch to the throne born, as Rudy Giuliani goes gallivanting around Ukraine openly carrying on with the very behavior for which his master is being impeached. And it will only get worse if Trump skates yet again.

Yes, I fear what the country will look like if we are saddled with four more years of this. But not impeaching him would have been worse, would have emboldened him even more than acquittal, and would not have improved our electoral fortunes even a whit. Yeah, the GOP wouldn’t have been able to run on impeachment and rile up its base, but it would have just riled them up with something else. Do you doubt it? Appeasing bullies, avoiding conflict, and hoping that won’t get mad or madder than they already are is never a winning strategy.

CREEPY OLD GUY

Based on his record number of angry old man tweets last week, and his astonishing six-page rant at Nancy Pelosi that read like it was dictated by a deranged fifth grader, Trump is obviously mad as a wet hen about his impeachment, even as he claims unconvincingly that it’s helping him. It may indeed be helping him, in terms of fundraising and energizing his base, but he is still visibly furious about it because he knows what a humiliation it is. You’d think he’d be delighted that he’s basically about to get away with murder, again, but he clearly understands what a stain this is on his legacy, even if he’s acquitted. Conviction or no, it is the most serious possible black mark against a US president, and Trump knows that as of this morning the very first line of his obituary will definitely include the “I” word. (Speaking of which, can we hurry up with that please?)

Yet in another irony, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, et al are partially robbing Trump of even the consolation of a presumptive acquittal by brazenly announcing in advance that they intend to mount such a sham of a trial in the Senate that only the most slavering Trump disciple will accept its result as genuine exoneration.

McConnell kicked it off by going on “Hannity” and declaring that he is not going behave like the foreman of a jury—which is what he will be—but rather as an arm of the defense. Graham then weighed in by repeatedly saying he’d already made up his mind and didn’t even need to sit through a trial, or hear any evidence.

Neither senator’s position is particularly surprising, of course. As Jennifer Rubin wrote in a piece unimprovably titled “Don’t Worry, Sen. Graham. No One Thought You’d Be Fair”: “Amidst his boot-licking and willful ignorance of a ‘quid pro quo,’ Graham left little doubt that he had the slightest intention of doing his job as a juror.”

Once again, Graham’s is a rather different mindset than he had as one of Bill Clinton’s most aggressive prosecutors in 1999, when he said:

I have a duty far greater than just getting to the next election. Members of the Senate have said, “I understand everything there is about this case, and I won’t vote to impeach the president.” Please allow the facts to do the talking…. Don’t decide the case before the case’s end. 

I know it’s become tedious to say, but let me say it again: Lindsey Graham might be the most loathsome, hypocritical, contemptible swamp creature in all of Washington DC, which is saying something, because the competition is world class. As the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus noted:

Fifteen current Republican senators served in the House or Senate during the Clinton impeachment. All but one of those—Sen. Susan Collins of Maine—voted either to impeach Clinton or to convict him and remove him from office. I’d challenge any of them to explain why they deemed Clinton’s behavior so bad and are so unmoved by Trump’s.

(Speaking of Leningrad Lindsey, I was recently appalled to learn that he and I were both stationed in Germany at the same time in the 1980s, he as an Air Force JAG officer at Rhein Main AFB in Frankfurt, me 35 klicks north as an Army infantry officer at a place called the Rock. I don’t recall ever seeing Lindsey on any of the many Friday nights I spent at the bar of the Rhein Main Officers Club. Perhaps he was busy contemplating how he could help the Russians bounce back from their impending defeat in the Cold War.)

So in a bitter irony, the words of McConnell, Graham, Dewey, Cheatem & Howe LLP may prove to be self-destructive by giving the lie to even the illusion that Trump will be truly exonerated. Of course, Donald is going to claim that no matter what, and MAGA Nation will believe it. But it won’t help his case with any thinking Americans, to the extent that anyone cares about them anymore. And it won’t look good in the history books, which we know that the transactional Republicans don’t care about at all, except when it comes to removing references to evolution.

To state the bleeding obvious: If Trump is so innocent, why are his Republican pals so afraid to review any evidence?

The preemptive destruction of even the veneer of due process is  all the more baffling when the GOP could easily put on the pretext of a fair trial and still carry the day. Are Republicans really that afraid of what will come out and what they will have to willfully deny in voting for acquittal? Or perhaps they just don’t give a fuck, so greedy and compacent and contemptuous have they become of even the trappings of democracy. To that end, the desire for a quick trial is not just a matter of downplaying the allegations and moving on (though it is more proof that impeachment truly does hurt Trump, even as the GOP tries to convince the DNC and America that it does just the opposite.) It is a further admission of Trump’s guilt.

As A.B. Stoddard writes in The Bulwark, “If Trump and Senate Republicans want to finish impeachment as quickly as possible, then they must believe that time is not on their side and that future developments are likely to cut against Trump’s position.”

I think that is safe to say.

Ironically, Trump—of course—wants a circus, because he is a sociopath who seems to genuinely believe that he has done no wrong here or anywhere else (see again The Letter), and cannot by definition, and that the Senate trial would be a great venue in which to smear Joe Biden with absolute lies. His lapdog Mr. Graham, the former prosecutor, admittedly got off a bon mot when he suggested that when someone has said out loud that they’re ready to acquit you (no matter what), you ought to get out of the way and let ‘em.

Trump wants to drag Joe and Hunter Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff into the Senate to testify? OK then, as Chuck Schumer rightly said, let’s also hear from Mulvaney and Pompeo and Pence and Bolton and Parnas and Giuliani.

I’m waiting.

GARLAND RULES

Seeing as Senate Republicans have brazenly signaled that they intend to violate their oaths, shamelessly ignore the evidence, and protect Trump no matter what, movement is building to use that against them: that is, to call them out and refuse to allow them to get away with this criminal dereliction of duty. Per above, they would have done well to keep their traps shut and at least pretend to obey the law and act impartially, and then vote to give Cheetoh Benito his get-out-of-jail-free card. But a hazard of the Trump era is that these thugs have grown accustomed to announcing in advance that they are gonna rob a bank. And this time, the cops are waiting for them.

Lots of smart people, from Laurence Tribe to Charlie Sykes to Bill Kristol to John Dean (!!!!), have recently suggested that the Democrats need not accede to the GOP’s blunt announcement that it has no intention of holding a fair trial in the Senate. As Sykes writes: “There is no requirement that the House immediately send the articles of impeachment over to the senate. This is Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s final card.”

Tribe has been proposing as much even before Ukrainegate broke, back when we were mulling impeachment based on the Mueller report. His initial idea was that the House impeach Trump and never refer the articles to the Senate, thereby denying him the chance to wave the inevitable hyperpartisan acquittal as a flag of exoneration. Now the actions of McConnell, Graham, et al have give the Democrats justification for so doing, or some variation thereof. The new notion is to humbly insist that, gee, Republican Senators not behave like jurors in a mob trial bought and paid for by the Don, as they have bluntly announced they intend to do.

McConnell’s flag-planting in Camp Trump is already being used against him, and rightly so. After Schumer proposed calling Bolton, Mulvaney, et al as witnesses in the trial, Tribe tweeted: “If (McConnell) rejects these reasonable ground rules & insists on a non-trial, the House should consider treating that as a breach of the Senate’s oath & withholding the Articles until the Senate reconsiders.”

Writing in the Washington Post, he explained further:

Under the current circumstances, such a proceeding would fail to render a meaningful verdict of acquittal. It would also fail to inform the public, which has the right to know the truth about the conduct of its president….

Consider the case of a prosecutor armed with a grand jury indictment who learns that the fix is in and that the jury poised to consider the case is about to violate its oath to do impartial justice. In that situation, the prosecutor is under no affirmative legal obligation to go forward until the problem is cured and a fair trial possible. So, too, the House, whose historical role is to prosecute articles of impeachment in the Senate after exercising its “sole” power to impeach, is under no affirmative constitutional obligation to do so instantly. That is especially true when the majority leader has made clear that he is, for all practical purposes, a member of the defense team.

We are in Merrick Garland territory here, folks. This time, let’s play hardball like they do. Just because we have long assumed (correctly, it turns out) that the GOP intends to acquit Trump no matter what does not mean we should roll over and just let them do it without a fight…..without throwing up every procedural argument and obstacle the law allows…..without put a 10,000 kilowatt spotlight on their actions…..without making it clear that if they proceed with a kangaroo court (as they were fond of calling the House proceedings), they will in effect be just confirming Trump’s guilt.

As Senator Schumer said on TV, if the Republican majority holds a ridiculously speedy trial that dispenses with the charges without any serious consideration of them, the American people will rightly ask: “What are they hiding?” (At least some of them will ask that.)

Indeed, with their prejudicial statements beforehand, McConnell and Graham (and possibly others) may have compromised themselves as jurors and rendered it impossible to take the oath required of them by Rule XXV of the Senate Rules prior to participating in an impeachment trial: “I solemnly swear [or affirm, as the case may be] that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of [the person being impeached], now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.

Will a Democratic Senator like Schumer or Kamala or Cory Booker or Liz Warren or Bernie move that McConnell (and Graham, and others similarly self-tainted) recuse himself? I certainly hope so. How will Chief Justice John Roberts respond? I don’t expect Mitch to do the right thing, or for Roberts to press it. But that spineless bastard should be forced to address the charge and publicly own his refusal to step aside. Red Hat Nation, of course, will find a way to cheer even that hypocrisy. But history will record it as yet another shameful moment by which the man from Kentucky will be cursed on into posterity.

MISS IT! NOONAN!

A note on language:

I hesitate to call Trump supporters “conservatives,” as they are anything but. But when I call them Republicans—which seems fair, given the party’s abject, bootlicking surrender to the man from Queens—I often get Trump people snorting to me that they are not registered Republicans, and in fact loathe the party establishment, followed by a laundry list of their complaints about the late John McCain. But since they now own the GOP, I suggest they get used to the elephantine label. Alternatively, I will settle for calling them “right wingers,” which is undeniable by any definition.

Whatever we agree to call them, it goes without saying that the formerly anti-Trump Republicans who have now obsequiously gone all in on Trump—Graham, Cruz, Paul, Pompeo, et al—are beneath contempt. (I think I saw Marco Rubio’s testicles on a milk carton.) But there is also a whole cowardly class of so-called conservatives who want to have it both ways, particularly in the punditocracy.

While any number of absolute cretins can regularly be seen on Fox News, occasionally a real piece of work shows up elsewhere. One such Republican apologist who appeared last week on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” with Chuck Todd, was conservative chattering head Danielle Pletka. I suppose she is what passes for a “reasonable” Republican in the current climate, which says a lot, but it was revolting to listen to her blithe assertion that the American people have decided Donald Trump is guilty of these crimes but that they’re not impeachable, and are bored with the details. (Implying that she feels likewise.) That is surely true of MAGA Nation, but it’s hardly true of the entire country. I have rarely heard a more cynical and dishonest generalization, one aimed at selling a false narrative right out of the GOP playbook.

It’s also amazing to see these allegedly respectable old school conservatives—not just screeching Breitbart brand hyenas—lamenting the “divisiveness” ripping out country apart. (It shouldn’t be amazing after decades of Republican hypocrisy, but it is.) Consider Peggy Noonan, a Reagan-era apparatchik who gets trotted out as we look back wistfully upon what now seems like an era of kinder and gentler reactionaryism. Noonan too recently appeared on “MTP Daily” to bemoan the fact that impeachment process has been so “partisan”—as if the real problem is the Democrats insisting on the rule of law, and not the GOP’s indefensible aiding and abetting of this criminal president. (Todd, as is his wont, didn’t push back, but joined in her pearl-clutching.)

And merrily we roll along with the toxic false equivalence that brought us to this pretty pass in the first place.

But I know this much: The more that Republicans claim that Democrats are damaging themselves with impeachment, the more I know we are on the right track.

FIGHT THE POWER

As I’ve argued before, the upcoming Senatorial ranks-closing around this criminal will be one of the blackest days in modern US history.

But no matter what ultimately happens, I am proud of the Democratic Party in this moment, which is not something I can always say. As Michael Luo again reports, “In the past few months, Democrats have satisfied their responsibilities, under the Constitution, to conduct a sober fact-finding inquiry, but their Republican counterparts have steadfastly refused to fulfill theirs.”

Congressional Democrats have stood up for the Constitution, the rule of law, and the idea of separation of powers and checks on balances on an wannabe despot. They have deployed the biggest and most powerful weapon in the constitutional arsenal in marking Trump with the scarlet letter “I.” It might cost them the 2020 presidential election, or it might win it for them. It might doom their chances to retake the Senate or it might bolster those chances. Let us hope it doesn’t cost us the House, even if certain individual Democratic members lose their seats in Trump-friendly districts for the sin of exercising integrity. But none of that is the broader point. However it shakes out, history will report that in this time of crisis, the Democratic Party showed some goddam backbone and was willing to stand up for principle.

Mayors are figuring unusually heavily in this election—from young Mr. Buttigieg, to old Mr. Bloomberg, to the batshit crazy Mr. Giuliani. But the one I have in mind at the moment is an honorary one, and a fictional one, Ossie Davis as “Da Mayor,” who told Mookie, and us: “Always do the right thing.”

Good advice.

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Framegrab: Ossie Davis and Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989), written, directed, and produced by Spike, shot by Ernest Dickerson.

 

 

 

Obstructed View

Obstructed View

Here’s the lede, which I’m going to say again and again as long as this shitshow continues:

None of this would be happening if millions of Americans were not totally thrilled about the idea of a right wing autocrat.

So this week let us examine that headsnapping fact through the prism of just one aspect of the Ukrainegate scandal: the Trump administration’s brazen obstruction of the investigation, something with which those aforementioned millions are just fine.

OBSTRUCT THIS

Yesterday the legal counsels for the House Intelligence Committee—Daniel Goldman for the Democratic majority and Stephen Castor for the Republican minority— delivered statements to the House Judiciary Committee ahead of a vote to move forward with articles of impeachment, which are likely to be presented today. In one sense the lawyers’ appearance was just more kabuki theater, as their respective statements represented diametrically opposed, mirror image visions of Ukrainegate in the never-ending Rorschach test that American life has become.

But as I have often said, two people arguing about the shape of the planet are not both necessarily correct, no matter how loudly the flat earth faction shouts.

Goldman succinctly laid out a case that only the most deluded Trump disciple, or cynical right wing partisan, could plausibly deny. Castor’s statement, by contrast, was a laughable display of dishonesty, obfuscation, and misdirection hinging on the idea that Donald Trump is a valiant and altruistic anti-corruption crusader whose actions in this matter are driven only by his deep, deep desire to clean up the dirty domestic politics of the country of Ukraine. If you’re onboard with that, email me at info@thekingsnecktie.com, because I have a bridge just down the street at the end of Cadman Plaza that I’ll let you have cheap.

But we need not spend one syllable here on the underlying high crimes regarding Ukraine; they have been well-detailed elsewhere, including in these pages. Let us instead confine ourselves purely to the White House’s obstruction of efforts to investigate those offenses, which is to say, the coverup.

I say “coverup,” but that term implies a secret effort to hide the facts. The Trump administration is openly blocking investigators’ access to the facts, which is less like a coverup than flatout contempt for the rule of law.

As every rational observer has already stated, if the White House had exculpatory evidence, they would have rushed it into the public eye. It would be blaring 24/7 from Donald’s Twitter feed, and on Hannity and Judge Jeannie and Ingraham every night, and from the lips of every Trump supporter (should they be able to pry them loose from Donald’s ass).

But they don’t have any such evidence. Very much the contrary.

