Who says there’s a war on Christmas? This year it came early. Sing hallelujah!
These days every week brings what feels like a month’s worth of news by pre-2016 standards, but even within that this past week stood out. We had barely begun to absorb the horrific images of US law enforcement agents firing CS gas at barefoot refugee children when the bizarre tale of Paul Manafort’s deceit overtook it, accompanied by the intrigue surrounding Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, and Julian Assange, and then that was obliterated by Michael Cohen’s surprise court appearance where he dropped an atomic bomb with his confessions about Trump’s business dealings in Russia.
We also saw the putative leader of the free world continuing to refuse to hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia accountable for the grisly murder of a US-based journalist, a grinning lynching enthusiast win a US Senate seat in Mississippi, GM make a mockery of Republicans’ fake concern for “ordinary working people,” and lest we forget, Trump turn in his take-home test to the special counsel, containing what promise to be numerous potentially presidency-ending lies. As Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith might say, give ‘em enough rope….
But Mike Cohen made them all footnotes.
Post-midterms, it is clear that the Mueller probe is accelerating—or perhaps more accurately, now playing some very big face cards Bob has been heretofore holding close to his chest. It can’t come soon enough.
IN TODAY’S PERFORMANCE, THE PART OF JOHN DEAN WILL BE PLAYED BY MICHAEL COHEN
The Cohen plea reveals that—surprise!—Trump baldly lied to the American people over and over again during the presidential campaign in insisting that he had ABSOLUTELY NO business connections, arrangements, or other interests in Russia, when in fact he was trying to negotiate a multi-hundred million dollar real estate deal to build a “Trump Tower” in Moscow. As the cherry on top, we also learned that, in hopes of currying favor and enticing other oligarchs to buy apartments there, he planned to give Vladimir Putin the tower’s $50 million penthouse as a goodwill gesture (sometimes known as a “bribe”).
Ever since Russiagate first began, a lot of people have joked that even if there were proof of Trump and Putin exchanging a bag of cash, the GOP and Trump’s base would not admit any conspiracy between the two.
Does this do it, guys?
We now understand why Trump has been so blatantly, bootlickingly solicitous of Moscow, an enduring mystery for the past three years. Though several journalists have been laying out the financial case for months now, plea documents with the special counsel’s signature on them really drive the point home. A huge piece of the puzzle has thus fallen into place. Now that we have this definitive answer, much of the rest of Russiagate is pretty easy to grasp.
We don’t yet know the extent or details of Trump’s collaboration with Russia in illegally trying to swing the election—collusion, as it is commonly known—but little of it promises to be good news for the Trump family. The bombshell Guardian report that Manafort visited to Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy during the 2016 campaign was especially stunning. If this were a spy movie and two of the key players met IN PERSON like that, you’d walk out of the theatre in disgust before the credits even rolled. But you don’t have to have read many le Carré novels to think that the “accidental” disclosure that Julian Assange has been indicted was no accident at all, and the German authorities’ raid of Deutsche Bank—Moscow’s go-to drycleaner for money-laundering and Trump’s personal ATM when no one else would loan him any more cash—on the same day as Cohen’s court appearance was no coincidence.
For those who have scoffed that there was no collusion—including a certain orange-hued lunatic in Washington—the Moscow Tower revelations suggest that the truth might be even more astonishing (and damning) than anyone imagined. If Trump would lie about his business dealings with Russia—and no one was remotely surprised that he would—would it be any surprise to learn that he would also secretly conspire with the Kremlin to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, hack into the DNC server (or at least obtain the fruit of that hacking), and otherwise utilize covert Russian help to help win the election?
We didn’t really need the Cohen plea to tell us that. Everyone knows Trump is not above such skullduggery. Even Trump supporters—even Trump himself—have not argued that he’s above it. The most they have argued is that he didn’t actually do it. But every day brings more evidence that he did, and why.
As Rachel Maddow reported in a widely admired segment last Friday, the secret Moscow Tower project and the case for collusion appear to be inherently connected. In short:
Trump was secretly trying to make a real estate deal with the Kremlin worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to be financed by the phenomenally shady state-controlled Russian bank VTB, while shamelessly claiming to the American people that he had no business dealings in Russia whatsoever. (Nota bene: That alone ought to be a presidency-ending revelation.)
In order for that to happen, however, sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration in response to the annexation of Crimea had to be lifted. On the campaign trail, Trump was therefore actively advocating for the lifting of those sanctions without giving the real reason why.
