Last time, we examined how Donald J. Trump has carved out a dangerous, almost unfathomably low watermark for dishonesty in public life, putting at risk the very bedrock of our democracy. That high-pitched shrieking you are now hearing is conservatives insisting that this is a gross exaggeration. Liberal hysteria! Trump Derangement Syndrome! But I would say that the opposite view is willful naiveté, if not shameless deceit in its own right.
So let us now look at his co-conspirators, who if anything, are even more culpable than the fake president they serve.
RISE OF THE INVERTEBRATES
In abetting Trump’s Orwellian war on demonstrable reality, the Republican Party has exhibited a level of hypocrisy, spinelessness, and opportunism that is gobsmacking even by the conventional standards of politics. In the past, a politician who engaged in the sort of relentless mendacity that Trump does would have been shitcanned in short order. But the GOP has shrugged and rubbed its neck and essentially said, “Lies? What lies?” If the Republican “leadership” (sorry—just threw up in my mouth a little) stood up and denounced Trump at any of the many opportunities he has given them over the past two years, he would have been finished. You may have noticed that that has not happened.
Some have tried to excuse this fecklessness on the grounds of the GOP’s alleged helplessness before the awesome power of Trump’s “base.” Hard to know, given the mysteriousness of that group, one so elusive that the New York Times can only find the same handful of small business owners in Ohio to interview over and over. That said, it’s true that Trump could wipe his ass with the American flag on live TV and his hardcore supporters would find a way to defend and even celebrate it. (His own example, famously, was that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not pay any political price. My formulation, frankly, is better because it involves behavior that his troglodytic minions would otherwise be upset about. Generally, they’re fine with shooting people.)
But Trumpkins represent only a small sliver of the American electorate….admittedly, one that turned out as never before last November, having been presented with a white power candidate on a major party presidential ticket for the first time in their lives. These autocrat-friendly Americans only determine the direction of our country so long as the Republican leadership is willing to let them do so. Trump’s deadenders and their blind loyalty cannot prop up their hero unless the GOP mandarins allow it, which is precisely what they have done. The leaders of the Republican Party are not the helpless victims of a faux populism. They are willful partners in it for their own partisan gain, the public good be damned.
Please try to stifle your yawns. Everyone who knows anything at all about politics in America is well aware of this. Trump is a soulless monster, but one so deranged that he seems not even to recognize the horrors he perpetrates as instinctively as breathing. (Which hardly excuses him, but still.) By contrast, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the rest of the Vichy Republicans are in some ways more culpable than the buffoon-in-chief, because they know what a grotesque and dangerous pretender to the throne Trump is. But McConnell, Ryan, et al are willing to enable and defend him so long as he gives them cover to implement their own appalling agenda, which boils down to the simplest of goals: further enriching the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the poor and the middle class.
At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, failing to call Trump out is a gross abdication of their duty as elected officials, of their alleged patriotism—about which they are always so quick to crow— and ultimately of sheer morality. But did we really expect any better from people whose lifelong dream is to take food out of the mouths of hungry children to give billionaires a tax cut?
Of course, the Republican Party began this process of distancing itself from the reality-based community years ago by convincing millions of Americans that the “mainstream media” was untrustworthy and biased against them. Unable to refute objective, well-researched and sourced stories in highly respected news outlets, the GOP simply tried to kill the messenger. This poisonous process of discrediting legitimate journalism was intensified with the creation and eventual triumph of Fox News, which eventually became—as it likes to brag—the most watched TV news network in America and the broadcast channel from which more of our fellow citizens get their news than any other. Fox has grown so powerful, in fact, that many have wondered whether it is properly described as an arm of the Republican party or if it’s the other way around. (Not coincidentally, the rise of Fox parallels the situation in—surprise!—Russia, where the illusion of a free press rests on print journalism so lacking in influence that the Kremlin doesn’t even bother to suppress it, while the vast majority of the public gets its news from government-controlled television. In Russia, however, there is no question about which is the dog and which the tail.)
It’s only fitting that Fox was the brainchild of the late Roger Ailes, a sexual predator whom Donald Trump very recently lauded as “a very, very good person,” and for decades had as its biggest star Bill O’Reilly, another sexual predator whom Trump called “a good person” who “didn’t do anything wrong.” (After all, the three of them have so much in common.)
To add insult to injury, Fox famously took the slogan “Fair and balanced.” (And George Orwell rolled over in his grave). When an individual engages in that sort of gainsaying, that is what psychologists call—Krauthammer, correct me if I’m wrong—“projection.” (“I’m not the puppet—you’re the puppet!”) When institutions, TV networks, and political parties do it it’s called “fascism.”
We have now reached a point where tens of millions of Americans have wholeheartedly bought into this right wing propaganda, and an entire shadow media—Breitbart, InfoWars, Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, WorldNetDaily, and all the rest— has arisen devoted to disinformation and conspiracy theory. Donald Trump is the logical extension of that long, slow debasement of the truth, the final charlatan waiting with a broad, rapacious grin at the bottom of our collective descent into irrationality, confirmation bias, and gleeful self-delusion.
Ironically, and in contravention of Fox’s loathsome claim, the so-called mainstream media is in fact balanced to a fault—almost comically so. Paul Krugman nailed it once and forever when he quipped that if the GOP claimed the Earth was flat, the US press would report, “Parties Differ on Shape of Planet.” He deserves the Nobel Prize for that alone. And that was more than sixteen long years ago! (Even if the way the phrase has passed into our collective consciousness is one of those crowd-sourced improvements on what he actually said, the same way that Bogart never literally said “Play it again, Sam,” and Cary Grant never said “Judy Judy Judy”).