Therefore, Team Trump has instead done precisely the opposite. It has stonewalled, ordering every conceivable arm of the federal government not to cooperate with proper Congressional oversight. As the report of the House Intelligence Committee put it, “(Trump) has ordered federal agencies and officials to disregard all voluntary requests for documents and defy all duly authorized subpoenas for records. He also directed all federal officials in the Executive Branch not to testify—even when compelled.”

Most egregious (and telling) of all, the White House has instructed the most important, high-ranking witnesses like Mulvaney, Bolton, and Pompeo—the people who have the information that would be most valuable to Congress—not to appear, even when legally ordered to do so. (NB: Trump has issued these “orders” even when the individual in question, like Bolton, or Don McGahn, is no longer a federal employee and under no obligation to obey. So these punks are complicit in the refusal, much as they want to pretend their blood-covered hands are tied.)

Trump of course, has said he would “love” for these individuals to testify, which is damn near a guarantee that the White House will never let them do so. The reason, as both Occam’s razor and common sense tell us, is that if they were to tell the truth under penalty of perjury (not necessarily a certainty), what they have to say would likely be a knife in the heart of Trump’s claim of innocence.

Then again, why not let them testify? No matter what they have to say—and remember, Mulvaney has already said on live TV that hell yes, Trump ordered the Code Red, and “we do this stuff all the time”—the Republican Party will just deny that it amounts to a hill of beans. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

GOD SAVE THE KING

This obstruction of justice is arguably worse even than the abuse of power that Trump is obstructing investigation of. (And that abuse—stealing taxpayer dollars to bribe a foreign leader to interfere in our elections—was pretty goddam bad.)

Even Richard Nixon, the previous titleholder when it comes to contempt for Congress and the rule of law, at least acknowledged the authority of the Constitution he was subverting. Trump, on the other hand, is behaving with utter disregard for even the pretense that he ought to obey the law, operating instead with the same wantonly criminal mentality that has been his north star his entire, obscenely entitled life. And that is not because he is a Nietzschean ubermensch. It’s because he’s a lawless cretin.

In the Bulwark last week, Never Trump conservative Charlie Sykes wrote brilliantly about the magnitude of Trump’s unprecedented obstruction. I’ll quote it here at length, because, you know, why reinvent the wheel when Charlie has already built such a beautiful unicycle?

In laying out the case against Donald Trump, the House Intelligence Committee noted that Trump ”is the first President in the history of the United States to seek to completely obstruct an impeachment inquiry undertaken by the House of Representatives under Article I of the Constitution, which vests the House with the ‘sole Power of Impeachment.’”

The report noted that the president “has publicly and repeatedly rejected the authority of Congress to conduct oversight of his actions and has directly challenged the authority of the House to conduct an impeachment inquiry into his actions regarding Ukraine”……

This makes Trump historically unique. As of today, Congress has received only a single document from the Administration: the read-out of the July 25 call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. Everything else is behind the Trumpian stonewall, along with testimony of key players from Mick Mulvaney to John Bolton.

No other president,” the report concludes, “has flouted the Constitution and power of Congress to conduct oversight to this extent.” Richard Nixon famously resisted releasing the White House tapes until compelled by the Supreme Court, but nevertheless “accepted the authority of Congress to conduct an impeachment inquiry and permitted his aides and advisors to produce documents and testify to Congressional committees.”

Let us pause a moment to take that in.

Trump is saying, in effect, that Congress has no right to investigate him. The actual charges in question are irrelevant, because in Trump’s view it doesn’t matter. He can do whatever he pleases and Congress can’t say boo. And that, my friends, is the very definition of autocracy.

If and when these articles of impeachment come before the Senate, surely including obstruction of the investigation as one of its charges, the broader GOP is going to have to stand up in public and announce if it agrees. If it blithely excuses Trump’s obstruction, we will have crossed an extremely dangerous line. And right now, we have every reason to believe that is exactly what the Republican Party intends to do.

SLOW YOUR ROLL (GOP STYLE)

At the same time that the Trump administration is engaging in this Guinness Book of World Records-worthy obstructionism, its amen corner in the Republican leadership and right wing media is arguing that the Democrats are moving too fast on impeachment. This was the deliberately disingenuous argument made last week before the House Judiciary Committee by the GOP’s own handpicked witness, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, one that can be summarized as, “What’s the hurry?”

As with most of the GOP’s die-in-place defense of Trump, it is a process argument that tellingly fails to rebut any of the actual allegations against him—always the sign of a weak hand. But that’s the least of it.

Turley’s argument that impeaching on less than full and total evidence cheapens the process and lowers the bar for removal of a president is the height of dishonesty, since—do I really need to say this?—it is the White House itself that is that is illegally withholding that very evidence. You can’t refuse to comply with a process and then complain that the process is proceeding without you. (Unless your surname rhymes with “garbage dump.”) One has to admire the chutzpah, except for the part where that chutzpah destroys our democracy.

At the core of Turley’s circular “logic” is the ultimate deceit of the Trump/GOP position. They are employing this irrational, Kafkaesque defense because they cannot defend his actions on their merits, such as they are.

Turley’s performance ought to have made him the laughingstock of the faculty cafeteria. His white dude bias, on the hand, is top notch. The Nation reports: “During the confirmation battle for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—the first woman of color ever nominated to the Supreme Court—Turley argued that his thorough ‘review’ of 30 Sotomayor opinions revealed that she lacked the ‘intellectual depth’ of a good Supreme Court nominee.” (In other news, Quasimodo calls J-Lo ugly.)

And let’s go back even further with the amazing Jonathan. The Nation again:

In 1998, testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment hearing, Turley said, “No matter how you feel about President Clinton, no matter how you feel about the independent counsel, by his own conduct, he has deprived himself of the perceived legitimacy to govern. You need both political and legal legitimacy to govern this nation, because the President must be able to demand an absolute sacrifice from the public at a moment’s notice.”

It’s impossible to explain the shameless hypocrisy of Turley’s conflicting statements without concluding that his testimony, in both hearings, was offered in bad faith. Can Turley really expect us to believe that he would support impeachment if Trump lied about what he got on Volodymyr Zelensky’s blue dress, but would also support Bill Clinton’s right to extort a foreign power to influence an American election?….

 Back then, Turley was lauded by people like Rush Limbaugh for demanding that Clinton’s own Secret Service agents be subpoenaed to testify about what they know. You’ll note that Turley made no such demands yesterday of former national security adviser John Bolton or Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney….

Luckily, Turley’s argument is moot. The Mt. Everest of evidence already on hand is more than sufficient for articles of impeachment, and indeed conviction. The very act of stonewalling makes Trump look super duper guilty (I’m using the technical legal term), which any sentient person not shitfaced on Fox News-brand Kool Aid can see, and is itself impeachable conduct.

TOO LEGIT TO QUIT

Turley’s specious arguments are part of a broader GOP stance that is only slightly more sophisticated than Trump’s juvenile position that “I can do whatever I want” (but only slightly).

That Republican position stops short of rejecting the whole concept of impeachment, but holds that this particular process is so out of order that cooperating would only “legitimize” it, thus opening future presidents up to similar indefensible attack by radical, out-of-control opponents. (Somewhere in the ninth circle of hell, Dick Nixon is smiling.)

Two reasons that’s a joke.

First of all, per above, if the White House and GOP had evidence that would absolve Donald Trump of these offenses, they would certainly air it—especially if they thought the whole impeachment was a charade. The Trump administration isn’t exactly known for its subtlety or restraint.

But they don’t and they can’t.

Secondly, the claim of illegitimacy itself is the real howler, when everything about this impeachment has been done by the book. It is precisely the mechanism the Founders created for a scenario of this exact sort. You might be a Republican who thinks this particular application of it is groundless, that the evidence is just not there, and that the Senate ought to vote to acquit. (You might also be on crack, but still.) But no serious person can argue that the process itself is illegitimate. To do so is to say there is no impeachment clause at all, and to say there is no impeachment clause is to say that we are a monarchy. In that regard, the GOP’s fancier argument is really no different than Trump’s crude one.

The autocracy-curious GOP is very keen on the letter of the law when it comes to the President’s unilateral authority to do things that infuriate the other party (and huge swaths of the public), like ordering the Muslim travel ban, or re-allocating budget money to build a beaded curtain on the southern border. But when it comes to the House exercising its own Constitutionally-mandated authority, suddenly they cry “Overreach!”

As we are reminded ad nauseam, impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. If in the last decade the Republican House had had the votes to impeach Obama for the infamous khaki suit, or for putting Dijon mustard on his hamburger, or for taking off his jacket in the Oval Office (all real things that Republicans were outraged over), it would have been within its rights to do so. It would have been absurd, and therefore counterproductive to Republican fortunes, but not unconstitutional. (Otherwise they would surely have tried it.) That is why the Founders set the bar for conviction in the Senate so high, at a two-thirds majority. If a frivolous or even merely weak case for impeachment is brought, the Presidency should defend itself, as Bill Clinton did. Categorically refusing to do so implies guilt, not principle. But to say that impeachment is illegitimate full stop and therefore the White House is within its rights to defy it is about the most extreme and anti-constitutional position an American political party could take. And that is the position that the Trump administration and a good many of its defenders in the Republican Party are taking.

GASLIGHT FEELS RIGHT

Let us return briefly to the great legal scholar and totally not a partisan hack Jon Turley.

In addition to his “what’s the hurry?” argument, Mr. Turley also told the House Judiciary Committee that he believes that Trump should not be impeached based on the evidence presented thus far, but that “if you prove a quid pro quo, then you might have an impeachable offense.”

Is he kidding, or is he seriously arguing that Trump did not withhold military aid to Ukraine (and a White House meeting for President Zelenskyy) for personal gain, after a parade of witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee, including firsthand testimony from EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, established that he did precisely that?

This is Republican gaslighting at its finest.

Needless to say, Republicans would shriek with outrage and scorn if a Democratic politician tried to make the same specious claim, and they would be right to do so. The GOP is clinging to the “no quid” argument the same way the Mafia claims that a Mob boss is innocent because he didn’t explicitly say in writing, “Take this handgun and go shoot Vinnie ‘The Elbow’ Scarfone in the face outside Umberto’s.” (Which is precisely why we have the RICO Act.)

And I’m not a constitutional law professor, but even if Trump hadn’t extorted Kyiv by withholding items of value, just asking a foreign power to interfere in an American election is illegal. (Or so I learned during “The Bob Mueller Show,” which ran on MSNBC from 2017-19.)

I bring this up because it goes directly to the dishonesty of Turley’s other argument about undue haste, and the White House’s blanket refusal to cooperate with the inquiry. The fact that Turley propagated the “no quid pro quo” fiction suggests that NO amount of evidence will be acknowledged as sufficient, and the Republican Party will continue to reject demonstrable reality. And once they plant that black flag of nihilism, they have no more credibility whatsoever and there is no having any rational discussion with them.

The real reason for that blanket refusal, as Charlie Sykes also notes in his recent Bulwark piece, is that it is working. Again, he deserves quoting at length:

As galling as it may be to acknowledge it, the reality is that Trump’s effort to obstruct Congress is a success, much like his well-documented efforts to obstruct the Mueller probe. The House decision not to push for the enforcement of its subpoenas virtually guarantees that the case will go to the Senate without volumes of pertinent evidence.

I am among those who think the evidence at hand is more than sufficient to justify Trump’s impeachment. But his partisan supporters will continue to declare the effort a sham and the case unproven and unironically complain about the lack of direct evidence—ignoring Trump’s all-out effort to conceal it from Congress.

Historians, who will know far more about Trump’s conduct that we do now, will marvel at how much evidence of his misconduct was left on the table. They will have access to documents, emails, text messages, memoirs, and transcripts (the United States vs. Giuliani?) that we have not seen.

At least some of them will write, “in fairness…” and then note the comprehensive nature of Trump’s obstruction. But, by then, Trump will have been acquitted by the senate and claimed exoneration.

For Trump, this is the lesson that he learned from the Mueller probe – investigations can be successfully obstructed, the rule of law be damned.

And this goes to the heart of the current impeachment effort: the obstruction is not a sideshow: it is heart of Trump’s attack on constitutional norms. In effect, he is in the process of shattering the system of checks and balances that we have relied on to check executive power. If he continues to succeed, it will set both a political and constitutional precedent that will be all but impossible to reverse.

That is an exceptionally depressing assessment, but sadly, an accurate one.

But none of this obstruction would succeed if the GOP did not excuse and condone and actively abet it. And the GOP would not do that if there was not an electoral benefit…..in other words, because they know that sixty-some million right wing Americans are totally supportive of it. The day that Donald Trump is acquitted by the quisling Republican majority in the Senate will be a dark day for American democracy. But the real point is the extent to which the Republican rank and file is totally fine with it.

WE DON’T NEED THIS FASCIST GROOVE THANG

We rightly blame Trump for being a human colostomy bag, and the GOP for creating the conditions that gave rise to him, and for protecting him to the ends of the earth for their own venal interests. But we also need to recognize that this is not a strictly top down phenomenon, but rather the result of the great mass of our own countrymen who have incentivized the GOP to do that, and continue to do so.

I don’t contend that most Republicans see themselves as championing the cause of fascism. That is precisely the problem. They have become so brainwashed by decades of Fox News indoctrination that they don’t even recognize the actions of this administration as anti-democratic, or hypocritical, or unconstitutional, or simply wrong. Their ability to think critically is gone. Call me an elitist libtard, say I’m part of the problem, or what have you, but it’s the truth. The tribalism has become so intense that many Republicans and other right wing Americans see Democrats and progressives as inherently evil, assaulting “democracy” at every turn, and their own tribe as inherently good and decent and right at all times. That is the mentality of a cult, not a rational political organization. And—anticipating the pushback here, Trumpers—part of that tribalism is to accuse the other side of being just as tribalistic and unable to think critically, an ouroboros of self-justifying false equivalence that powers this perpetual motion disinformation machine. See above re the flat earth.

We know that the plutocrats and kleptocrats and jingoists who comprise the Republican leadership, with their fetish for the unitary executive theory, tend to favor an authoritarian state that facilitates their greed, both foreign and domestic, vastly preferring it to representative democracy with its messy “will of the people” and all that rot. We also know Trump has a hard-on for despots, as shown by his man-crush on Putin, his praise for Kim and Xi and Duterte, his kowtowing to Erdogan, and his shameful, ongoing defense of Riyadh. The real crisis for our country began with the merger of these two poisonous forces, when the GOP accidentally discovered that it could weaponize this demagogic con man for its own purposes. That is tragic, and chilling, but easy enough to understand.

What is more mysterious is why ordinary rank-and-file Republicans are predisposed to crave an autocracy, or for that matter, why anyone would do so who is not part of the ruling class that has profit participation in it. Perhaps it is for the same reason that conservative working and middle class people—especially in the US—habitually vote against their own economic interests (“Hey, I’ll be rich someday too!”). Or perhaps, through nature or nurture, they are desperate for a cruel daddy figure to make them feel safe and/or boss them around. I don’t know.

But it goes without saying that all of these right wingers, mandarins and hoi polloi alike, only admire and condone such autocracy from the right. American conservatives, you will recall, were red faced with fury over Barack Obama’s alleged “imperial presidency“ and his use of executive orders. A left wing president who engaged in even a fraction of Trump’s abuses of power would likely lead to violent uprising by our heavily armed, Kid Rock-listening, Stars-and-Bars-waving countrymen. We are way beyond simple tribalism here and into a dangerously irrational realm.

