In the three and a half years since he descended that golden staircase to begin his marathon defecation on American democracy, Donald Trump and his retinue have given us some memorable phrases.
“Fake news.” “Alternative facts.” “Bigly.” “Covfefe.” “I like people who weren’t captured.” “Little Rocket Man.” An attack on our country.” “Very fine people on both sides.” “A 400 pound guy sitting on his bed.” “Failing New York Times.” “You’re the puppet.” “The likes of which.” “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” “Shithole countries.”
And of course, “Lock her up.” Just to name a few.
But I’d like to focus on one particular phrase of recent vintage, even if it is unlikely to pass into posterity the way some of those others seem destined to.
It came in Trump’s statement on the passing of Aretha Franklin.
But first, a quick recap of the week that was….
WEED IS LEGAL NOW, RIGHT?
Trump had another bad week, which is getting to be a habit to say the least. Mueller’s noose continued to tighten, Nancy Pelosi made him cry, the National Enquirer flipped on him, a Russian spy confessed to infiltrating the NRA, and the incoming New York State AG announced she plans to carry his severed head around Manhattan on a pike. There were even signs of tiny fissures in the Republicans’ Great Big Dike of Denial (let’s not get our hopes up), and Trump himself was forced to utter the dreaded “i” word aloud to the press, while privately telling confidants that he is indeed worried about the possibility of being chucked out of office like yesterday’s fish. Hell, he couldn’t even get an ambitious young right wing shitbag like Nick Ayers to sign on for what would normally be considered one of the most desirable jobs in Washington (nor could he lure Chris Christie off his private beach). As of now, it looks like the job of White House Chief of Staff will have to go to Jared, as all jobs eventually must. On the bright side, young Mr. Kushner comes to the position already of the verge of being indicted, so that will save time.
Yeah, not the greatest week ever.
Most notably, of course, President Donald J. Trump is now an unindicted co-conspirator in felonies for which his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is going to federal prison for three years.
In any other era, with the normal rules were in effect, that alone would likely be game over for the administration. But as you may have noticed, the normal rules ain’t in effect. Not by a longshot.
Trump of course dismissed the Cohen payoffs as “peanut stuff,” gave himself another A+ for his performance thus far as president, and counter-factually announced (via Twitter, natch) that Cohen’s confession “Totally clears” the President. Thank you!”
I don’t know what they’re smocking in the West Wing, but it would make Jeff Sessions mighty mad if he were not back at work at the Keebler tree.
THE PARTY OF LAW AND ORDER
At any rate, I am delighted to report that Trump is, by almost any measure, weaker now than at any point in his presidency, except insofar as he is a cornered rat and therefore more dangerous than ever.
Responding to the floodwaters rising around their standard-bearer, Republican legislators were left to scoff—unconvincingly—that Trump’s implication as an unindicted co-conspirator isn’t really a big deal. (Who hasn’t paid off some mistresses to fix a presidential election?) Some who are on their way out the door—like Orrin Hatch—ceased even pretending to believe in the rule of law, brazenly announcing that even if Trump is indeed guilty of federal crimes, they just don’t care.
But the ability of Republicans to dismiss Trump’s crimes and defend him with a straight face (“He gave rich people a huge tax cut!”) is not likely to stand up to scrutiny for very long. At the risk of looking foolish if we are in the same place six months from now, it does feel like the sheer of momentum of criminal revelations is building and beginning to make Trump’s self-erected statue wobble perilously.
It goes without saying that there’s a world of difference between a clerical error in campaign bookkeeping—as some, like Rand Paul and Kevin McCarthy, have shamelessly tried to characterize Trump’s actions—and a deliberate, covert, coordinated effort to defraud the American electorate on the eve of a presidential election to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money to silence a parade of mistresses. Coming as they did hot on the heels of the Access Hollywood tape, the payoffs arguably suppressed information that might well have tipped the election (Michael Lewis and The Undoing Project notwithstanding). Former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal—a conservative, it’s worth noting—described them as the most significant campaign finance violations in American history, and it’s hard to disagree.