Having thus compromised Trump and achieved that kind of control over him, Moscow then set about in earnest helping get their asset elected. In light of that, it’s all but impossible to believe that Trump and his campaign were not also actively involved in that effort as well. (It is no coincidence that the first member of the Trump administration to get in hot water, his then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, did so for lying both to Congress and the FBI about secret contacts with the Kremlin surrounding that very issue.)
This story promises to hit with even more force when it is delivered by the special counsel, which will likely begin this week as the Mueller team delivers documents related to both Flynn and Manafort.
But while we await that, let us ponder the significance of the fact that Donald Trump told the biggest and most profound lie in the history of American presidential politics. Difficult as it is to fathom, the question we are faced with is: does it matter? In other words, why don’t Trump supporters care abut something as indisputably wrong as this?
AS I LAY LYING
There are many things about Donald Trump that—to any thinking person—would disqualify him from being president. His despicable values. His goldfish-like attention span. His brazen misogyny. His habit of openly insulting African-American women. (Subset of previous flaw, overlapping with “his wanton racism” in the Venn diagram of Trumpian awfulness.)
But all of those are things that, to some people, are features, not bugs. Those people are cretins, but nevertheless: they don’t consider those traits demerits. “He’s an iconoclast! He tells it like it is! He’s not PC! He’s a red-blooded man!” et cetera. We’re all familiar with the excuses used to forgive—or even applaud—his shortcomings.
The same cannot be said of lying.
No one can credibly say that baldy lying to the American people—repeatedly, shamelessly, in ways that gravely endanger national security and compromise the legitimacy of a presidential election—is OK. So his supporters are left with two responses:
1) “It’s not a lie.” This option requires willful denial of reality, as it’s not just Cohen’s word that must be overcome, but the documentary evidence that the special counsel has assembled to support his plea.
2) “OK, it’s a lie, but it’s not a big deal.” Per above, that assertion is patently false in the worst possible way. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is a very big deal for the ostensible leader of the so-called free world to bluntly deny to the American people that he was in cahoots with a hostile foreign power, for reasons that ought to be obvious.
This disingenuous shrug of an argument is usually buttressed (cough cough) with the claim that “all politicians lie.” Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t, but not all lies are created equal, and this one is about the biggest lie imaginable. Careers, liberty, and indeed lives have been lost over far smaller falsehoods. Imagine if Hillary or Obama yada yada yada…..
Trump himself has essentially adopted option #2, dismissing the revelations as trivial while adding a twist that is the most dishonest of all, the kind in which he specializes: pretending he never lied in the first place.
I don’t think I’ve yet heard a journalist confront him with his untold previous claims that he had no business in Russia and ask him to defend them. If they did, I suspect he would continue to act as the newly revealed facts are so petty as to not be of any significance. He’s flagrantly wrong, of course, as shown by the glaring flaw inherent in that stance:
If these business relationships with the Russian government were no big deal, WHY DID HE GO TO SUCH EPIC LENGTHS TO HIDE THEM?
And not just once or twice, but consistently, every chance he got, in full-throated, how-dare-you tones of absolute outrage? If it was all “very legal & very cool” as he now claims (very legal?), why bother to lie at all? Why didn’t he just say, “Yeah, I have business in Russia; I have business all over the world. So what?”
To say that now is not the same thing.
There’s a big, barreling answer to that “So what?” The conflict of interest baked into that sort of foreign entanglement is self-evident, and the emoluments clause (not to mention common sense) makes it explicit.
But even beyond that, business arrangements with a foreign power become a much bigger deal when you hide them……and you hide them because you know they’re wrong and damaging if not outright disqualifying. And—here comes the irony—hiding them and lying about them makes them even more disqualifying because of the potential for exploitation and extortion by those foreign powers, who now who have leverage over the President of the United States.
And that, in terms of compromise of national security, is a Grand Canyon-sized problem, no matter how much Trump’s craven defenders try to downplay it.
One of Trump’s most consistent defenders, Alan Dershowitz, did admit last week that Cohen’s confessions “could suggest that Trump wasn’t telling the public the whole truth about the Moscow deal.”
Ya think? That kind of laughable spin says it all about the sad twilight of Alan Dershowitz, but it says even more about the denial that Trump’s supporters are in. “Wasn’t telling the whole truth” suggests some slight shading of the facts, typically by omission. But what we’ve seen from Trump since the moment these Russian allegations first emerged have been full-throated, indignant, howls of denial and scorn for the very accusation.