An example. Just last week another great American, Ken Starr—cementing his place in infamy as a partisan bagman without a shred of integrity—accused Nancy Pelosi of “abusing her power” and suggested that the Senate might just dismiss articles of impeachment out of hand. I am skeptical of that prediction, but not because I think McConnell would never be so shameless. (Two words: Merrick Garland.) I think that under the right conditions Mitch would do it faster than his wife can funnel money to her relatives back home. But I suspect the GOP would prefer a show trial that they and Trump can use to claim “total and complete exoneration.”

But the greater point is the sheer hypocrisy of this American Javert. Starr sure does have a different standard for presidential misbehavior than he did in the late ‘90s, not unlike his former underling Brett Kavanaugh, who now believes a sitting president should not even be investigated while in office, let alone charged with a criminal offense. Next step: making the whole idea of a Democrat in the White House impossible by declaring any election that puts one there illegitimate by definition.

Think the GOP won’t go that far? OK. We shall see.

REPUBLIC’S END

As the author Michael Gruber writes, “The GOP is acting like a party that will never have to face a free and fair election again.” Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that it thinks it will not.

The entire history of the Trump presidency thus far is the story of a rapid slide into bald-faced one-man rule, to include the debasement of free elections. If Senate Republicans are now willing to close ranks and say that the POTUS (at least a Republican POTUS) is above Congressional oversight, then they will have said in effect that we are not a representative democracy at all, and the president is in fact a king. And kings don’t need no stinking elections.

Even with the upcoming Republican primaries, the GOP is taking no chances, canceling many of those elections (in eight states so far) rather than give anyone a chance to challenge Trump. As Charlie Sykes also points out in the Bulwark (it was a big week for Charlie), that in itself bespeaks not strength but weakness. For a president who likes to brag about his sky-high approval ratings within his party what is he so afraid of? Shouldn’t he welcome the chance to display his alleged dominance? Hell, even tinhorn tyrants like Putin and Kim at least pretend to hold elections to provide a veneer of legitimacy to their rule.

So be careful what you wish for, Republicans. You might like an autocracy fine when it foists your chosen one on snowflakes like me, but you might not like it so much when you’re the foistee.

For three years now I have been in a near-constant state of blood pressure-popping fury at what is happening to and in our country. (Did anyone notice? I think I hid it pretty well.) Weirdly, I am now finding that recognizing the all-out Republican embrace of autocracy actually calms me down a little. Once the claim of GOP belief in democracy is completely exposed as the farce it is, it’s easier to face—and in some ways easier to fight. I no longer feel quite so enraged by Republican lies, hypocrisy, and other crimes, because we no longer even pretend to believe in the same values or form of government. We are fast approaching the point where there’s no denying that we live in an unrepentant authoritarian state, ruled by a maliciously ignorant manchild whom the party happily uses to advance its hateful agenda, in return for which they allow him to enrich himself and his brood, and shield him from rightful legal accountability.

Yeah, that sounds like what the Founders had in mind in 1787, doesn’t it?

And if Trump manages to win again in 2020, legitimately or otherwise, the idea of Donald unchained in a second term is a truly chilling one. His acquittal itself will do grievous damage to the republic; if he subsequently gets four more years, it is fair to ask whether our republic will survive at all in any kind of recognizable form.

If we do not act to hold Trump accountable, either through removal by impeachment or by electoral defeat, his behavior will continue and indeed get worse. Indeed, it is continuing even now. Even as the impeachment barrels forward, Rudy Giuliani was just on the ground in Ukraine continuing to engage in the very behavior that has put this presidency at existential risk. It was a gobsmacking sight. But this administration is giving the finger not only to the impeachment inquiry but the rule of law full stop, knowing that the GOP has its back, and thus planting the flag of autocracy on the White House lawn. And sixty-some million Americans seem perfectly fine with that.

Until that changes, this nightmare will continue.

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Illustration: LP cover of George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music (1968), by Bob Gill. (Read more about the creative friction in its gestation and the reason for the missing brick.)

 

Will We Go Into the Darkness?

Will We

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that an epic moment for the future of our country looms ahead.

In public hearings over the past two weeks, Congressional Democrats have laid out an overwhelming case that Donald Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors in the Ukraine scandal. I am aware that right wing America does not see it that way. But right wing America also believes that Donald Trump is a corruption-fighting superhero, a lavishly generous philanthropist, a devoted enemy of Vladimir Putin, and a very stable genius. (Also: that climate change is a hoax.)

It goes without saying that if a Democratic president had committed even a fraction of these offenses, the GOP would already be outside the White House with pitchforks and torches (purchased from Lowe’s). I refer you once again to Obama’s khaki-colored suit.

But this goes way beyond mere partisanship. We are at a point where one of our two major parties and millions of its supporters are contemplating an action that undermines the very fundamental principles at the core of our democracy. I should specify that by that I mean the Republican Party and its willingness to excuse Trump’s behavior, because—per above—its rank-and-file believe it is the Democrats doing precisely that. But their conviction only proves my point, in that Trump and his supporters now reject proper Congressional oversight over the executive branch in favor of the redefinition of President Donald Trump as a king.

A BIG BOWL OF WRONG

After a world class display of goalpost-moving since the Ukraine scandal first broke, the GOP now seems to have settled on the argument that Trump’s behavior was wrong, but not impeachable.

There are two big problems with that.

First, it’s patently absurd. To excuse his actions in the Ukraine would be to affirm that the President can bribe foreign officials for his own gain using Congressionally-allocated taxpayer dollars, and then blatantly obstruct right and proper investigations into that behavior, to include witness tampering and intimidation. As Andrew Sullivan writes, “If that is the president’s position—that he can constitutionally ask any other country to intervene on his behalf in a US election—it represents a view of executive power that is the equivalent of a mob boss’s.” (I know many on the left are permanently furious with Sullivan and won’t read anything he writes. I have my issues with him myself, but he is right on the money there.)

Again, imagine if a Democratic president, blah blah blah. That is not to engage in whataboutist tit-for-tat, but merely to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the GOP position. We know that Trump has boasted that Article II of the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want.” (Someone must have told him that there was such as thing as “Article II.” Or a “Constitution.”) Such is his troglodyte interpretation of American democracy. But we are now on the verge of watching the GOP confirm that it agrees.

The second problem is that Trump himself is constantly undermining the “wrong but not impeachable” stance.

I know they’ll find a way, but how are Republicans plausibly going to mount that defense when Trump keeps tweeting things like: “Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable … NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!” Ironically, the GOP’s defense of last resort might actually save him, but with characteristic mulishness, he refuses to play along, insisting on his absolute monarchist vision of the presidency.

It’s obvious that Trump was emboldened by having escaped justice in Russiagate. (The pressure campaign against Kyiv had begun months before, but it’s no coincidence that the fateful July 25, 2019 call with Zelinskyy came the very day after Bob Mueller’s anti-climactic testimony before Congress.) If Trump is not held accountable now, he clearly will do this sort of thing again.

As David Frum writes, he’s probably doing it right now.

PROFILES IN COURAGE (NOT)

The idea that Senate Republicans will give Trump a get-out-of-jail-free card is infuriating and indefensible, but after watching the despicable behavior of House Republicans during the last two weeks of hearings, we better get used to it.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. As I say, the impeachment case is mighty strong, and although the conventional wisdom is still that there’s no way twenty Republican Senators suddenly become vertebrates, a lot can change in the next few months, especially if Trump continues to be his own worst enemy. Look at how fast this whole scandal has unfolded, how fast impeachment—once thought to be dead as disco—came to the point of fruition from a standing start, and how fast public opinion has shifted to support it.

But the odds still remain that, absent a switch to a secret ballot (which is not actually all that farfetched), Trump will be acquitted by the Senate, through sheer willingness to put party over principle and over country.

The canary in the coalmine is Congressman Will Hurd (R-Texas), a reasonable seeming African-American former CIA officer who isn’t even running for re-election in 2020, and who represents what ought to be the most moderate and rational wing of the GOP. Yet Hurd, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who was present for the testimony of witnesses over the past two weeks, subsequently stated that he thinks Trump’s actions don’t merit impeachment, reflecting at worst a “misguided foreign policy.”

That’s like saying the secret bombing of Cambodia was a “careless handling of ammunition.”

If Will Hurd won’t vote for impeachment, no Republican will.

Former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Florida, speaking to Nicole Wallace, gave this perfect summary of the GOP’s shameful role at this critical moment in American history:

These are, in today’s Republican Party, spineless politicians, rotten to the core. Without virtue, without any level of human integrity. Devoid of self respect, self reflection. Without courage and without the moral compass to recognize their own malevolence. And one day maybe they will have the recognition of how they failed the country and themselves in this moment. But that would be giving them credit that somewhere down deep they have the goodness to recognize how to reconcile their own failings with what is right and just in American politics, and frankly, what is right and wrong in the eyes of adults and children alike….

I agree they inevitably will make the case this is not impeachable. The problem is it requires every single Republican to align with Donald Trump and say that only Donald Trump speaks the truth. That Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, a man of honor and Purple Heart recipient, does not speak the truth. Ambassador McKinley, somebody who’s referred to as the ‘dean of the foreign service corps,’ does not speak the truth. Ambassador Yovanovitch, somebody who dedicated her life to promoting freedom and US ideals on the world stage, does not speak the truth. Only Donald Trump does. And there is no greater example of selling your soul to a charlatan than what Republicans are doing right now in the House and the Senate. And their legacies are on the line just as much as Donald Trump’s. We know the character of Donald Trump. We know the failings of Donald Trump. Watching play out in this impeachment proceeding is the failings of a Republican Party and every single member that goes along with this.

All you need to know about the modern GOP is that a man of principle like David Jolly felt compelled to leave it.

DECISION POINTS #1 AND #2

So let me state the patently obvious. If the Republican majority in the Senate blocks the removal of Donald Trump from office despite the manifest evidence of his abuse of power and other high crimes, it will be a dark day for the United States of America. It will mean, in short, that one of our two political parties has abandoned any semblance of respect for the rule of law. That should not come as a shock, given the GOP’s decades-long descent into neo-authoritarianism. But an acquittal of Trump would be the final nail in the coffin of conservative credibility.

In the final act of Watergate, when Nixon’s crimes became undeniable, the mandarins of the Republican Party did the right thing—belatedly perhaps, but they did it. Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Jacob Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott famously went to the White House and privately told Dick it was time to go. And he went.

Neither thing—Republican courage nor presidential acceptance of his fate—is likely to happen this time. And let’s bear in mind that Watergate, terrible as Nixon’s sins were, was a far less serious abuse of presidential power than what Trump has done.

Assuming Trump survives trial in the Senate, the next inflection point will be the election, which at the current optempo, figures to hit about eight to ten months later, and will be perhaps our last chance to put out this housefire and save the republic.

As I have argued over and over, echoing the thinking of many Democratic strategists, merely by laying out his crimes and general unfitness for office the impeachment process might damage Trump badly enough to doom him next November. In a functional democracy, it wouldn’t even be a question.

In that sense, the presumptive GOP decision to put party over country might prove a shortsighted calculation. If enough Americans are sufficiently disgusted by this Republican display of dishonesty, hypocrisy, and cowardice, the GOP might pay a hefty price in 2020, from the top of the ballot all the way down. Indeed, the indefensible defense of Trump might haunt and hobble the GOP for years to come. (I’ll stop short of the wishful thinking that it will be fatally wounded and go the way of its ideological forebear, the Know-Nothings. After all, just six years after Nixon resigned the GOP took back the White House.)

Then again, it might not pay that price at all. As I’ve written before, my nightmare, like that of many Americans, is that Trump not only survives impeachment but manages to get re-elected. He may do so “legitimately,” under the anti-democratic, countermajoritarian mechanism of the Electoral College (it wouldn’t be the first time), or illegitimately, through outright criminality. Since both paths involve voter suppression, black propaganda, rivers of dark money, violations of campaign finance laws, and other skullduggery, including the assistance of foreign powers, the line between legitimate and illegitimate is pretty fuzzy.

But we cannot lay off a potential Trump win as a flatout train robbery by the RNC, not even if it’s with the help of a certain Mr. V. Putin, late of St. Petersburg. If it is a train robbery, it’s one where a fair number of the passengers are in on the crime.

Lest we forget, sixty-two million Americans did vote for Trump in 2016, for whatever reason: three million less than voted for Hillary Clinton, yet still an appallingly high number. Ironically, Trump might cobble together an even bigger Electoral College win next time around while losing the popular vote by an even bigger margin—an outcome that cannot be described as democratic by any reasonable definition of the term. To those conservatives who bluffly shrug and say, “Tough luck, that’s just how the Founders built our system” (or make some flimsy gesture at justifying it with blather about states’ rights), I would suggest that they would be far less sanguine if that system happened to favor the other side. The egregious flaws of the Electoral College are a book-length essay all by themselves, but suffice it to say that the institution was from the very start designed to benefit the Southern slaveholding states, and continues to do so to this day.

Trump’s first victory could maybe be written off as a fluke. The rest of the world looks at us right now more with pity than scorn. But if we return this cretin to office for a second term, even allowing for the skewing of the popular will by the Electoral College and other vote-distorting factors, we will forfeit that sympathy. And we will deserve to lose it.

APRÈS HIM, LE DÉLUGE

If Trump manages to remain in power for a second term, our system of government is likely to become unrecognizable, and not in a good way. It may be game over for American democracy as we know it, and once it is gone, the path to getting it back is formidable indeed.

Given the no-holds-barred, Louis XIV-meets-Roy Cohn manner in which he has behaved in his first term, an emboldened Trump is sure to be even more uncontrollable and flagrantly criminal in a second, when unconstrained by considerations of re-election.….except to the extent that he might well piss on the 22nd Amendment and run again, or just declare himself el presidente-for-life, as he has repeatedly “joked.” In any event, we can expect the neo-authoritarianism of the past three years to dramatically shift into flatout autocracy, and as some wag opined, look forward to Ivanka as Secretary of State, Roe v. Wade overturned, a shooting war with Iran, and Trump’s face on the $100 bill.

Think that’s Trump Derangement Syndrome? OK. Meanwhile, I’ll remind you that we have children in concentration cases on our southern border.

But, hey, I’m sure a second term will cause him to ’“pivot” and become “so presidential we’ll be bored,” as Donald promised during 2016.

No republic had lasted forever, of course. Right now, ours is experiencing a stress test unlike any in our history. There have been darker times—the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Depression, the Second World War, to name just a few—but no threat to the foundations of democratic rule quite like the one we are now facing.

Very popular lately is the story of Ben Franklin leaving the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and approached by a prominent woman named Elizabeth Willing Powel who asked what sort of government the founders had resolved to form. “A republic, if you can keep it,” was Big Ben’s famous reply. (It’s even the title of a recent book by none other than Neil Gorsuch.) The Founders lived a lot closer to the menace of autocracy than we do, and were painfully cognizant of how fragile a representative democracy would be. In fact, in human history there had never been one of the precise sort they envisioned.

More than two hundred years later we’ve grown complacent and spoiled, but the fragility of government of, by, and for the people remains unchanged.

CLEAVAGE, AND NOT THE GOOD KIND

We are about to find out how many of our fellow Americans would prefer to live in a right wing autocracy than a proper representative democracy. Again, I specify “right wing autocracy” because, of course, those folks who are so keen on King Donald the First would never in a million years go for this sort of authoritarian regime were it headed by an Elizabeth Warren.

The author Michael Gruber puts it well:

Russia is aspirational to current Republicans. They want a nation where the press is muzzled, where political opponents can be arrested and killed with impunity, where gays are oppressed, where the state and church are essentially one, where women are eliminated from serious political power, where Muslims and foreigners are despised and oppressed, also with impunity, and where everyone is white. This is their vision of America’s future, and four in ten of our fellow citizens agree.