So no, this is not jaywalking we’re talking about, much as the GOP would like us to believe otherwise. Hey, some might even say it’s worse than using a private email server.
JUST THE TIP (GET IT?)
For his part, now that Michael Cohen has been convicted, Trump—with characteristic chutzpah—claims that the transactions were a private matter unrelated to the election, even though another one of his lawyers, a former US Attorney for the SDNY and oh yeah Mayor of New York City, went on Fox and said the opposite. Donald Trump didn’t go to law school, but Rudy Giuliani did, and he ought to know better.
Giuliani later compared Trump’s offense to a parking violation, which is ironic for a guy who treated jaywalkers like ax murderers when he mayor. Mr. Former Tough Guy Prosecutor is suddenly very forgiving of criminal activity…..perhaps because he knows he is guilty of some himself and fears the reckoning that is coming.
So we can dispense with the idiocy and dishonesty of Trump’s defenders with one simple question:
If the payoffs were neither illegal nor related to the election nor any big deal, why did Trump lie about his knowledge of them, on camera, on Air Force One no less?
Having initially insisted that he didn’t have know about Cohen’s actions (using his patented Roy Cohn deny-deny-deny strategy), Trump has now been forced to deal with incontrovertible evidence that he not only knew about the payoffs, but directed them. We already have him on tape discussing the hush money with Cohen; this week it was revealed that our fearless leader was also the heretofore unnamed third party present when Cohen and National Enquirer boss David (wait for it) Pecker discussed this preemptive “catch-and-kill” strategy as far back as 2015.
Sometimes it’s not so good to have been in the room where it happened. (Aaron Burr: re-think your goals.)
Trump’s new position, as of this week, is that the payoffs weren’t illegal, and he didn’t order them anyway, or if he did he didn’t know they were illegal, and it was Cohen’s fault for following his orders when he shouldn’t have.
Got all that? Don’t worry, no one else did either. It was among Trump’s least convincing bullshit storms ever, which is saying something. For a famously bold liar, he is starting to sound a lot like Ralph Kramden.
But deceit is Trump’s go-to move—his only move, really—even if he is doing a worse-than-usual job of it in the face of mounting evidence implicating him. He is the scorpion carrying the Republican Party frog across the river, if a scorpion could have a combover. (That frog is named Pepe, by the way.)
The laughable GOP efforts to downplay this turn of events, on the hand, are just another sorry chapter in the Republican Party’s pathetic surrender to this contemptible grifter and its willful destruction of its own brand. But far from achieving the desired effect of stanching the bleeding, the Republicans’ continuing defense of Trump is nothing but slow-motion seppuku. For we all know—as does the GOP leadership—that this week’s revelations are hardly the last of Trump’s crimes that they are going to have address. On the contrary: hush money to porn stars and Playboy centerfolds is only the tippy top of a giant iceberg looming in the North Atlantic, directly in the path of the SS Individual-1.
ANOTHER BRICK IN THE HEAD
I promise I’m going to get to Aretha. I do. But you think the Queen of Soul comes out onstage right away? Let’s have some more opening acts.
The best theater this past week was the rare sight of a public, face-to-face rebuke of the fake president right there in his own Oval Office, with the cameras rolling. Nancy Pelosi kept her cool and showed why she’s the boss—and likely secured her second Speakership—as a flustered Trump repeatedly interrupted and mansplained and basically behaved like a dick. (Stop the presses.)
Pelosi and Schumer also got Trump to go full Colonel Jessup and embrace the Code Red of the looming government shutdown. Generally, one doesn’t want to take credit for something that will leave millions of government employees without paychecks at Christmastime, but remarkably, Trump did.
I watched the whole thing, and while I enjoyed seeing a pair of senior Democrats take the ignoramus-in-chief to task on national television, I have no doubt that the xenophobes and nihilists who comprise Trump’s Twelfth Man came away thinking him the winner, and admiring him even more for his (insane) commitment to building their big, beautiful racist wall. Everything in America is a Rorschach test these days, and a case study in confirmation bias.