The closest our grifter-in-chief has come even to acknowledging his lies is some classic Trumpian gaslighting. Shouting at the press over the sound of Marine One’s helicopter blades, he tried to have it both ways, insisting—OJ-like—that Cohen is lying and he didn’t have any deals with Russia, but even if he did, it wouldn’t have been untoward.
As Jennifer Rubin wrote in the WaPo: “Trump’s shocking insistence Thursday that he was ‘allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign’ seems to leave open the possibility that he did not comprehend the ramifications of working with the Russians to feather his own nest and get him elected.”
Too bad ignorance is no defense. If it was, Donald Trump would be the most well-protected man on earth,
So unless one is willing to sign on for citizenship in cloud cuckoo land, we are left with the escapable conclusion that there is no real defense for Trump’s lies about his business dealings with Russia.
How, then, do his defenders shrug those lies off?
I have been asking myself questions like that for more than two years now. Only in the past week or two have I begun to have any semblance of understanding.
He didn’t mean it metaphorically.
Hedges outlines the dictionary definition of a cult and the ways in which Trump and his followers meet it:
Cult leaders arise from decayed communities and societies in which people have been shorn of political, social and economic power. The disempowered, infantilized by a world they cannot control, gravitate to cult leaders who appear omnipotent and promise a return to a mythical golden age. The cult leaders vow to crush the forces, embodied in demonized groups and individuals, that are blamed for their misery. The more outrageous the cult leaders become, the more they flout law and social conventions, the more they gain in popularity. Cult leaders are immune to the norms of established society. This is their appeal. Cult leaders demand a God-like power. Those who follow them grant them this power in the hope that the cult leaders will save them.
The cult leader grooms followers to speak in the language of hate and violence. The cult leader constantly paints a picture of an existential threat, often invented, that puts the cult followers in danger.
The cult leader does not take his or her statements seriously and often denies ever making them, even when they are documented. Lies and truth do not matter. The language of the cult leader is designed exclusively to appeal to the emotional needs of those in the cult.
Cult leaders are narcissists. They demand obsequious fawning and total obedience. They prize loyalty above competence. They wield absolute control. They do not tolerate criticism. They are deeply insecure, a trait they attempt to cover up with bombastic grandiosity. They are amoral and emotionally and physically abusive. They see those around them as objects to be manipulated for their own empowerment, enjoyment and often sadistic entertainment. All those outside the cult are branded as forces of evil, prompting an epic battle whose natural expression is violence.
In other words, Trumpism is a literal cult.
Once I began to think of it that way, I felt a little bit better.
Of course, this diagnosis doesn’t appreciably change the perilous situation in which we find ourselves. Indeed, in some ways it makes it much scarier. But it relieves me of the self-imposed duty to TALK SOME SENSE INTO THESE MOTHERFUCKERS! YOU BENIGHTED SUCKERS! DO YOU NOT SEE WHAT A SHAM, WHAT A HYPOCRITE, WHAT A MONSTER YOUR HERO IS?????
Trump supporters, I can hear you saying how self-righteous, sanctimonious, and holier-than-thou I am being, and you’re not wrong. It’s just that thou art so easier to be holier than.
Like many Americans, I have long been frustrated by the impossibility of having a rational argument with most Trump backers—a phenomenon I have written about several times in these pages (see The Death of Hypocrisy and Things Trump Supporters Have Taught Me). This impossibility, of course, is largely a function of Trump’s Orwellian campaign to obliterate objective reality as a metric universally agreed upon—what we used to quaintly call “the truth.”
Viewing Trumpism as a cult is the next logical step in that progression. I highly recommend it: it will save you a fortune in Zoloft.
That is why Trump playing exponentially more golf than Obama does not move his supporters. Nor his blowing up deficit, nor cozying up to dictators, nor trashing the Iran deal and making a ludicrously worse one with North Korea, nor Ivanka’s private email server—and Jared’s, and Reince’s, and Stephen Miller’s—and her claim that she had no idea that was a problem. None of it does. And neither will the revelation of his blatant lies about the Moscow Tower project.
Hedges quotes the famous psychoanalyst Joost A.M. Meerloo, in his acclaimed 1956 book The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing:
“Logic can be met with logic, while illogic cannot—it confuses those who think straight. The Big Lie and monotonously repeated nonsense have more emotional appeal in a cold war than logic and reason. While the enemy is still searching for a reasonable counter-argument to the first lie, the totalitarians can assault him with another.”