Along those same lines, the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York magazine column “This Is No Ordinary Impeachment” was such a tour de force that for my own blog this week I contemplated just reprinting it in its entirety. But since my lawyer has advised me that that would be unwise, I’ll merely quote from it at length.

Sullivan writes that this is more than just an impeachment, but a question of “whether the legitimacy of our entire system can last much longer without this man being removed from office.”

(Trump) believes in the kind of executive power the Founders designed the US Constitution to prevent. It therefore did not occur to Trump that blackmailing a foreign country to investigate his political opponents is a classic abuse of power, because he is incapable of viewing his own interests and the interests of the United States as in any way distinct….

This is not just another kind of presidency; it is a rolling and potentially irreversible assault on the legitimacy of the American regime. If the CIA finds something that could reflect poorly on him, then the CIA is part of the “deep state coup.” Ditto the FBI and the State Department. These are not old-fashioned battles with a bureaucracy over policy; that’s fine. They are assaults on the legitimacy of the bureaucracy, and the laws they are required to uphold. These are definitional impeachable offenses, and they are part and parcel of Trump’s abuse of power from the day he was elected.

That’s all bad enough. But this cancer is not confined to one gobsmackingly terrible human being. No no, as we surveyed above, it is much worse than that:

Trump has turned the GOP—one of our two major parties with a long and distinguished history—into an accomplice in his crimes. Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most contemptible figure of the last couple of years, even says he will not read witness transcripts or follow the proceedings in the House or consider the evidence in a legal impeachment inquiry, because he regards the whole impeachment process as “BS” and a “sham.” This is a senator calling the constitutional right of the House of Representatives to impeach a president illegitimate.

Thus it is the Republican Party, to repeat what has become a tired but immutable refrain, that is even more to blame and more of a threat than Trump himself, and will remain so even after he is gone. After all, it was the GOP leadership that allowed him to rise; this was no hostile takeover, but rather an piteous, voluntary surrender. It is the GOP leadership that has consistently protected and abetted him and used him to further its own despicable agenda, even in defiance of the popular will and rule of law, not to mention its bluff assurances that it would rise up in opposition if he went too far. Instead the GOP and its red-hatted flat-earther constituency has slipped further and further into an eager embrace of full-blown authoritarianism.

For the Republican leadership could not do what it has done without the passionate support of the rank-and-file. In fact, given the way Republican pols—even the most established—seem to tremble at incurring the wrath of the Trump base, it is often hard to tell who is leading whom. Sullivan again:

Sixty-two percent of Republican supporters have said that there is nothing Trump could do, no crime or war crime, no high crime or misdemeanor, that would lead them to vote against him in 2020. There is only one way to describe this, and that is a cult, completely resistant to reason or debate. The tribalism is so deep that Trump seems incapable of dropping below 40 percent in the national polls, and is competitive in many swing states. The cult is so strong that Trump feels invulnerable. If Trump survives impeachment, and loses the 2020 election, he may declare it another coup, rigged, and illegitimate. He may refuse to concede. And it is possible the GOP will follow his lead. That this is even thinkable reveals the full extent of our constitutional rot.

It has often been remarked that Trump is a symptom rather than the cause of our national illness, which is true enough. For as much damage as he has done and continues to do, there is no denying that a system that would allow Donald Trump to become head of state is not healthy in the first place.

Sullivan suggests that the US is in the throes of “regime cleavage,” that dangerous state of affairs in which a society ceases to have a consensus about the system government it desires.

(I)t is described by one political scientist as follows: “a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions, and laws may be ignored, subverted, or replaced.” A full-on regime cleavage is, indeed, an extinction-level event for our liberal democratic system. And it is one precipitated by the man who is supposed to be the guardian of that system, the president.

He concludes by bucking the conventional wisdom that it would be better for our democracy to remove Trump at the polls than by impeachment, arguing that the former would only further normalize him and his behavior, even in electoral defeat:

(To defeat Trump in an election) would suggest that his assault on the truth, on the Constitution, and on the rule of law is just a set of policy decisions that we can, in time, reject. It creates a precedent for future presidents to assault the legitimacy of the American government, constrained only by their ability to win the next election. In fact, the only proper constitutional response to this abuse of executive power is impeachment. I know I’ve said this before. But on the eve of public hearings, it is vital to remember it.

This blog is subtitled “Dispatches from the American Twilight.” We are about to see whether that pessimistic description is accurate, and if we are indeed living on the edge of sundown.

********

AP photo by Carolyn Kaster

 

Dreyfus’s Ghost

LTC-alexander-vindman copy

Yesterday I watched something on TV that is destined to go down in history as one of the darkest moments of American political theater since the McCarthy hearings.

One of the most astounding aspects of the Trump era—one that I’ve written about at length—is the headspinning sight of the Republican Party abandoning many of its core attributes (I won’t call them principles), from its longstanding suspicion of Russia, to its hyperventilating hysteria over deficits, to its commitment to NATO and a hawkish foreign policy. And all this it has done in cowering submission to a sociopathic two-bit con man, in pursuit of raw power unfettered by any concern for the Constitution, the rule of law, or representative democracy.

Grand Old Party indeed.

But perhaps most appalling in that fire sale of all things the GOP used to hold dear has been the vicious Republican slander of members of the US military…..a class of people that the right wing has deified, and to whom it has demanded lavish tribute from all others, including the opposition party.

That phenomenon reached a new low yesterday with the vicious attacks on Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

There’s no need for me to detail the range of attacks, but to skim them briefly: Vindman is unreliable, his judgment is in question, what he says is “just his opinion,” he’s a Never Trumper, he’s disloyal to the White House, hell he’s disloyal to the United States itself (which in Trumpworld is the same thing), and on and on all the way up to full-on espionage—which is to say, treason.

It’s one thing for Trump to sink to that low. (Does he need to sink? I think he dwells in that Marianas Trench.) It’s quite another for the entire Republican Party to fall in line. But we saw it yesterday from Trump’s amen chorus of toadies and craven sycophants (featuring Devin Nunes, Gym Jordan, John Ratcliffe, Elise Stefanik, and Lee Zeldin among others) as they obediently followed their rancid champion’s lead.

This gives the lie to the entire Republican claim to respect for the military, or duty, or honor, or service. This is how shallow it runs, and how quickly they will jettison it for partisan advantage. (Or in this case, a desperate attempt to shield their leader from rightful accountability under the law.)

Of course, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is not the first American warrior to be subjected to this demonstration of the Republican Party’s moral bankruptcy. The late John McCain, the Gold Star family of fallen US Army Captain Humayun Khan, Admiral Bill McRaven, and Generals H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis are just a few of the military veterans whose service has been shamelessly demeaned by a spoiled brat draft dodger with fictional bone spurs. But the attacks on Colonel Vindman might be the most disgusting because they are so directly connected to Trump’s cornered rat, Roy Cohn-style willingness to do anything to discredit his foes and save his sorry ass.

Even before yesterday’s live testimony, Bush-era torture enthusiast and self-loathing immigrant John Yoo was among the most prominent to wade into the darkest of waters. Speaking to the odious Laura Ingraham (and with a creepily grinning Alan Dershowitz looking on in split screen), Yoo suggested that Colonel Vindman might be a Ukrainian spy. Incredibly, in his subsequent apology/non-apology walking that back, Yoo spent as much time expressing sanctimonious outrage that he was misunderstood—or so he claims—as actually clarifying himself or expressing any contrition. But let me tell you, I heard Mr. Yoo say it live and have watched the replay many times since; it’s not at all clear, as he now insists, that he was accusing Ukraine, not Vindman, of attempted espionage. But I guess a UC Berkeley Law professor can’t be expected to be very articulate or do words good. Right, John?

Lest anyone doubt that these attacks were directed from the very top, Charlie Sykes reports (via the Daily Beast) that the Trump White House took “the extraordinary step of distributing talking points to allies of the president” trashing this active duty US military officer who remains a member of the presidential staff. Notably, some of the attacks on Colonel Vindman came from the official White House Twitter account, which is the very definition of abuse of state power to persecute political enemies. (Yet Bill Barr believes the left are the ones “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”)

Regardless of one’s ideology, no thinking person can watch what happened yesterday and still defend this administration, especially those in the military and veteran community, of which I am a proud part.

SHIT ROLLS DOWNHILL, ESPECIALLY WHEN A SHITHEAD IS ATOP THE HILL

Three weeks ago I wrote that, contrary to F-16 flyovers at the Super Bowl, military service is not in and itself ironclad proof of integrity. It’s still true. (Looking at you, Mike Pompeo, USMA ‘86.) But when the GOP ostentatiously pretends that it is, and then behaves as it did to Colonel Vindman, the hypocrisy is too blatant to ignore.

This Republican hypocrisy didn’t begin with Trump, of course—I refer you to the Swift Boating of John Kerry by George W. Bush, veteran of the attendance-optional Texas Air National Guard. But as with many things, it has reached a new low.

Don’t get me wrong: the Republican Party still trades on chestbeating wannabe macho nationalism and fake valorization of the uniformed services. This is a party whose entire brand is that of rock-ribbed commitment to national security and adoration of those who prosecute it at the point of a bayonet. Except when those heroic American warriors threaten Republican hold on power.

But the attacks on Colonel Vindman have been much more extreme than on most of the other witnesses testifying to Trump’s high crimes. Perhaps that is precisely because his pedigree and compelling personal history make him an especially dangerous foe. In the regard, his dress blues attract Republican fire, out of necessity for the GOP, rather than deflecting it. But that makes the attacks more, not less, shameful.

It’s true also that Colonel Vindman is among the most potentially damning witnesses as someone who was actually on the critical July 25th Zelinskyy call, and who can obliterate the GOP’s already Kleenex-thin “hearsay” defense. But Gordon Sondland can do much more damage than Vindman can, and is doing so even as I write this. David Holmes, Bill Taylor, and George Kent are pretty damn damaging too. Yet Vindman has received more abuse than any of them. (Second place: former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who committed both of the paramount sins in the eyes of Donald Trump: she failed to be blindly loyal to him, and she has a vagina.)

So is there maybe something more to the special animus directed at Colonel Vindman?

Never Trump Republican Rick Wilson writes, with his usual panache:

House minority counsel Steven Castor’s line of questioning was pathetic, a transparent attempt to accuse Vindman of dual loyalties that even in this low moment shocked America. His sneering insinuation that Vindman was somehow compromised by the Ukrainian government’s offer of the job of Minister of Defense, an offer he declined and promptly reported, was a moment where even Republican members of the committee looked uncomfortable, and those shameless motherfuckers would watch Trump eat a live baby and laugh it off.

Let’s be blunt. The allusion to “dual loyalties” is an overt employment of the age-old anti-Semitic smear that the patriotism of American Jews like Alexander Vindman is compromised by their religion. There is almost no more despicable slur that can be hurled at an American of the Jewish faith. (Twinned with the anti-Semitism, the GOP also dips back into its traditional Russophobia —and general nativism—just long enough to use it against Vindman, ironically, to the benefit of Vladimir Putin.)

So a Jew and a woman draw the most abuse from Donald Trump. Show of hands if you’re shocked.

This is not the first time that a patriotic Jew has found that wearing the uniform of his country and serving with distinction in combat is insufficient to protect him from charges of disloyalty. But if you’re surprised that the Trump administration would take that line of attack, perhaps you have been vaping something a lot stronger than tutti-frutti flavored propylene glycol.

Heck, I guess there are very fine people on both sides after all.

YOU SPIN ME RIGHT ROUND, BABY, RIGHT ROUND

There were of course other lines of attack on Colonel Vindman, less incendiary but still worth noting.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), himself an Air Force veteran, snidely criticized LTC Vindman for wearing his uniform at the hearing. Republicans sure didn’t have any problem with that when Ollie North—who likewise wore civvies when he was on the NSC—put on his Marine Corps Class As to testify during Iran-Contra. North, of course, was among the accused in that scandal, rather than an accuser, and was eventually convicted of conspiring to defraud the United States, the same charge that hung over Trump during Russiagate. Didn’t stop North from later becoming president of the NRA, to bring this survey of Republican criminality full circle.

To paraphrase the newly popular meme: Parents, do you want your kids to grow up to be like Oliver North or Alexander Vindman?

We have not even really talked here about the substance of what the colonel testified to. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t good for MAGA Nation. After Vindman and vice presidential national security advisor Jennifer Williams came Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, who were supposed to be GOP-friendly witnesses, deliberately summoned by the Republicans in that hope. But they only corroborated the testimony of those who had gone before them. With friends like that, Trump don’t need no enemies.

As if it were not already clear, watching House Republicans yesterday it was patently obvious that the GOP has nothing substantive with which to argue. We’ve known that all along, of course, but it was stunning to watch it in action. In terms of the actual presidential misconduct in question, the GOP couldn’t lay a glove on Vindman or any of the others, but then again, they have been unable to rebut any of the witnesses or evidence in Ukrainegate thus far. Hence their resort to distraction and misdirection (e.g. the obsession with the now-irrelevant identity of the whistleblower), goalpost-moving, and galling attempts at character assassination to include anti-Semitic and xenophobic dog whistling to their white nationalist base.

No doubt this ghoulish charade will be sufficient for Fox Nation. But no thoughtful person of any political persuasion can watch this shitshow and not realize what is going on. Whether that will have a decisive effect on the broader public remains to be seen; I remain cautious.

As John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker:

“Bereft of any substantive defense of Trump, the House Republicans are betting everything on their alternative narrative, in which the deep state and its media allies cooked up the entire Ukraine story. The point isn’t necessarily to make this narrative believable in any objective sense. For the purposes of the White House and its GOP allies, it will suffice to make it believable enough for the conservative media and Trump’s supporters to rally around. That isn’t a high standard to meet.

…..As (LTC Vindman) explained in his opening statement, he has enough faith in his country to believe that, ultimately, the truth will win out. If he’s proved wrong, it will be a tragedy for him and for the rest of us.”

SHOW ME A HERO AND I’LL SHOW YOU A TRAGEDY

I wrote last week about the GOP’s false claim to be the party of patriotism. Hot on its heels, as if made to order, came the attack on Alexander Vindman as powerful proof of my point.

How far will the right wing go to destroy Colonel Vindman and others like him? Based on their behavior thus far, we ought to put nothing past them. Already there are serious concerns. Referencing information first reported in the Wall Street Journal, Max Boot writes:

“(T)he U.S. Army is prepared to move Col. Vindman and his family onto a military base to ensure their security if it is determined that they are in physical danger.” That a war hero might be in physical danger marks a new low in Republican attempts to defame and intimidate the witnesses against the president.

I would add only the bitter irony that this is happening to a man whose family fled the political repression of the USSR when he was a toddler, seeking refuge in a land that claimed to be free.

My affinity for LTC Vindman flows from several tributaries: as a fellow Army infantry officer, as a Brooklynite, and as a Jew (honorary in my case, through marriage and fatherhood), though I in no way presume to approach his courage or integrity. Truly this man, like many of his fellow witnesses, represents the very best of America.

So to recap, we just saw the President of the United States, his son, Republican Congressmen, and conservative pundits wantonly attack a Purple Heart-wearing career infantry officer and combat veteran of the Iraq war. That man’s crime? Daring to stand up and testify under penalty of perjury that the President violated his oath of office.

With Gordon Sondland’s testimony today, Trump is in even more jeopardy than ever, so don’t look for his ferocious and disgusting behavior to get better. No less a Republican shitbag than Ken Starr today suggested that Donald may be headed for a Nixon-style come-to-Jesus meeting with Republican senators, complete with a one-way helicopter ticket to San Clemente, er, I mean Mar-a-Lago. Hope springs eternal.