That said, it’s clear that even Trump thought he lost that round, based on reports that he left the meeting throwing file folders and yelling at his staff. (Also known around the White House as “Tuesday.”)
And hey, anyway, what happened to that promise that Mexico was gonna pay for the wall? Conveniently forgotten I suppose. In the words of Gomer Pyle, surprise surprise surprise. Since getting his ass handed to him (by—gasp!—a woman), the closest a humiliated Trump came to addressing that broken promise was a characteristically ridiculous tweet with some baffling math about how his new trade deal with Mexico equates to a check from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador with “para el muro” in the memo line.
But the mere fact that he even tweeted that suggests he knows people are talking about that famous, fatuous claim, and he feels the need to defend it, however poorly.
The irony, of course, is that even if you think the lunatic, laws-of-physics-defying quest to build a wall to keep brown people out of America is worth shutting down the government over, it’s comical to believe that Trump will keep his promise to own that decision.
Donald Trump said live on national television that he would not blame Schumer and the Democrats if there is a shutdown.
Donald Trump will blame Schumer and the Democrats if there is a shutdown.
Which brings us back to Aretha.
I recently wrote about the death of another pop music icon, David Bowie, and the ways in which freshly deceased pop stars are typically met with a posthumous wave of adulation (fat lot of good that does them). The great Aretha Franklin was no exception.
Except in the aptly named White House.
“I want to begin today by expressing my condolences to the family of a person I knew well,” Trump told his Cabinet in remarks widely circulated soon after her death. “She worked for me on numerous occasions. She was terrific—Aretha Franklin—on her passing. She brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come.”
Let that sink in a moment.
“She worked for me.”
Really??? That’s the central point of Trump’s so-called tribute to Aretha?
It’s not even remotely true, of course, but the real significance is what the comment says about Trump, and by extension, the people who support and admire him.
Aretha Franklin played some concerts at Trump hotel/casinos. That is hardly “working for” Donald Trump. That’s like saying Picasso was an employee of the Prado, or Prince was in the NFL because he played at the Super Bowl. Or me claiming the Fire Department “works for me” because they came to check a gas leak in my building.
Trump’s insistence on that framing of his brief path-crossings with Aretha Franklin speaks to his infantile desire to be the boss of everybody…..even in their own obituary, which, as with all matters on heaven and earth, he somehow managed to make about himself.
As David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, Trump cannot conceive of any higher compliment than being graced with his presence. In Trump’s mind, everyone lives only to serve him and bask in his wonderfulness…..and that goes double for women and people of color. (That same disrespect was reflected this week in his clash with Pelosi.)
To give it the most generous possible interpretation, if Trump was merely acknowledging that he had met Ms. Franklin in person (as he did when memorializing G.H.W. Bush) he could have stopped with “a person I knew well.” That was a lie itself, but at least it wasn’t also a despicable racist dig that placed himself in the superior position and Aretha in a servile one.
His disrespect for the Queen of Soul is of a piece with his well-documented contempt for African-Americans in general, and African-American women in particular. Would we expect any less from a rich, obscenely entitled 72-year-old right winger, raised in privilege by a father who played footsie with the Klan and was sued by the federal government for racial discrimination bad enough that Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it?
NIL NISI BONUM
We know that Trump is very bad at the ceremonial aspects of his job, particularly when it comes to honoring other human beings or comforting his fellow man in times of grief, and the reason why is clear: because he lacks even the tiniest kernel of human empathy. He relates to others only as servants to his own mythical magnificence. His discomfort with sickness and death and inability to display—or even fake—normal human compassion as consoler-in-chief is yet another way he is manifestly unfit for the duties of the office he unaccountably holds.
Trump’s epoch-shattering pettiness and his astonishing unwillingness to set aside personal differences even when honoring the dead (see also John McCain) is a stark genetic marker of his malignant narcissism. The best he’s done—at George H.W. Bush’s recent funeral—is quietly sulk because he’s not the center of attention…..and in that case only because the Bush family cleverly managed to hem him in with some jiu-jitsu. If Trump fits the famous description of a person who wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral, all I can say is that there are millions of Americans who are with him on the latter count at least.