The problem is, the American press is congenitally ill-equipped to deal with flat-out liars. As the Republican Party and its amen corner in the right wing media have drifted further and further into rejection of objective facts in favor of blatant propaganda, the legitimate press continued to maintain an almost absurd obeisance to “objectivity,” even after reality had long since rendered it dangerously self-defeating. The 2016 presidential campaign revealed that absurdity in spades, as Trump exploited American journalism’s commitment to evenhandedness and made a mockery of it, all the way into the Oval Office. Forget knife to a gunfight; the mainstream press brought a feather duster to a flamethrower fight. Belatedly—like, on November 8th, 2016—the press seemed to awaken to that fact, and has been improving over the past few months, out of necessity. But it is still not at the robust level a Trump regime requires.
That is why a better demagogue still worries me. I know that particular fear may sound less than urgent right now when we have the more pressing problem of the current demagogue with which to contend. But I worry that Trump has done so much damage to the quaint concept of truth that American politics has been forever defiled. Will we ever be able to go back to a culture in which we can confidently challenge a liar on the basis of the facts, or have we lost that common moral and logical basis forever? The optimistic view is that Trump is a unique figure, a fluke, a perfect storm of political ill winds that is not likely to recur any time soon, a sui generis monster whose success will be difficult if not impossible for almost any other politician to replicate. One can only hope. Personally, I am not willing to roll the dice.
CHEMOTHERAPY FOR A DISEASED DEMOCRACY
We can stop this madness now and prevent the debasement of truth from becoming the new normal. The only way to do so if the American people stand up and say “NO.” We cannot depend on the press or our political leaders to take the lead; they have to follow ours. We must declare that we will not allow Trump to trample the truth into oblivion…..we will not allow him to spew his hateful lies and get away with them….we will not allow him to pollute political discourse in this country (and the world) any further than he already has.…we will not allow him to wantonly mislead, deceive, and outright swindle us, denying us recourse to the ultimate arbiter of empirical fact.
Once again, the group of people who hold the most potential power in this effort are the so-called leaders of the Republican Party, and it is on them that we should focus the concentrated power of public pressure. So far, of course, McConnell, Ryan, and the rest of the GOP have shown not a whit of backbone and not the slightest indication that they ever will develop one. It is quite clear that they lack the courage to stand up and call Trump out for his pathological dishonesty and hold him accountable in the interest of a healthy democracy and the well-being of the United States and the world. That may change, as many have predicted, if and when they believe they have arrived at a tipping point where Trump becomes more of a liability than an asset. (We should never delude ourselves that they will ever do so because it is the right and moral thing to do.) After all, they have yoked themselves to this ogre only because they believe he will help them enact their long-sought policies. As part of that Faustian bargain they have been willing to countenance—indeed, to overtly defend—some of the most appalling behavior ever seen from a President of the United States. But thus far they have precious little to show for it. If Trump’s pattern of self-inflicted wounds continues to hamper and hinder the Republicans’ legislative agenda, to say nothing of actively hurting them in the midterms, or blowing back on them should criminal charges and/or impeachment proceedings be brought, the GOP may reconsider whether this unholy alliance really benefits it.
In theory, there is another pragmatic reason for the Republican Party to stand up for the truth, even beyond the simple arithmetic of Trump’s freefalling poll numbers and the rising specter of scandal and removal from office. (How sad is it that we even have to look for a reason for the GOP to do the right thing?) The triumph of disinformation is non-partisan and ostensibly could be turned against conservatives just as easily as against liberals. But demagoguery by definition lends itself more readily to simple-minded reactionaryism than to the nuanced positions of progressivism. Hence the GOP’s willingness to embrace it. But they are playing with fire.
Republicans: if your leaders won’t show sufficient backbone, you can stand up and force them to. That applies to ordinary rank-and-file voters just as much as to backbenchers and state and local officials. It’s your party and it is disintegrating before our eyes as any kind of respectable democratic entity. Demand that your leaders do their duty and defend the integrity of the American political system, not cravenly enable this scorched earth campaign against the very concept of honesty. The Republican leadership’s own cowardice presents a lever to do so. The more toxic Trump becomes, the more they can be cajoled into abandoning him. (I would say “shamed into,” but I don’t think that’s possible.) And there is every reason to believe Trump will only get more and more toxic with each passing day; it is far less likely that he will suddenly turn statesmanlike. (A Reichstag fire scenario that allows him to slither out from under scrutiny is a different matter, and a terrifying one.) That kind of severance from Republican support would be a blow that Trump could not withstand, not even with the continued fealty of his hardcore myrmidons, who—at the risk or repeating myself—are only a small minority of Americans. And it can work. Witness Rod Rosenstein, who was forced to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel in the Russiagate investigation only because of his mortification over the damage to his reputation in the Comey firing.
Let’s make the Republicans’ own selfishness work for us. If they refuse, they are only writing their own death warrant as a political party. By not acknowledging and condemning Trump’s fundamental dishonesty, the Republican Party is fast making it plain that it is not interested in democracy at all, but in autocracy. With such cowardice and venality are these quislings courting history’s harshest judgment. But we can force them to be courageous.