In the mean time, as I said at the top, the specter of Joe McCarthy hung over yesterday’s hearings…..and not for nothing, but let’s recall that it was McCarthy’s shameful attacks on the US Army that finally undid him, at the hands of the eloquent Joseph Welch.

But there was an even uglier specter haunting the Longworth House Office Building yesterday, one that involved events in fin de siècle France. Look it up.

Play the Marseillaise

Play the Mars

Contrary to popular belief, there are things that can be learned from Trump supporters. It may be in an ethnographic way, the way anthropologists study a lost pre-Columbian tribe. But it’s educational nonetheless.

One of the things I’ve learned from them lately is that they really see themselves as victims. No, I mean REALLY. We all knew that to some extent: a huge part of the post mortem of the 2016 election was endless handwringing in the allegedly liberal “mainstream media” over how globalism had left enormous numbers of working class Rust Belt dwellers high and dry and susceptible to the sale of Trump brand snake oil. (Now with more snakes!). More incisively, other pundits zeroed in on the very real panic among a lot of white conservatives—particularly those of the Christian supremacist variety—that they are losing the demographic chokehold they’ve had on this country for its whole history thus far. Hence the vile battle cry “Take Our Country Back!” in all its not-so-crypto-racist glory.

As Yoni Appelbaum writes in The Atlantic:

In 2016, white working-class voters who said that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, or who said they felt like strangers in their own country, were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not. Two-thirds of Trump voters agreed that “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline.” In Trump, they’d found a defender.

(Blame where it’s due: I’ve also heard “Take Our Country Back!” from the left, with no discernible irony or awareness that the other side says it too. I get it, but as a slogan it has serious downsides.)

It’s true that, in the long term, white Christian conservatives are holding the short end of the demographic wishbone. Appelbaum again:

(M)any conservatives, surveying demographic trends…..can see the GOP’s sinking fortunes among younger voters, and feel the culture turning against them, condemning them today for views that were commonplace only yesterday. They are losing faith that they can win elections in the future. With this comes dark possibilities.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I shed no tears for these folks and their “dilemma.” I’m a middle-aged white guy, but the only white people I know who are worried about this trend are those consumed with white identity politics, keeping other folks down, and advancing an agenda at odds with the pluralism and equality on which this country was founded.

In other words, racists.

I would not lump all Republicans in this ignominious clique, by the way, only a subset of them. But it’s a subset that the GOP has weaponized.

We’ll get back to that misplaced sense of victimhood in a moment. But first, let’s go to the movies.

BATTLE OF THE BANDS

Casablanca is often neck in neck with Citizen Kane atop many surveys of the best American movies of all time. (Distant third: Weekend at Bernie’s.) Among its most famous scenes is the one in Rick’s Café Americain (as in, “everybody comes to”) in which a group of Nazi soldiers in occupied Morocco are singing a raucous version of “Die Wacht am Rhein,” drawing the ire of Resistance leader Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.

Laszlo marches over to the bandstand and firmly tells the bandleader, “Play ‘The Marseillaise.’ Play it!”

The rattled bandleader looks to Rick, played by (do I need to say this?) Humphrey Bogart, who gives him the nod.

The band strikes up the French national anthem. The irritated Germans sing their hateful song louder. But one by one the other patrons of the café realize what’s going on, and join in the Marseillaise, until they have drowned the Germans out.

It’s one of the most stirring scenes in all of motion pictures, as these beleaguered French citizens, under the boot of the most murderous regime in human history, courageously stick a collective finger in Hitler’s eye. (We can leave the thorny issue of French colonialism out of the discussion for now.)

It’s worth noting that this act of theatrical protest results in the Nazis angrily shutting the cafe down, an order obligingly carried out by the collaborationist Vichy authorities in the person of Captain Renault (Claude Rains), on the famous pretext that he is “shocked, shocked” to find gambling going on in the joint. (“Your winnings, sir,” a croupier says immediately thereafter, handing Renault a wad of cash.)

Henreid’s command “Play it!” also echoes perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, when Bogart says the same thing to Dooley Wilson regarding “As Time Goes By”. (Oft misquoted, he never says “Play it again, Sam,” though Ingrid Bergman comes close earlier in the film when she says “Play it once, Sam.”)

Yes, Casablanca is a good movie.

Here in the greasefire that is the United States circa 2019, a scene like the singing of the Marseillaise resonates, and in a way that doesn’t require making exaggerated comparisons or violating Godwin’s Law. (In other words, yes, I know Trump is not in Hitler’s league. But he’s a fanboy.) It feels like how we feel every time that, in some small way, we win any kind of victory, no matter how minuscule or purely symbolic, over the tinhorn tyrant who is doing his level best to destroy everything that we hold dear as a country.

But here’s the problem.

The other side identifies with the Resistance fighters too.

No big surprise, really; no one identifies with the Nazis (except Stephen Miller). Of course, when choosing sides for this particular game of “let’s pretend,” the modern GOP’s resemblance to actual fascists does not help its case.

IN THE END, I BLAME SOCIETY

If you dive into the online conversation among a great many rank-and-file Trump supporters, you will find what seems to be a genuine, deeply aggrieved sense that they are under constant—and even literally physical—attack.

They see themselves as viscerally menaced by antifa, which in right wing world is a force as numerous, ubiquitous, and powerful as the Cold War-era Red Army (or if you prefer, gangsta rap-blasting super-predators of the 1990s, or the caravan of drug-dealing Central American barbarians barreling toward our southern border).

They commiserate over being afraid to put “Trump 2020” signs on their lawns or wear their red MAGA hats in public for fear of angry retaliation from their neighbors and strangers alike. (If that is so, I’m not sure what accounts for the proliferation of both. Perhaps these fearful Republicans live in San Francisco.)

They bemoan the hatred that they say is spewed from the left, the attacks on the president (often identified as “our” president), and the way that—in their view—liberals are sowing division in our country.

And above all, they believe that it is people like them—white conservative Christians, mostly—who are the Americans most egregiously discriminated against.

This last point is the one that has been most widely reported and is therefore least surprising—though no less batshit, or powerful as evidence of just how deep the white sense of entitlement goes.

Do conservative Americans really believe they are a besieged tribe in a society where all the odds are stacked against them? Where all the levers of power are cordoned off and unavailable to them? Where they have to fear for their lives every time they venture out of doors?

The Republican Party controls the White House, the upper chamber of Congress (and until recently the lower one as well), a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, an increasingly large chunk of the federal judiciary, and a majority of state legislatures and governorships. (And that of course doesn’t even take into account all the other advantages, tangible and intangible, that the dominant race, class, and religious group holds in this society.)

But by all means—they’re the underdogs.

This collective delusion goes beyond legitimate grievances of the white Midwestern working class against a Democratic Party that has been insufficiently attentive. It even goes beyond the illegitimate panic of racists and xenophobes who think if English was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for America. It is a confidence game-cum-conspiracy theory that has been carefully cultivated and spoonfed to these folks by a political party and the powerful interests it represents….and has now metastasized and become a dangerous distortion of reality internalized by millions of right wing Americans. In that regard, it sits perfectly within the Orwellian perversion of truth that is the sea in which Trump swims, and where we are all drowning.

SELF-PITY PARTY

“Victim” used to be a pejorative. Now it is a badge of honor that brings with it great power. For years conservatives sneered at it for that very reason, especially when deployed by folks whom they had a hand in victimizing and oppressing. For the right, it was emblematic of the “taker” class; they, by contrast, claimed to valorize rugged individualism and pioneer-style self-sufficiency. (Top pioneer skills: selling smallpox-laced blankets, pretending corporate welfare isn’t a thing, and not noticing public services like police, firefighters, and roads.)

In truth, of course, whites have always employed the same trope themselves. The fiction of white people as a valiant breed beleaguered by sinister forces—mostly darker-skinned—is as old as Western civilization. Similarly, when white Christian conservatives (men especially) complain about “political correctness,” what they’re really complaining about is being held to account for their behavior and denied the privilege they’ve traditionally enjoyed at the expense of others, like being able to treat women and racial and religious minorities like shit just because they can. That’s the country they want to “take back.”

But once the right realized how powerful victimhood was as a weapon, it didn’t take them long to embrace it. And with Trump, that phenomenon has reached its apotheosis.

Again in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes:

As the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning observed in their 2015 paper and later book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, whereas people were once loath to be seen as victims, domination is now “the main form of deviance,” while victimization attracts sympathy, “so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.” Sympathetic dollars can follow––as can political support. From the start, Trump has touted his supposed victimhood as no president has before, confident that his supporters won’t hold self-pitying whines against him.

Speaking of movies, in Kasi Lemmons’ new film Harriet, about the woman that Trump and Mnuchin won’t have on the $20 bill, there is an instructive scene that strikes at this very issue. A self-pitying white plantation owner who has fallen on hard times—Harriet Tubman’s former enslaver—tearfully describes feeling like a prisoner in her own plantation, surrounded by “black faces” as her guards. Later, when the woman is confronted by fellow crackers demanding restitution for the hardship that Harriet has caused them by freeing their slaves, she turns the mob to her side by appealing to their common race, and the idea that they are all victims of abolitionism.

Too on the nose? I know some will say so. But for my money, it ought to be required viewing, Ludivico technique-style, for all Fox News followers.

When it comes to claiming the mantle and attendant moral authority of victim, let’s return for a moment to Yoni Appelbaum’s recent piece in the Atlantic, titled “How America Ends,” and the notion that 2016 was the last chance to stop “America’s decline”—which, naturally, white reactionaries see as synonymous with their own loss of power. Appelbaum mentions the incendiary analogy made during the last presidential campaign by conservative writer Michael Anton that “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” That’s a metaphor that, to say the least, plays directly to right wingers’ self-flattering vision of themselves as underdogs and martyrs and heroes…..and, in case you missed it, one that casts Democrats and progressives as radical terrorists bent on mass murder.

It’s worth noting that even in that self-chosen metaphor the Republican Party ends up suicidally crashing the aircraft that is the USA into the ground, killing everyone onboard.

TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING

Speaking of the Marseillaise, ironically, our own national anthem has become a battleground in this very culture war.

Trump, with his preternatural schoolyard bully’s instinct for an opponent’s vulnerabilities—and his grifter’s instinct for a sucker’s weak spot—glommed right onto the NFL controversy as a way of ginning up his racist base. It’s as clear as the hood on his face. Per Samuel Johnson, patriotism is famously the last refuge of a scoundrel; that line was never more apropos than in the case of this man, the least public-service-minded dude ever, and one who predictably screams the loudest about the red, white and blue, needs the highest flagpole, and is leading the hunt for a lynching tree for Colin Kaepernick even as he actively works against the interests of the United States and for his own venal gain.

Given Trump’s original line of work, I am even fonder of George Jean Nathan’s quip that patriotism is the arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles. (As if Donald had any of the latter.) And of course, in the ultimate display of shamelessness, we have seem him viciously attacking the loyalty of true patriots who have unquestionably earned their stripes, from McCain to the Khan family to McRaven to (most recently) Vindman, Taylor, and Yovanovitch.

As there is no evidence that this draft-dodging con artist ever did a single thing in his life to benefit anyone other than himself, his cynical and dishonest exploitation of patriotism is the height of hypocrisy—yet also eminently predictable—as he embodies yet another famous quote, the one about American fascism arriving wrapped in the flag and carrying a Bible. The irony of Trump-as-patriot is twinned with the irony of this thrice-divorced serial adulterer, professional liar, cheat, greedhead, and preening porn star raw dogger as a paragon of Christian faith and virtue.

But the conflating of patriotism with blind loyalty to nation is as old as time and a staple of reactionaryism.

In the John Birch mentality, any criticism of the United States is by definition disloyal, if not openly treasonous. It’s an absurd position, of course, and one with dark, McCarthyite (or, yes, even fascist) implications when taken to its logical extreme. It is a further step beyond even that to equate the United States with its president, Louis XIVth cult of personality style.

Here we go back to the popular right wing bumper sticker of the tumultuous late Sixties: “America: love it or leave it.” The question is, what does it mean to “love” one’s country? Does it mean blind, unquestioning loyalty to what its temporary rulers say or do at any given moment? I’m gonna say, uh, no.

A related quote—and often similarly distorted—is US naval hero Stephen Decatur’s ”My country, right or wrong.” (Like “Play it again, Sam,” a misremembering. His exact quote, circa 1816, was: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”) With all due humility, I don’t think the Commodore was advocating blind obedience. On the contrary, I think he likely meant that we ought to be even more invested in redressing our failures and shortcomings when our country is in the wrong.

Let’s go then to James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Pride in one’s homeland can be an admirable and constructive thing; look at how we encourage it in oppressed communities struggling to assert their identities. It’s only when it tips into nationalism that it becomes toxic, as is often the case with powerful nations, or those riven with divisive internecine strife. (And nationalism of course is itself a kissing cousin of xenophobia and racism.)

The United States’ hyperpower status makes ostentatious displays of patriotism a bit icky. Even in international soccer, one of the few places where the US is a poor relation, it makes me feel a little awkward to be part of “Sam’s Army” chanting “USA! USA! USA!” (The choice of “army” itself is sketchy, either tone deaf to the rattling specter of American militarism or an example of it, predecessors such as the KISS Army and Franco’s Italian Army notwithstanding.)

The right fetishizes the shibboleths of patriotism—the flag, the military, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem—and insists that forced respect for them is a precondition of devotion to country. (Because nothing says patriotism like a mandatory display of coerced obedience.) There is no awareness of what those things are supposed to represent—freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom to dissent—and no more perfect example of that than the brouhaha over the NFL players kneeling in respectful protest over police brutality during the national anthem. Here again we see angry white people howling in outrage that a group of fellow Americans visibly wronged—targeted, beaten, and even killed in systemic fashion—have the temerity to mention it.

The right has long tried to assert a monopoly on patriotism, with its bellicose foreign policy (jingoistic, some might say) and ostentatious displays of flag-waving. That conservatives are the best stewards of national security has always been a canard, considering the disastrous foreign policy misadventures they have led us into, from the Red Menace and the arms race, to Nixon’s criminal and self-defeating prosecution of operations in Vietnam, to covert dirty wars in Latin America, coups in the Middle East, and of course the second Iraq war. (Democrats are not blameless either, particularly when it comes to Southeast Asia.)

And that was before Trump came on the scene. Since then, under his, er, leadership the GOP has made an even worse dog’s breakfast of US interests abroad, from getting played by Kim Jong Un, to the idiotic withdrawal from the JCPOA, to the undermining of NATO, to the appalling abandonment of the Kurds and resuscitation of ISIS, to the general emboldening of dictators around the world, to blackmailing Kiev while its soldiers died for want of Javelin missiles, and all of it baldly serving the overall objectives of Vladimir Putin and Russia. (Someone should look into that.)

But patriotism does not belong to conservatives, no matter how much they pretend it does. So let’s blow up the lie that right wingers own the Stars and Stripes, and the warriors who fight on our behalf, and love of country itself.

Indeed, when we look at the contempt it has shown for the rule of law and the most fundamental principles of American democracy over the past three years, there is a strong argument that the modern Republican Party is the most profoundly anti-patriotic organization this side of the Klaus Fuchs Appreciation Society. Internationally, it has become a willing arm of Kremlin policy—a headspinning turn for a party that once had Russophobia as its lodestar. Domestically, it has been ceaseless in its efforts to reject the pluralistic, diverse idea of the Founders in favor of something they explicitly opposed: an autocracy with a state-ordained religion.

And many of the most prominent Founders were slaveowners. The modern GOP is not even as enlightened as a bunch of guys who literally owned other human beings.