The cult leader, unlike a traditional politician, makes no effort to reach out to his opponents. The cult leader seeks to widen the divisions. The leader brands those outside the cult as irredeemable. The leader seeks the omnipotence to crush those who do not kneel in adoration. The followers, yearning to be protected and empowered by the cult leader, seek to give the cult leader omnipotence. Democratic norms, an impediment to the leader’s omnipotence, are attacked and abolished. Those in the cult seek to be surrounded by the cult leader’s magical aura. Reality is sacrificed for fantasy. Those who challenge the fantasy are not considered human. They are Satanic.
I admire Hedges’ work, although I’m not sure he would return the compliment. A scathing critic of mainstream liberalism, he decries the “smug, self-righteousness of this crusade against Trump,” one that he believes contributes to this cycle of madness. At least on that count, I am sure I fit squarely within the demographic he derides. For my money, the credibility of a critique like that is undermined by some of his other arguments, like his recent defense of Julian Assange, which portrayed the Wikileaks founder as a valiant defender of transparency and antagonist to oligarchy while conveniently ignoring the ways in which he has eagerly served as a bagman for Vladimir Putin.
But fair play: Hedges’ framing of Trumpism as a literal cult is the most accurate characterization of the current moment that I have yet read.
Hedges quotes Meerloo again:
“(The dictator) sees no value in any other person and feels no gratitude for any help he may have received. He is suspicious and dishonest and believes that his personal ends justify any means he may use to achieve them. Peculiarly enough, every tyrant still searches for some self-justification. Without such a soothing device for his own conscience, he cannot live. His attitude toward other people is manipulative; to him, they are merely tools for the advancement of his own interests.”
Behavior that ensures the destruction of a public figure’s career does not affect a cult leader. It does not matter how many lies uttered by Trump are meticulously documented by The New York Times or The Washington Post. It does not matter that Trump’s personal financial interests, as we see in his relationship with the Saudis, take precedence over the rule of law, diplomatic protocols and national security. It does not matter that he is credibly charged by numerous women with being a sexual predator, a common characteristic of cult leaders. It does not matter that he is inept, lazy and ignorant. The establishment, whose credibility has been destroyed because of its complicity in empowering the ruling oligarchy and the corporate state, might as well be blowing soap bubbles at Trump. Their vitriol, to his followers, only justifies the hatred radiating from the cult.
On the subject of cults, we just passed the 40thanniversary of the Jonestown massacre, an episode that gave us the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” But as numerous scolds have noted, the poisoned drink Jim Jones’ followers quaffed down in the Guyanese jungle was actually Kool-Aid’s cut-rate competitor Flavor-Aid (much to the consternation of Kraft Foods). In that regard, Kool-Aid is a victim of its own success, like other brand names that are so dominant that they have become “genericized,” like Thermos, Xerox, Band-Aid, and Velcro. (Fun fact: once upon a time, refrigerator, aspirin, and zipper were also brand names.)
For those who want to get into the weeds, Chris Higgins mounted a vigorous argument against the whole phrase in the pages of the Atlantic six years ago, taking in Ken Kesey, the science of neologisms, and the evidence that there were in fact some Kool-Aid packets mixed among the Flavor-Aid. (For completists only.)
Whatever the drink, the phrase has never been more apt for American life than right now, so it’s equally fitting for our Trumpian post-truth era that its genesis is grounded in inaccuracy.
What distinguishes a cult from a religion anyway? Only the size of its following and its seniority—a favorite point of Bill Maher. Neither Mormonism, with its magic underwear, nor—even newer—Scientology, with its souls of dead aliens, are arguably more wacko in their beliefs and more destructive in their histories of violence than numerous older, more established religions. (I’m looking at you, Catholicism.)
Notably, Hedges himself is a recently ordained Presbyterian minister.
A cult represents a kind of mass psychosis, typically affecting a small, self-selecting group, like the Branch Davidians, or the People’s Temple, or others who immediately come to mind when the term is invoked. But cults can also be large, and secular, like the thrall in which Nazism held the German people from 1933 to 1945. (For sheer visual display of blind obedience, nothing in human history approaches the images in Triumph of the Will.)
I don’t mean to suggest that every last German was a true believer. But enough of them were.
Likewise, from the start I have contended that should the republic—and the planet— survive, future generations will look back on Trump’s reign as a time of similar mass hysteria in the United States, the way we now look back on McCarthyism or the Salem witch trials. (Trump regularly cites both, but he has the protagonists completely backward.)
I am not saying that all Republicans or even all Trump supporters are in the grip of this cult any more than every German was, though many of them plainly are.