Even without the pointed barbs that characterized McCain’s funeral—the same weekend as Aretha’s, as it happened—Trump inevitably suffered by comparison at Bush’s memorial as he sat petulantly in the front row while the nation listened to tribute after tribute to the basic personal decency of “41.” (Though we ought not to forgive or forget the role the Bush dynasty played in giving us Trump in the first place, from Willie Horton to the invasion of Iraq.) I don’t exactly know how any of that fits in with Trump’s refusal to recite the Apostles’ Creed. I suspect he thinks Apostles Creed is Carl Weathers’ grandson.
Trump, of course, is not alone in his condescending attitude toward a group of people he is wont to call “the blacks.” Playing right into one of the worst and oldest stereotypes of dumbass white people, Fox infamously misidentified Aretha when it broadcast news of her passing, running a photo of Patti LaBelle.
I don’t have the column inches—or patience—to list all of Trump’s public displays of racism (for starters, see: NFL), but one of the worst and most telling of them remains his attacks on the so-called Central Park Five, the young black men convicted of assaulting, raping, and brutalizing a white female jogger in 1989. The five men variously spent from six to thirteen years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. (A serial rapist imprisoned for other crimes confessed and was proven to be the attacker.) Back in ’89, Trump, then just a private citizen and douchebag-about-town, took out full-page ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York state, with the Central Park jogger case the obvious subtext. (Just in case you thought racism, birtherism, and sticking his big fat nose where it doesn’t belong were new things for Don.)
But much more shocking is the fact that as recently as 2016 Trump continued to insist that the Central Park Five were guilty and ought to be in prison, even though they’ve been indisputably proven innocent and another man confirmed as the perpetrator.
I don’t even know where to begin with that demonstration of unmitigated racism, barbarity, and wholesale contempt for justice and the rule of law. I can only say that it’s appalling that it hasn’t gotten more attention, even as I understand that “outrage fatigue” has never gotten an aerobic workout like the one the Trump era is giving it.
So compared to shit like that, Trump’s megalomania and racism in insulting Aretha Franklin is neither surprising nor near the top of the list of his worst moments. But it’s still galling, especially when deployed in reference to an artist of her gifts.
As a recording artist, live performer, and pure singer, Aretha looms over the soul, R&B, gospel, and rock landscapes so pervasively that it’s hard to imagine contemporary pop music without her influence. You hear it in every melisma and virtuoso multi-octave swoop, from Christina to Whitney to Alicia to anyone else you care to name. But it wasn’t just technical brilliance that set Aretha apart; it was something ineffably transporting. They didn’t call her “the Queen of Soul” just because of her genre.
I am now officially a character from a Steely Dan song:
Hey nineteen, that’s Aretha Franklin
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul
Hard times befallen the soul survivors
She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old….
(Things white people do: quote the most sterile, uptight, male Caucasian rock band of all time in paying tribute to one of the earthiest African-American female vocal goddesses ever to hit a high C.)
Clearly, Aretha’s gifts are beyond Trump’s ability to comprehend or comment upon. (Hell, Milli Vanilli’s gifts are beyond that.) I don’t think anyone expected soaring, poetic rhetoric from the Donald in memorializing one of the greatest and most influential singers of the past century, but what he did say was even worse than I anticipated. Once again, every time I think he’s hit rock bottom, Trump has managed to surprise me by beginning to dig.
That’s why “She worked for me” has stuck with me, amid all of Trump’s other appalling turns of phrase. It’s no news flash that Donald Trump is a racist, a misogynist, and a small, small man. But every once in a while we get a perfect little economic encapsulation of all those things.
So there you have it. Trumpism—your one-stop shop for racism, sexism, classism, and narcissism.
Rest in peace, Aretha. When comes such another?
Español advisor: Odette Cabrera Duggan