So, as televised impeachment begin and the resistance enters a new and dramatic phase, let’s assert our ownership of that. Love of country and commitment to the principles on which it was founded does not belong to Lindsey Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Devin Nunes, or Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway, or Fox News and Breitbart, and it certainly does not belong to Donald J. Trump.

It belongs to us.

So all I wanna say is:

Play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

********

Casablanca (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz, produced by Hal B. Wallis, written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, cinematography by Arthur Edeson. A Warner Brothers production. Special shout-out to my friend Gregory Orr, whose mother Joy Page played Annina Brandel, the Bulgarian refugee who, with her husband, seeks Bogart’s help in escaping Casablanca near the top of the movie.

 

 

 

Of Nightmares and Strategy (Part 2)

Clausewitz

Last week I described the nightmare that haunts many of us who oppose Trump:

The Democrats present their case for impeachment, well or badly (the nightmare is actually worse if it’s the former); Trump is acquitted because of the cowardice, venality, and utter lack of respect for the rule of law among the Republican majority in the Senate; he then falsely declares Mueller report-style “total and complete exoneration;” and subsequently coasts to electoral victory in November 2020, having once again cheated political death in one of the biggest scandals in American history. (He would actually hold both of the top two spots on that chart. Impressive.)

It’s a damned scary dream and all the scarier for being perfectly plausible. (Also, in the dream I’m naked in public, haven’t studied for the SATs, and all my teeth fall out.)

So how do we make sure it doesn’t happen?

As I teased last week, I think the answer is in the way impeachment is prosecuted. Not because I expect it to succeed and result in a conviction in the Senate (though hope springs eternal), but because the very process will have a decisive effect on the 2020 election, which remains the most likely method by which Trump will be removed from office (with a Secret Service agent pulling on each of his legs as he clings by his fingernails to the front door jamb of the White House). For at their core, impeachment and the election are one in the same, or at the very least, two mutually supporting campaigns with the same strategic objective.

Hence my decision to illustrate this week’s essay with a portrait of the famous 19th century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, who along with Sun Tzu—as every military professional knows—is probably the foremost strategic theorist in human history. (Duh.)

You probably have his masterpiece Vom Kriege on audiobook.

PROFILES IN COWARDICE

Both impeachment and the ballot box are primarily public relations campaigns. They differ only in the size and location of the audience.

The former is focused on a very small subset of that public, the 100 members of the US Senate, though broader public opinion undoubtedly bears on how those Senators think. Anticipating that things will break strictly along party lines, 45 Democrats and two independents are almost certain to vote to convict Trump, meaning 20 Republicans would have to break ranks to reach the two-thirds threshold needed to actually throw his fat ass out of office.

The conventional wisdom is that that will never happen, and it’s probably right.

How likely are defections? Former White House communications director (yes, eleven days count) Anthony Scaramucci predicts that if and when the polls hit 60% in favor of impeachment and removal the GOP will turn on Trump. I’ll leave it to you to decide how much faith you wanna put in the Mooch.

Maybe none of them cross the aisle. Maybe a few, er, mavericks defy the capo di tutti i capi and do so: Romney, Murkowski, Collins (cough cough), maybe Sasse, or Portman, or Gardner, and perhaps a couple others. But certainly not twenty.

But that’s from the perspective of November 11, 2019; how things will look a few weeks from now is anyone’s guess. It’s worth remembering that the whole Ukrainegate scandal only broke six weeks ago, and witness how fast it has moved, and public opinion with it. Every dawn brings appalling new revelations that are harder and harder for the White House and its myrmidons to defend (though they’re damn creative—and brazen—in trying). It’s hard to imagine what turns of events would finally cause Republicans to abandon their Dear Leader, considering all the horrors that thus far have not. But although conviction and removal remain a longshot, I would not bet the farm on where we’ll be by the time the cherry blossoms bloom in Washington.

Until this very week Republicans have been busy howling for transparency from their Democratic colleagues, even though plenty of Republicans have been present for all the proceedings (sorry, Matt Gaetz) and have had ample opportunity to grill the witnesses to their black hearts’ content. The Democrats have now called their bluff, formalizing the impeachment inquiry, releasing the first batch of transcripts, and preparing to begin public hearings.…..so the GOP should be happy, right?

Hardly. As I predicted last week—though it didn’t require the skills of a Nostradamus or even a Kreskin to do so—all that has done is confirm the worst possible news for the GOP. As David Graham writes in the Atlantic:

The Intelligence Committee has so far released four transcripts—interviews with Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former State Department Senior Adviser Michael McKinley, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, and Ambassador Kurt Volker…. (The transcripts have) both closely tracked the leaks that have already emerged and deepened the president’s jeopardy. Sondland’s testimony, including an addendum he submitted after being contradicted by later witnesses, confirms that he told Ukrainian officials that the U.S. would not provide military aid until Kiev published a public statement citing Burisma and the 2016 U.S. election. That, along with other documents released yesterday, confirms that the president not only demanded a quid pro quo, but demanded a corrupt one.

In other words, as Graham put it, “The more we learn the worse it looks for Trump.” And things do not promise to get better when witnesses began appearing in public session next week, beginning with Ambassador Bill Taylor—playing Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, if Mr. Smith were a West Point grad and combat veteran of Vietnam with 30 years of noble service in the US diplomatic corps.

This then is a textbook case of “be careful what you wish for,” though of course the Republican demand for transparency was never genuine, only a stalling tactic and effort at misdirection. But its utility is at an end. (To that same point, the transcripts also revealed that the House Republicans have mostly used their own time with the witnesses on batshit conspiracy theories and other tangential antics, showing that the counterarguments they have made in private are no more solid than the ones they have made in public.)

Gordon Sondland’s reversal of his Congressional testimony in particular—“Oh, THAT quid pro quo”—obliterated the GOP denial that there was any extortion going on with Ukraine, even though (my record player is broken, Joe Biden!) the presence of a quid pro quo is irrelevant to the illegality and impeachability of what Trump did. Nevertheless, it’s another disingenuous GOP talking point blown to smithereens. That quid pro quo has also been confirmed by others, including Taylor, Vindman, Morrison, Mulvaney, and even Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis). Graham again:

(The White House statement distancing the president from the quid pro quo) is steeped in Orwellian irony. Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue these investigations in order to further his chances at reelection in 2020. The Ukrainian government was having its arm twisted into giving a statement swearing to stop interference in US elections—even as the statement was itself coerced interference in US elections.

By the by, I am cheered that many people are turning against the prissy Latin term altogether, which doesn’t fully capture the criminality in question, and begun calling this what it is: bribery, or, if you prefer, blackmail, which is nothing but bribery’s equally illegal inverse.

LENINGRAD LINDSEY

As the evidence continues to mount, Republicans will be put in an ever more precarious position, one that will test even their oft-demonstrated capacity for kowtowing to His Royal Highness, and nowhere is that dilemma is better exemplified in the man from South Carolina. (I’m using the term “man” loosely.)

Only a few weeks ago, when the scandal first broke, Lindsey Graham tried to dismiss its seriousness, but noted that if a quid pro quo were shown, that would be a different matter and he would support impeachment. Those exact conditions were confirmed last week by Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland. And yet now from Lindsey, crickets.

The closest he came, echoing a Kellyanne Conway talking point, was the disingenuous claim that withholding US aid to Kiev didn’t matter because Ukraine eventually “got the money.” Which is like saying kidnapping isn’t a crime if you get your baby back after paying the ransom. As Salon reports, “(Senator Graham) did not mention that the aid was released after months of pressure from members of Trump’s own party and administration to release the aid, which was appropriated by Congress.” More to the point, at its core, it’s also a tacit admission that bribery was indeed in play, and that his self-stated criterion for impeachment has been met.

Thundering like an Old Testament prophet with a suspiciously Southern accent, Graham also was among those demanding the transcripts of House testimony. Now that the Democrats have released such transcripts, he has bluntly refused to read them. Most recently, he has argued that the Trump administration is simply too incompetent to have successfully blackmailed Ukraine.

Those goalposts are proving very mobile indeed.

As Lindsey demonstrates, the Republican defense of Trump grows ever more absurd. I would call it unsustainable, except that we have already seen that there appears to be no low to which the GOP will not sink in that regard. So I am not optimistic that 20 Republican Senators will suddenly grown spines, regardless of what further evidence emerges.

Former US Naval Academy professor Tom Nichols puts it well:

The House Republicans have clearly decided to throw themselves on the pyre of Donald Trump’s burning presidency. The last act of this tragedy—and impeachment, no matter how it turns out, is a national tragedy—will be when Senate Republicans meekly submit to the will of Donald Trump and acquit him, like terrified jurors under the glaring eye of a Mafia boss who knows their names.

Nichols is echoed by Tim Alberta , author of American Carnage, who recently wrote in a Politico cover story based on dozens of recent interviews with GOP lawmakers, congressional aides and White House staffers:

There is a sizable number of Republican senators and representatives who believe Trump’s actions are at least theoretically impeachable, who believe a thorough fact-finding mission is necessary, who believe his removal from office is not an altogether radical idea.

But it’s also evident that, barring a plain admission of guilt by the president himself—think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men—the Republican Party will not be forsaking Trump. He could lose a stray vote in the House, maybe even two, when articles of impeachment come to the floor. He could fare even worse in the Senate, knowing that more than a few of the 53 Republican jurors might be tempted etch their names in the history books at his expense. None of this will alter his standing atop the party; none of this will change the fact that he is president through January 2021 and perhaps beyond.

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG “I” (REDUX)

So let’s set aside the unlikely possibility of conviction and operate under the probable assumption that Trump will be acquitted. Since we know that going in, the chief goal of impeachment then becomes to damage Trump enough politically to weaken him in the general election.

The two are connected, of course, in a symbiosis that flows both ways.

Just as public opinion about Trump’s unfitness for office weighs on the decision-making of the Senatorial jurors, the impeachment process itself—from the initial inquiry we are watching now, all the way through the trial in the Senate—will inevitably influence broader public opinion, which will make its voice known next November. The jury therefore is not really a hundred senators; it’s the 250 million Americans who are eligible to vote and who will watch the prosecution make its case, much of it live on national television.

In my nightmare scenario, Trump waves his acquittal in the Senate like a giant Confederate battle flag flying from the back of a Ford F-150 with a horn that plays “Dixie” and cruises to re-election like nothing ever happened. If anything, impeachment only strengthens his standing with the public. That is certainly the wishful thinking within the GOP, and what it tried desperately to scare Democrats with by way of forestalling impeachment over previous sins, before Ukrainegate made it inevitable.

Except I don’t think impeachment will strengthen Trump or his public standing. Very much the contrary.

Even absent an acquittal, Trump’s impeachment— if properly conducted—will in fact be a knife in the chunk of coal where his heart should be, leaving him fatally wounded going into the 2020 presidential campaign. I have said that over and over. It is not only a matter of principle for the House to impeach him in defense of the rule of law, and to avoid lowering the bar for abuse of power by future presidents (or dictators, or whatever we will have if Trump is not held to account), but a matter of practicality as well.

The events of the past six weeks have borne my argument out.

Since the impeachment inquiry was announced, support for Trump has suffered, with a majority of Americans now in favor not just of impeachment but of actual removal. That is an astonishing statistic. So it would seem that the dire Bre’r Rabbit-style warnings by the GOP that such an effort would backfire on Democrats—and the hand-wringing among many Democrats themselves on that front—were wildly wrong.

It’s true that the numbers are predictably polarized along party lines, and that his support within the Republican Party remains shockingly strong. But those hardcore Trump supporters are never going to be moved (more on that in a moment). The crucial metric is that the public at large is turning decisively against him, including that small sliver in the middle who can make all the difference in 2020. That trend looks to continue if impeachment is prosecuted in a careful, professional, and savvy manner, which is exactly Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff seem to be doing, despite the hyperventilating predictions of sky-falling and red-faced allusions to Stalinist Russia by the GOP (bad analogy, guys),

Last week’s elections further suggest that impeachment is not hurting the blue team one little bit—again, very much the contrary, with a stunning upset in the Kentucky governor’s race and Democrats taking control of both houses of the Virginia state legislature of the first time in a quarter century. EJ Dionne writing in the Washington Post:

Tuesday’s elections were terrible for Republicans. Their only major victory came in Mississippi, where they held onto the governorship in the face of a spirited Democratic challenge. But face it: The day Mississippi falls out of the Republican base is the moment when the party goes the way of the Whigs….

Trump’s failure to rally Republicans with his anti-impeachment message in Kentucky—a state the president carried by 30 points and that is home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), up for reelection next year—should give Republicans pause about a Trump-centric approach to their own political futures.

As Dionne suggests, there might even be signs that Trump’s senatorial firewall is not as secure as once thought. Alberta again:

Nobody on Capitol Hill believes the number of GOP mutineers could even remotely approach the 20 needed to convict Trump in a Senate trial. All the same, there is a recognition among the president’s allies that his reelection campaign, not to mention his place in history, could be crippled by even the smallest clique of Republicans banding together and issuing what would be an institution-defining rebuke.

Thus even acquittal in the Senate might hurt the GOP in the presidential race, if the case against Trump is made so well that votes to protect him are seen as brazen cowardice and power-grabbing by the Republican Party. Even if the White House manages to maintain total obedience and not lose a single GOP senator, perhaps through massive bribery (look for Mitt Romney to become Secretary of State), the sight of Senate Republicans voting en masse to make like the three monkeys and excuse massive, brazen, Constitution-shredding corruption is not a great look going into an election.

WHOA WHOA WHOA

Now wait a minute, I hear you saying. Isn’t this exactly the accusation that huffy Republicans are always slinging at the “resistance”—that we have been looking for a reason, any reason, to impeach their hero since the day he was elected?

In a way, yes. It’s just that we didn’t have to look very hard to find one.

I understand that framing impeachment and the election as part of the same effort to unseat Trump makes impeachment look partisan, rather than the proper application of Congressional oversight that it is. But I don’t accept that that overlap is necessarily damning, or renders the effort illegitimate.

Donald Trump is wantonly unfit to be a lunchroom monitor, much less have possession of the nuclear codes, so seeking his eviction from the White House is a reasonable and prudent goal for anyone conscious enough to recognize that. Whether that ejection comes through the ballot box or impeachment (or through the 25th Amendment, a very dark horse in this race) matters not. All are perfectly legal and reasonable mechanisms designed to end a failed or dangerous presidency, and his has earned both distinctions. As Salon’s Chauncey DeVega puts it: “In many ways, Donald Trump is the nightmare scenario that the Framers designed the Constitution to protect against.”

So try to wrap your collective heads around this Zen koan:

If Trump had not behaved in an impeachable manner, we would have opposed him on policy grounds, as we have done and continue to do. But it was quite obvious from even a cursory look at his entire miserable life that there was no way that he wasn’t going to do something egregiously worthy of getting himself chucked out of office. And he didn’t disappoint. So I don’t find the “poised to impeach” critique very convincing. It’s also rich coming from a party that was anxious to impeach Barack Obama from the moment he raised his right hand. Unfortunately for the GOP, he didn’t commit crimes as readily as he breathed, unlike his successor.

Partisanship ceases to be an issue—or, arguably, even exist at all in the ordinary sense of the word—when we are no longer talking about two reasonable political parties whose differences are still within the realm of normal political discourse. Segregation used to be a partisan issue, albeit one that crossed party lines. So was slavery. Trump is an abomination, as it the party that he leads, and in no way just another ordinary political entity operating under the usual rules of engagement.

In the words of the eloquent Mr. DeVega, “Like its leader, the present-day Republican Party represents an existential threat to American democracy.”