So what of these other “conservatives” (though the term no longer applies), those who retain enough rational thought to recognize what an abomination Trump is yet support him anyway, usually in some Faustian bargain to advance their partisan agenda: judicial appointments, deregulation, tax cuts, gun rights, take your pick. What of the Mitch McConnells, Paul Ryans, and—yes—Susan Collinses of the world? I don’t have the psychiatric qualifications to proclaim them completely cult-free, but they do strike me as driven primarily by pragmatism, opportunism, and—to be blunt—cynicism rather than by true faith in our Dear Leader, even if they keep their candid opinions about him behind closed doors.
I have addressed this in the past. We can dispense with the fiction that supporting Trump is justified by some utilitarian calculus, given that the “benefits” are—in direct contradiction to the conservative argument—empirically terrible. Ironically, the Faustian bargain contains no positive tradeoffs at all, but only a compounding of horrors: “Support this monster, because in exchange we get children tear gassed and caged, the rich further enriched at the expense of the poor, global impunity for dictators, and the planet destroyed!”
In some ways then, these people are worse than the cultists in that they cannot be excused by reason of mental incapacitation. They are quislings and collaborators who will one day face history’s harshest verdict.
IF THE GLOVE FITS
Yet another tributary of Trumpism are those public figures who may not exactly meet the definition of a cultist, but whose personal pathology makes for a toxic mix with the rule of our insane clown president. Giuliani is a prime example, as is Dershowitz.
Bill Maher coined the term “smart stupid person” in relation to Dr. Ben Carson, describing someone who is highly accomplished in one very exacting field—like neurosurgery—but a raging ignoramus in another—like politics, or where the pyramids come from. Dershowitz is a different animal, however, in that he is at once objectively intelligent and yet maddeningly obtuse even in his own métier. In that sense, his watercarrying for Trump is well in character: he has long lent his preening talents to the defense of the indefensible while trying to maintain a charade of principle. Ask the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown.
By way of a timely reminder, this week Dershowitz also figured in a blockbuster story in the Miami Herald, detailing how in 2007 the Republican US Attorney in Miami at the time, Alexander Acosta, made an unconscionable plea deal to help Trump’s buddy Jeffrey Epstein avoid proper prosecution for serially raping and sex trafficking underage girls, as well as shielding his potential accomplices. (Ahem.) The sweetheart deal to which Acosta agreed—which also hid the deal from his victims, and provided laughably comfortable jail time—grew out of a vicious and well-funded campaign of pressure led by Epstein’s lawyers, among them Dershowitz and Ken Starr (!), with later help from another crypto-Trump protector, Manhattan DA Cy Vance. One of Epstein’s victims even alleges that she was made to have sex with Dershowitz himself.
Alex Acosta is now Trump’s Secretary of Transportation.
The author of the Herald piece, Julie K. Brown, writes that as such, Acosta currently “oversees a massive federal agency that provides oversight of the country’s labor laws, including human trafficking. Until he was reported to be eliminated on Thursday, a day after this story posted online, Acosta also had been included on lists of possible replacements for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned under pressure earlier this month.”
So much for the high ground, Alan.
THE PATH FORWARD
Understanding the pathology of Trumpism is critical to developing a strategy to defeat it. At the end of ”The Cult of Trump,” Hedges points out that the mere destruction of this man and breaking of the fever of his followers will not solve our long term problem.
We must lime the soil from which he sprung.
Hedges writes that it is folly “to reduce a social, economic and political crisis to the personality of Trump,” or refuse “to confront and name the corporate forces responsible for our failed democracy.” Even more than Trump and his cult, it is the aforementioned enablers who represent the deeper and more long-lasting threat, for it is they who created the conditions that allowed him to rise, and who even now excuse and protect him.
Our only hope is to organize the overthrow of the corporate state that vomited up Trump. Our democratic institutions, including the legislative bodies, the courts and the media, are hostage to corporate power. They are no longer democratic. We must, like liberation movements of the past, engage in acts of sustained mass civil disobedience and non-cooperation. By turning our ire on the corporate state, we name the true sources of power and abuse. We expose the absurdity of blaming our demise on demonized groups such as undocumented workers, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, liberals, feminists, gays and others.
Hedges believes the Democratic Party is irredeemably compromised and cannot be the conduit for this change. I don’t agree. But one thing is clear.
As there is no reasoning with Trump’s true believers, at least not unless or until their spell is broken, our focus ought to be not only on destroying his morally bankrupt cult of personality, but also discrediting the “mainstream” right wing criminality that abetted his rise, and leaving both on the ash heap of history.
“Holier-than-thou” joke—courtesy of “Taxi.”