TRIBALISM UBER ALLES

In an interview last week, the recently resurfaced Never Trump pundit Steve Schmidt (welcome back Steve!), commented that the Democrats will indeed be haunted by what he calls “substantial evidence of political malice toward him that could be exploited during this process argument.” (A witchunt, some might say.) But he didn’t say it would doom them. Schmidt suggests that “Democrats are going to have to offset this with a truth-based, fact-based, reality-based approach.” I couldn’t agree more, although it goes without saying that an appeal to the facts has had exactly zero impact on many Republicans over the past four years.

But we are not concerned with those people, only those with functioning cerebral cortexes. The evidence against Trump is already mountainous and we’re just getting to see the real heart of it. If the argument is made properly, only the most brain dead MAGA zombies will be left defending him. Whether that is enough for him to win in November remains to be seen.

Which brings us to the role of sheer tribalism.

How drunk on Kool-Aid are Trump’s hardcore supporters? This drunk: according to a new Monmouth University poll, 62 percent of people who approve of Trump report that there is NOTHING he could do that would make them turn against him.

Let that sink in a moment. (And we’ll suspend Godwin’s Law temporarily while we absorb a new comprehension of how the train to Belsen came to be.)

Notwithstanding Russian mucking about, propaganda, ratfucking, and possibly even actual vote tampering, 62 million Americans did vote for Trump in 2016. That’s three million fewer than Hillary (I feel compelled to remind us all every time this comes up), but still an appallingly high number. Even now, after three years of this daily shitshow, a shockingly large segment of American voters still buy Trump brand snake oil, and turn a blind eye to Republican hypocrisy, lies, and criminality, finding ever new and groundbreaking ways to forgive and even applaud the most unconscionable behavior. (Betraying the Kurds, anyone? Opening the floodgates for corporate pollution of our air and water and land? Robbing the poor and giving to the rich? Kidnapping and caging children in concentration camps?)

We know that the theater of nationally televised hearings helped sway public opinion massively during Watergate. But that was in the era of the Big Three, plus PBS (and a random UHF channel in each market); we shall see what kind of impact they have now, in the age of the Internet, social media, and a bazillion cable channels. It has become a cliché to say that Nixon might have survived had he had a Fox News on his side, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The next few months will put that theory to the test.

I’ll go to DeVega again:

A healthy democracy requires a shared sense of empirical reality and a societal ability to discern truth from lies. Trump, his supporters, the Republican Party and the right-wing news media reject those basic principles. 

That sheer fact makes the blindly obedient Trumpist GOP both an especially challenging foe, and one whose defeat is all the more crucial and urgent for that very reason. So it is with fanatics.

Absent any credible defense, Trump and his supporters are reduced to denying demonstrable reality, engaging in shameless character assassination of witnesses against him, trafficking in lies, and generally screaming themselves red in the face that the impeachment is all a satanic plot by godless, chablis-sipping liberals who hate America.

But writing in the New Yorker, Susan Glasser seems to give serious consideration to the notion that these tactics will work, despite their blatant dishonesty and cynicism:

For Trump and his defenders, it is a coup, a show trial, a witch hunt. When that is the starting point, there is no place for the facts, no process that can satisfy, no way to split the difference.

(F)or his most fervent supporters (and that apparently includes virtually all of the Republican elected officials in both the House and the Senate)….(t)here is no evidence, no testimony, no revelatory text message, that can sway them. There is a justification for anything that has come out, and for anything that might still be revealed. Trump has framed the impeachment case, as with all the other challenges to his controversial actions over the past few years, as a purely partisan matter of loyalty and legitimacy.

 HE HAS MET THE ENEMY, AND IT ARE HIM

Of course, another wild card in the process is Trump himself and his toddler-like tendency to freak out and make things worse on himself. That variable has the power to change things dramatically, both in terms of the election, and of general outcry for impeachment that might sway otherwise sniveling Republican senators to support it.

Remember when people were saying, “Trump wants to be impeached—he’d love it!” Turn out, not so much. Again belying Republican Bre’r Rabbitism, Trump knows that impeachment will hurt him severely, even if he survives in the Senate. It’s the blackest mark possible on a presidency, and it will change minds heading into November, as the numbers are already showing.

The irony is that Trump is making it worse on himself with his erratic behavior, which only figures to get worse as the noose tightens. As Tim Alberta wrote further in Politico: “Trump cannot stand to be embarrassed—and there is no greater embarrassment to a president than being impeached, much less with the abetting of his own tribe.” An impeachment inquiry that might otherwise result in acquittal could turn into a conviction if Trump goes further into cornered rat mode and does something truly self-destructive.

Think he won’t? Here’s Peter Nicholas in The Atlantic:

Trump’s behavior in office was never all that even-keeled. But under the pressure of an impeachment inquiry, he appears more aggrieved, as I wrote last month. “He was never completely hinged,” another former White House official told me. “The trip from where he was to unhinged, as he is now—that was not a long trip.” 

For example, we learned last week that part of what Trump wanted from the Zelensky government was an announcement that it was looking into—no joke—Hillary Clinton. Somebody should tell Donald that the 2016 election is over and he won.

Wouldn’t it be sweet if Trump’s Ahab-like obsession with Hillary is part of what ultimately brings him down?

ON STRATEGERY (WITH APOLOGIES TO HARRY SUMMERS AND WILL FERRELL)

So, in my humble opinion, here are a few of the things we need to do in order to mount the most ironclad, convincing impeachment prosecution possible, and simultaneously the best presidential campaign we possibly can, and make them work in tandem.

In Congress, we have to make the case against Trump so powerfully that any Republican who still votes to acquit will do so under the crushing pressure of public embarrassment at their toadying partisanship, willful blindness to the evidence, and blatant violation of their oath office to defend the Constitution.

We have to make that case cogently and with a minimum of partisan rancor. (I know: physician, heal thyself.)

We have to present a positive alternative to Trump in the presidential campaign, led by a strong candidate with a serious plan to address the real issues that matter to our country and our countrymen. (Though to me, even a tree stump would be preferable to Donald.)

We need to worry less about antagonizing the other side (news flash: they’re already at max antagonism) and more about energizing our side. Will impeachment backfire with some members of the public, and actually draw them closer to Trump? Yes, but only with those who were a lost cause from the start.

As for trying to woo that tiny sliver of what Cambridge Analytics called “the persuadables,” we have to distinguish between those voters at whom we have a realistic shot, and those who are so low-information that it’s not worth the opportunity cost. (NB: How anyone can be “undecided” about Trump at this point is beyond me. So I admit that I’m likely part of the problem when it comes to reaching across the aisle.) To that end, we need to make an appeal to reason aimed at blue collar white women, who are among Trump’s staunchest defenders, with whom Democrats made inroads in the 2018 midterms, but appear to be slipping again. We need to mobilize the African-American vote, and the Latinx vote, and drive young people to the polls, beating back the apathy that Republicans do so much to seed and naturally benefit from.

Speaking of Cambridge Analytica, we need to fight the fake news with the truth, and keep the traditional media from repeating its mistakes of false equivalence in which it trafficked so grievously in 2016. Russian disinformation (and Chinese, and Iranian, and Saudi, to name just a few) is dangerous enough, to say nothing of the homegrown American variety. That tsunami of disinformation will be only one aspect of even more foreign attempts at meddling than last time, which the Republicans are happy to allow and abet, to include outright vote tampering. The plutocratic GOP also has a war chest that dwarfs that of the Democrats, and—I’m told—a far superior trove of data and a willingness to exploit it as black propaganda. (See The Great Hack.) It is also openly determined to suppress the vote through the lie of “voter fraud” functioning as a cover for Jim Crow-like disenfranchisement.

So our task is formidable.

We may fail and end up with four more years of this monster. If so, I shudder to think what the shredded corpse of American democracy will look like by the summer of 2023.

For the flip side of Trump’s impulsiveness and self-destructiveness is his astonishing capacity for Rasputin-like survival, even when besieged by calamities that would doom a less lucky motherfucker, or one with any kind of moral boundaries when it comes to a scorched earth effort at self-preservation. Writing in Salon, Heather Digby Parton addresses this phenomenon, echoing Glasser’s worry. I will quote her at length, because she says it so well, and so terrifyingly:

(F)or all of Trump’s many failings he does have one talent…..he is highly skilled at getting out of trouble. In this case, we can see how he thinks he’s going to do that, because he has already done it once during his presidency.

People underestimate how well the “No collusion, no obstruction” and “Witch hunt!” strategy worked with the Mueller investigation. When Robert Mueller took that job he was considered the single most honorable,  straight-arrow lawman in the nation, and was widely praised by prominent members of both parties. But through sheer repetition, echoed by his media minions, Trump managed to convince millions of people that Mueller, a lifelong Republican, and his team of prosecutors were a bunch of vengeful Democratic hacks out to take him down for partisan reasons. With the help of Attorney General William Barr, that narrative was reinforced upon the release of Mueller’s report, and it solidified the “witch hunt” meme that Trump and his supporters continue to push to this day.

Trump and his henchmen are running the same game with the impeachment inquiry into Ukraine ……The point is to rally their white working-class voters by stoking their rage and resentment, and trying to convince what remains of their white college-educated vote to stay the course. Imagine the feral, frothing-at-the-mouth Lindsey Graham of the Kavanaugh hearings leading the charge, with a smirking Mitch McConnell by his side. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Tom Cotton will give soaring speeches railing against the Democrats’ illegal crusade to depose the duly elected president, echoing the Trump’s robotic messages once again.

Will it work? Who knows?…..But it’s a mistake to assume that Trump and the Republicans are flailing around without any purpose, and attacking the process for lack of any other options. They’re doing this because it’s worked before, and they figure they might just get away with it again.

DREAM A LITTLE DREAM

The type and scope of Trump’s wrongdoing in Ukrainegate is so blatant, so easily understood, and so egregious—and the evidence so massive, multifaceted, and wide-ranging—that it truly seems like the end of the road. (Much more so than Russiagate and the Mueller probe. And yes, I know they are ultimately related.) That is because in the more or less functioning democracy to which we are all accustomed, it would be a presidency-ending scandal, full stop, period dot, end of sentence.

But we no longer live in that sort of democracy.

It is very possible to imagine that, as crippling and final as this all seems right now, Trump will survive it and even prevail next November. But we cannot give in to fatalism or pessimism. There ought to be enough of us who still have our wits about us and a grasp on civics to get out and overwhelm Trump’s loyalists, first in public opinion and then at the polls. If we can’t, our democracy will be undeniably broken….and if we can but simply won’t, we’ll deserve what we get and have no one to blame but ourselves.

So by way of closing, let’s return to the nightmare that kicked all this off: impeachment, acquittal, false claims of exoneration, followed by re-election. 

You know that thing where you say you worst fears out loud, operating under the superstitious belief that that means they won’t come true? (It’s the flip side of not saying your wildest dreams out loud for the same reason.) Well, I’m not a very superstitious person, but maybe by articulating my nightmare I’ve done that.

Or, more rationally, maybe by speaking aloud the dangers we face we can collectively raise awareness of them, formulate a counter-strategy, and take control of our own destiny and avert that fate. 

It’s only the republic at stake. Now it’s up to us.

 

Of Nightmares and Strategy

Sinking Statue of Liberty

Here’s my nightmare, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has it.

Congressional Democrats assemble an ironclad case against Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors related to his actions regarding Ukraine, the subsequent coverup, and his obstruction of the investigation into it.

The House votes to impeach, a trial is quickly held in the Senate, and all 45 Senate Democrats and two independents vote to convict. Up to twelve Republicans join them, making for a healthy majority, but short of the two-thirds threshold needed to remove Trump from office. He is therefore acquitted, according to the procedures laid out in the Constitution.

A beaming Trump proclaims “total and complete exoneration,” much as he did after the release (and his distortion) of the special counsel report last March. He then carries on with his re-election campaign unimpeded by the jeopardy of removal by other means. With its long sought dream of impeachment fizzled out, a deflated Democratic opposition is left without much of a game plan and Trump barrels on to re-election the following November.

Then I wake up in a cold sweat with my pulse going at the tempo of a Deadmau5 track.

I know a lot of people have this same nightmare, and rightly so, as it is a very plausible scenario.

Of course, I’ve skipped over a big chunk in between the hypothetical acquittal and re-election, and the assumptions I’ve made about what will happen during that period—principally, Democratic postpartum depression, and an emboldened Trump rather than a fatally wounded one—are by no means certain. The actual way that interval plays out will be driven largely by the impeachment process itself leading into it.

Accordingly, I want to stress that I am not wringing my hands and saying, ”Oh, alas and alack, impeachment is going to hurt us in November!” I have never been among those who felt that way, and I am now more sure in my conviction than ever, having watched the early stages of this process unfold. As I’ve written before, I believe that the impeachment of Donald Trump on principle is an absolute duty that is essential for the long term health of the country, the Constitution, and the rule of law. That was so even before the revelations of Ukrainegate and is doubly so now. (See Reading Mr. Mueller, May 2, 2019.) But I’ve also written that I believe it is a tactically smart move purely in terms of the 2020 election. (See Who’s Afraid of the Big “I”?, May 15, 2019.)

Right now it feels like momentum is on our side, as the avalanche of evidence implicating Trump in impeachable offenses is…..well, avalanche-like. The White House is in a panic unlike any we’ve seen over nearly three years in which it has seemed to be in a constant state of panic. The broader GOP has no counter to that evidence except appallingly dishonest theatrics, misdirection, disinformation, and above all, a shameful attempt to discredit the accusers and witnesses, which is a tall order because there are so many of them and they are of such uniformly high moral and professional caliber. Public sentiment is currently running at about 49% in favor of impeachment and removal—I say again, not just in favor of impeaching him and having a trial in the Senate, but of actual removal. That’s an astonishingly high percentage for this early in the process, dwarfing the numbers Nixon and Clinton faced at this stage in their respective ordeals.

Even so, I’m leery. I dread the thought of going to bed on the night of November 3, 2020 with the screaming CNN graphic TRUMP RE-ELECTED burned into my retinas. I dread looking back on this time as one of misplaced confidence and unfulfilled optimism, followed by crushing disappointment. I dread what America will look like after five more years of this.

Maybe, like many of us, I have PTSD from the infuriating experience of watching the Mueller report despicably spun by Team Trump (mascot: a weasel stuffing rubles into its pockets while sexually assaulting a beauty pageant contestant). When this is all over, will we look back on the special counsel probe and Ukrainegate as twinned events, and slap our collective foreheads over how we let this same bullshit get pulled on us again? As George W. Bush once said, “Fool me once….” (blank stare; moment of panic)….”Can’t get fooled again.” And if we do let that fate befall us, it will be from the perspective of a once-great country that slid into gangster plutocracy, led by a kleptocrat whom we saw fit to put in office not once but twice.

So let us now consider the current state of play and how to avoid that nightmare coming true.

PROCESS OF ELIMINATION

When it comes to Ukraine, every pundit on God’s green earth whose paychecks aren’t signed by Rupert Murdoch has already noted that the GOP cannot plausibly defend Trump’s actions on their merits, so it is reduced to arguing about “process,” which, famously, is what one does when one’s case is weak. The quote of the day, which is getting a workout lately, belongs to Carl Sandburg: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

That the rules in this process that Republicans are pig-squealing about are largely the same ones they themselves devised during the Clinton impeachment and Benghazi hearings should not surprise anyone.

The White House’s decision to add Trey Gowdy to its impeachment team highlighted this irony. Gowdy himself addressed it, taking the surprisingly non-hypocritical position that secrecy is warranted in the Ukraine case just as it was with Benghazi…..but then went on to accuse Adam Schiff of the opposite crime, that of being too public with his inquiry. Wow.

But this week Nancy “The Dominatrix” Pelosi called the GOP’s bluff and gave them what they’d been histrionically demanding: an up-or-down vote on moving forward with an impeachment inquiry (even though it is not legally required), as she and the rest of the House leadership laid down the rules by which its public phase will now begin. But of course that didn’t satisfy House Republicans—not that anyone but Candide thought it would. McCarthy, Scalise, Zeldin, Gaetz and the rest of the odious Capitol Hill Gang are now throwing up their hands and crying, “Oh, it’s too late—you can’t put the genie back in the bottle! The whole process is already tainted!” Which I notice was not something they were saying before, when howling for Pelosi to do what she just did. Must have slipped their mind.

So they haven’t just moved the goalposts: they’ve torn down the stadium, built a new one across the river in Jersey, and sold the naming rights to Rosneft.

Despite their best efforts, Republicans are now entering the land of “be careful what you wish for,” as the American people will hear the sordid details of Trump’s behavior, which is not likely to help him. (Not one revelation that has yet come out has.) But of course, the Republican demand for transparency was never genuine, merely a distraction and stalling tactic…..and a measure of the weakness of their case.

Presumably they will continue to make this kind of Kleenex-thin argument as we barrel inexorably toward actual articles of impeachment, but it will have diminishing impact with every passing day. The GOP has no strategy but grandstanding and lies, so get used to it. Eventually, when all the pertinent information has been made public and the American people can see it and judge for themselves, the Republicans’ specious arguments about process will rendered meaningless (members of Kool-Aid Drinkers Anonymous notwithstanding).

LOAN US A QUID

Notice, also, how you don’t hear Republicans arguing much anymore that there was no quid pro quo? That’s because it’s now apparent to everyone except Sean Hannity that there was a fucking quid pro quo, one the size of the Hoover Dam. Mick Mulvaney bragged about it at a press conference, as a matter of fact, apparently test driving the Nathan Jessup “Hell yes, I ordered the Code Red!” approach, having failed to notice that at the end of that movie Jessup gets frogmarched out of court in handcuffs.

Accordingly, new reporting tells us that a number of GOP senators are now moving toward a defense that admits the quid pro quo—since it can’t believably be denied at this point—but argues that there wasn’t “corrupt intent.”

A few problems with that one, boys.

As we all know from dealing with this exact issue during two years of the Mueller probe, just soliciting foreign interference in a US election is illegal, and the presence or absence of a quid pro quo is irrelevant. (But I’ll be a broken record in repeating it, because the GOP is very keen to make us to forget it as it seeks to muddy the waters.)

The illegality of seeking foreign interference is the one thing we all agree on, Democrat and Republican alike, or at least I thought we did. In that earlier scandal, not even Trump—initially—claimed it was OK, only that he hadn’t done it. (“No collusion!”) But in Ukrainegate, he has openly admitted soliciting such help, even if he didn’t realize it, with the rough Zelensky readout, had his chief of staff brag about it on national TV, and then did it again in real time in front of a group of reporters right on the White House lawn.

As Scott Matthews says, after two years of the special counsel investigation, Trump has no grounds on which to claim that he didn’t know this is illegal behavior. It was pretty disingenuous the first time, of course, but there’s really no shrugging of the shoulders and claiming “rookie mistake” this time around. (As they say, ignorance is no excuse, but if it was Donald Trump might permanently excused from everything, in perpetuity.) On the contrary, in fact: it’s clear that the experience of Russiagate did nothing but embolden him, having seen what he could get away with. Please note once again that the crucial July 25 call with Zelensky happened on the day after Robert Mueller’s Congressional testimony that put a period at the end of the special counsel era.

So admitting the quid pro quo is utterly beside the point…..and the “no corrupt intent” defense is especially laughable because, of course, Trump’s intent could not possibly be any more corrupt.

As George Conway tweeted, “The defense that, yeah, there was a quid pro quo but it was innocent and not corrupt here is like saying, yeah, sure @realDonaldTrump robbed the bank, but he thought all the money in it belonged to him and that he was just making a withdrawal.”

(The openly deceitful Republican attempt to conflate impeachment with a criminal trial is another matter, but just for the record, Trump’s actions re Ukraine are not just an abuse of power that constitutes an impeachable high crime, but also a garden variety “crime crime” in the form of a felony campaign finance violation.)

The “corrupt intent” defense is especially hard to make because Trump himself refuses to cooperate with his own party in this ploy (or even in the fight over process, which, ironically, he mostly disdains). In fact, very much on the contrary, he continues to insist that blackmailing Kiev to smear Joe Biden was not illegal, not impeachable, and in fact right and proper conduct that he was duty-bound to carry out! He wasn’t soliciting foreign interference in an election: he was pursuing an honorable anti-corruption agenda against those crooked Delawareans! He was carrying out foreign policy in the standard way, using the power of the USA to compel foreign powers to do what is best for American interests!

“No corrupt intent” is itself a variation on Mulvaney’s Scaliaesque “Get over it” claim, which wants you to believe either that White House pressure on Kiev wasn’t in the service of Trump’s personal interests, or that it was, but that’s business as usual and we do it all the time. (Take your pick; Mick doesn’t really care.) Ultimately, all the GOP’s defenses circle back on one other as equally disingenuous repackagings of previous excuses, all of them non-starters.

It goes without saying that this argument that doesn’t fly, trying as it does to blithely pass off personal corruption as matters of state. We do not do this sort of thing all the time, and no credible foreign policy official thinks we do, not even Republican ones. What we do is leverage foreign powers for THE NATIONAL INTEREST….not for the president’s personal gain, not to smear his rivals in an election, not to soothe his ego and discredit the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia mucked about in the 2016 election. As former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt recently put it, “That’s as un-American an action and as contrary to the constitutional requirements of the office as have ever played out.”

Republicans love to bring up Obama’s hot mike moment with Medvedev in 2012. But they shouldn’t, as it is a perfect demonstration of the crucial difference in question. Notice that Obama was talking about achieving legitimate US foreign policy aims, not “Hey, get me some dirt on Tagg Romney if you want the US to play ball.” The idea that this is business as usual is so wrong-headed and cynically dishonest it’s hard to fathom….and we all know that the GOP would never tolerate it from a Democrat. It’s instructive to remember that in 2012, Republicans set their collective hair plugs on fire over Obama’s action. Yet now they want to shrug and defend Trump’s infinitely more extreme, wide-ranging, and criminally self-serving actions in a similar realm?

Of course they do.

Good luck with that: if it works, I presume the GOP will next be putting the Brooklyn Bridge on eBay.

Obviously, MAGA Nation will have no problem swallowing any horseshit Trump or his defenders put out, but—speaking of bridges—the “no corrupt intent” argument is likely to be a bridge too far for most sentient Americans. Can McConnell & Co. get Trump to abandon this farce and do a mea culpa for his own strategic good? Probably not. Can they still successfully make this argument even if Trump undermines them by continuing to pursue his trademark, Roy Cohn-style, Russiagate-tested strategy of denying what everyone can plainly see with their own eyes? Maybe. If the past four years have taught us anything, it’s that what in the old days would have seemed rational and reasonable to nearly all is no longer operative.

STILL A FEW BUGS IN THE SYSTEM

As many savvy political observers have already predicted, as more and more evidence comes out, the goalposts will move again and Republicans will eventually be left with only one argument: “Sure, Trump did it, and there was a quid pro quo, and it was with corrupt intent, but it doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”

This is an understandable tactic for a bunch of guys without any better options, wanton disregard for the truth, the public good, and the health of the republic notwithstanding. In fact, that line of argument has already begun. But that’s gonna be a hard sell, too.

Firstly, such a claim flies in the face of a fundamental understanding of the US Constitution and a functional democracy. Abusing the power of the presidency for personal gain, not to mention compromising American sovereignty for the benefit of foreign powers in the process, is the very thing which the Founders most feared, and for which they created impeachment as a remedy. It is also absolutely antithetical to the hardline “national security” ethos on which Republicans have historically—if dishonestly —prided themselves. Senate Republicans can’t with a straight face say that’s OK, or naughty but not impeachable. They are already trying, but it’s risible.

At the risk of trafficking in what has become a tedious trope, imagine if Obama…..yada yada yada.

Secondly, the surreptitious nature of the entire attempt to extort Ukraine—from the use of a non-governmental emissary like Giuliani, to the circumventing of normal State Department channels, to the compartmentalization of incriminating documents on a secure server—betrays the White House’s own recognition that what Trump was doing was outrageous. (Paging John Eisenberg.) Not really the behavior of people who thought it was no big deal.

In short, everyone but Donald Trump himself knew this was totally illegal even as they were doing it.

Thirdly, regardless of the underlying high crime, there is also the question of obstruction, which is wanton, and will surely be one of the articles of impeachment. Constitutional law scholar and Harvard professor Laurence Tribe writes: “I know of no instance when a president subject to a serious impeachment effort, whether Andrew Johnson or Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, has essentially tried to lower the curtain entirely—treating the whole impeachment process as illegitimate, deriding it as a ‘lynching’ and calling it a ‘kangaroo court.”

When it comes to claiming, “What he did wasn’t so bad,” Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, to name just two prominent Republican senators, are especially burdened with crippling evidence that will make it hard to say that. (Not that a little thing like “shameless hypocrisy” would stop either of these ass-clowns or any other Republican for a hot minute.)

In January 1999, on the floor of the Senate during the Clinton impeachment trial, a high-and-mighty Leningrad Lindsey famously said:

You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bunds in your role. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

(And it’s on video, if you wanna see him say it.)

Is he now really gonna argue that Trump’s actions don’t even rise to that level, that of dishonoring the integrity of the office? (Hell, if that’s the standard I’m not sure if there’s anything Trump has done since raising his hand on January 21, 2017 that didn’t disgrace the office.)

Moscow Mitch’s history is even more burdensome. In a closed door Senate hearing on February 12, 1999, McConnell held Bill Clinton to a pretty high standard in a speech that ran to more than 4000 words:

Time after time, the President came to a fork in the road. Time after time, he had the opportunity to choose the noble and honorable path. Time after time, he chose the path of lies and lawlessness—for the simple reason that he did not want to endanger his hold on public office.

The President would seek to win at any cost. If it meant lying to the American people. If it meant lying to his Cabinet. The name of the game was winning. Winning at any cost.

According to Newsweek, “In a ‘cold’ and ‘calculated’ decision, McConnell said Clinton had given up the chance to ‘tell the truth,’ choosing to ‘cling to public office and deny, delay and obstruct’ instead…… (McConnell repeatedly admonished) Clinton for having ‘looked 270 million Americans in the eye’ and having ‘lied—deliberately and methodically.’”

From his statement again:

He took an oath to faithfully execute the laws of this nation, and he violated that oath. He pledged to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, and he violated that pledge. He took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and he willfully and repeatedly violated that oath.

I think that the United States Senate has a clear choice. Do we want to retain President Clinton in office, or do we want to retain our honor, our principle, and our moral authority? For me, and for many members in my impeachment-fatigued party, I choose honor.

Choke on it, Mitch.

It’s true that in 1999 Democrats made a similar argument, that what Clinton did was wrong but not impeachable. (That was the origin of MoveOn.org. “Censure and move on.”) But that is the very point: they were overruled. The GOP prevailed and impeached him, even if they didn’t win a conviction. (If anything, these days, in the #MeToo era, the case for impeaching Clinton would be even stronger.) So it’s hard now for Republicans to argue that Trump’s far worse actions don’t rise to that standard of seriousness, although they are damn sure trying.

Which brings us back to Donald himself.

A PERFECT TEN

If the GOP endgame will be to admit Trump’s crimes but argue that they don’t merit impeachment, their argument is already flimsy as a cardboard life raft. Even so, they might succeed in selling this to a gullible enough segment of the American people, but for one pesky detail:

Trump himself has not only shown no remorse or even acknowledgement that his behavior was wrong, per above, but has given every indication that he will do it again. Hell, he has done it again, on live on television on the White House lawn even as this story was first breaking. It is now clear that Trump’s Houdini-like escape from accountability for his actions regarding Russia led to Ukrainegate in the first place, and excusing his actions regarding Ukraine would only invite further abuses in the future, and worse.

In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait—among the most eloquent and insightful critics of Trump out there—argues that it’s very likely that, for all we know, Trump and his minions are STILL engaging in this kind of behavior, perhaps on an even greater and more dangerous scale, and with higher stakes, even as we speak:

(Trump) has openly asked China to investigate the Biden family, while members of his administration keep refusing to deny that they are, right at this moment, incorporating such requests into their negotiations with Beijing. Trump has made it perfectly clear that any foreign country that announces investigations into his domestic enemies will be rewarded with diplomatic favor. Trump’s extraordinary distortion of American foreign policy for political gain is not a one-time offense that he’s learned from and won’t repeat. It is a credo, and an ongoing method.

No doubt Trump’s behavior is deeply frustrating for sober Republican strategists who are well aware that he is his own worst enemy when it comes to public relations. On that count he is truly an astonishing figure.

On the one hand, he’s a jawdroppingly great salesman (or should I say con man) on the order of PT Barnum, given the shit-rotten bills of goods he has gotten away with peddling throughout his career, from real estate to casinos to the USFL to mail order steaks to vodka to Chinese-made neckties to “university” educations to the image of himself as a self-made tycoon on a reality TV show when he was really a debt-ridden, serial-welshing, silver spoon baby who torpedoed every venture he ever touched. As the capper, of course, he conned millions of Americans into voting for him, made them believe that he isn’t a stooge of the Kremlin (despite 448 pages of evidence), and even now manages to convince them that they ought to continue to support him even as he publicly wipes his big white ass with the Stars and Stripes.

But on the other hand, he is a terrible salesman, one who consistently shoots himself in the brogan. Witness his unsolicited admission to Lester Holt that he fired Jim Comey over the Russia probe (to say nothing of having fired Comey in the first place), his boast to George Stephanopoulos that he’d collude with foreign powers again, or his voluntary (eager, even) release of the rough readout of the “perfect” Zelensky call, which he inexplicably continues to wave as it if it’s an alibi instead of a smoking gun.

So I am shocked to see that on this point Trump and I agree: this isn’t really about process, and that isn’t the battleground on which we should be fighting. The grounds that Trump wants to fight on—and I do too—are his angry contention, per above: “I did nothing wrong!”

I am not among those who think this is twelve dimensional chess or some sort of genius form of political jiujutsu where Trump “says the quiet part loud” and boldly deflects allegations of wrongdoing by actually boasting about it. (“How could it be wrong if he admits it so proudly?”) I think he genuinely didn’t think it was wrong and still doesn’t. Which means he’s either a psychopath, otherwise mentally impaired, or just absolutely stupid when it comes understanding to the letter of the law. But either way he shouldn’t be president.

For Senate Republicans to make the “no big deal” argument they will have to ignore the unavoidable fact that Ukraine was not a one-off slip-up but the very core operating philosophy of the megalomaniacal 73 year-old meatsack that is unaccountably our fearless leader.

Essentially, Trump’s argument is, “I’m a king who can do whatever I want. The interests of the state and my interests are one in the same. Patriotism means the defeat of my enemies; those who oppose me are traitors who should be shot. L’etat c’est moi.” (My rhetorical Trump speaks French.) Needless to say, that is an indefensible position incompatible with democracy by any definition. But no matter how they try to cloak it, it is the position that the Grand Old Party is going to be forced to make.

********

Next week, in part two of this essay, we’ll examine how impeachment can work to keep the nightmare of Trump’s re-election from happening. Hint: Impeachment and the election are really one…..