Over the last few weeks, all the focus on the fallout of the still-under-wraps Mueller report has obscured the central and ongoing reality of the Trump administration: its fundamental sadism, greed, corruption, and inhumanity as it marches into history as far and away the worst presidency of modern times by any metric you care to apply. Untoward footsie with Russia (and the Saudis, and the Azerbaijanis, and the Israelis, zzzzz) is but one aspect of it, and—as many critics on the left have pointed out—the attention paid to that sucks the oxygen away from a raging forest fire of other sins.
We were reminded of that this week with the abrupt firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirrstjjen Nielssenn (did I spell that right?), apparently ahead of the impending departure of a half dozen other senior DHS officials in a purge orchestrated by the reptilian Stephen Miller, with Trump’s eager endorsement, but without any sign of succession by competent replacements. “Decapitation,” one anonymous insider called this Sunday Night Massacre…..and this at the agency responsible for addressing what Trump claims is a “national emergency.”
No tears will be shed for Kirsten, of course—screw her and the broom she rode in on. But that purge, we’re told, in turn precedes Trump’s fuming desire to “get tougher” on the situation at the southern border, to halt all asylum seekers in defiance of federal law, and to ratchet up his xenophobic immigration policy full stop.
“Get tougher”? Are they kidding?
Let’s not concede them their preferred terms. Ain’t no “tougher” about it. What they’re talking about is better described as raising the already appalling level of institutional cruelty to an even more stomach-churning level, which is saying something. That would include an attempt—again, in defiance of the courts—to reinstate the unconscionable policy of “family separation,” a euphemism for ripping children away from their parents and caging them, as a deliberately brutal ploy to deter future asylum seekers. (Suck on that, Emma Lazarus!) It is a policy that some mental health professionals have described—and not metaphorically—as torture.
In this effort Trump, Miller, and rest of their odious crew seem motivated in equal measure by their own innate sadism and by a tactical desire to appeal to that same quality in their salivating base. There is no discernible plan or policy beyond that, at least not one rooted in anything resembling reality. Some have speculated that mere cruelty is itself the goal, with some vague, nihilistic notion of “disrupting” the entire body politic. If that is so, they have succeeded in spades. But how is that any kind of coherent objective?
Typically, Trump (falsely) blamed Obama for the policy of taking children from their parents, claimed he is the one who stopped it (the exact opposite of what really happened) even as he openly considers re-starting the policy, while at the same time taking credit for its (mythical) deterrent effect. All of which is reminiscent of his claim that he “ended” the birther lie that he himself fueled: another example of the malignant, self-spun reality of the malignant sociopath.
Just to be clear: the Trump administration and only the Trump administration has ever systematically employed family separation as a deliberate deterrent, effective or not (NB: it’s not), to stop immigration on America’s borders.
Small children have died of negligence in ICE custody. At least one infant was stillborn as a result of the policy of detaining even pregnant women and the lack of suitable medical care. Children already detained during the previous stint of the “family separation policy” have shown signs of PTSD and permanent neurological injury that will require years of psychiatric treatment. The Trump administration recently admitted that it estimates it will take two years just to identify all the thousands of separated children, let alone reunite them, which in some cases will prove impossible.
To co-opt the words of Fannie Mae Hamer, “Is this America?”
These days, I guess so.
These are correctly described as crimes against humanity; if we were watching them unfold in some Third World country we would all recognize the horror and decry the barbarism of the government administering it.
So why are the American people not out in the streets in outrage? Why am I sitting at my computer writing this instead of doing that? In terms of federal policy, what’s going on right now—let alone what will happen next when Trump gets “tougher”— ranks as one of the most shameful episodes in modern American history, recalling the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Will we remember this as a low point in modern American history? You bet your ass we will.
This week I had intended to publish a humorous piece about reports that Trump is anxious to write his post-presidency memoirs. (I’m anxious for the “post-presidency” part myself.) But leave it to Don to leech the pleasure out of even the briefest moment of levity.
The sixteen days since Barr released his eyebrow-raising summary of the Mueller report have seen surprisingly little change in the political landscape, especially given the apocalypse that was expected. In part this is because Mr. Barr continues to carry out what increasingly looks like a blatant coverup of the full contents of the report. (Or really any of them, except his own two cherrypicked sentence fragments.) His appearance before Congress today did little to change that impression.
Even Trump seems stunningly unchanged. Writing in the New Yorker in the first week after Barr weighed in, Susan Glasser noted:
What’s been remarkable, this week, is how much Trump triumphant has sounded like Trump at every other point in his Presidency: angry and victimized; undisciplined and often incoherent; predictable in his unpredictability; vain and insecure; prone to lies, exaggeration, and to undercutting even those who seek to serve him.
And that trend has only accelerated since then. You’d think that Trump would be luxuriating in the news that he won’t be indicted for conspiracy with a foreign power (at least not by the special counsel) and the opportunity to spin that news—dishonestly—as “compete and total exoneration.” And he did revel in it…..but only for a nanosecond before returning to the familar, seething persecution complex that seems to be his natural state, calling for criminal prosecution of the “treasonous” and “evil” people he blamed for the appointment of the special counsel in the first place. (And Devin Nunes came running, Igor-like, bleating, “Yes, master—you rang?”)
Trump and his allies immediately reminded everyone how little respect this president has for democratic norms and set themselves up for political damage if the Mueller report doesn’t live up to their spin. Instead of taking a win and building on it, Trump took all of one day to oversell it, increase the likelihood that more damaging information will be publicly released, and remind everyone that he’s still unfit for the office he holds.
Is anyone really surprised?
Clearly Trump believes that the Barr spin on the Mueller report is a useful weapon for him going forward, but he seems motivated just as much by sheer infantile rage and lust for vengeance.
In that sense, the entire special counsel probe actually served Trump’s interests by giving him a useful enemy to demonize and a massive distraction from the other crimes against democracy he was in the course of committing. Throughout his life Trump has always needed an enemy to fulminate against, which may in part be why he is so unhinged lately with the vanishing of the “deeply conflicted” Bob Mueller and his witchhunt, much as he was when he lost Hillary as a foil.
What a sad and pathetic individual this man is, this 72-year-old infant, consumed with rage 24/7. As a wise, Zen-like man once said, “If you’re angry, you’re wrong.”
That Zen-like man was Vladimir Putin.
Of course, regular readers of this blog might raise a brow and note my own, uh, anger issues. But I’m not, I’m not, I’m not!
That too I blame on Trump.
THE POLITICS OF GRIEVANCE
And thus Trump’s “politics of grievance,” in Glasser’s phrase, continue into the post-Barr report era, as our fearless leader predictably overstepped, declined to breath a sigh of relief and take the win and change the subject—the way most humans would—and instead plunged into an inexplicable string of rage-driven self-inflicted wounds, including yet another attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act, a frantic but empty threat to close the entire Mexican border, and now this attempt to revive a policy of kidnapping children so horrific that it even put off Republicans.
This is not the same thing as seizing the momentum to push one’s policy agenda. It’s more like squandering it with a series of spasmodic, ill-advised policy moves. But that’s what you get when Stephen Miller is your spirit animal.
Some have suggested that these things do help Trump, the best analogy being his continued attacks on John McCain. Most people think that slandering a revered American war hero, even after he’s dead, is a bad look on anyone. But Trump’s base thrills to it, which is the thing that our thirsty thirsty commander-in-chief craves the most. The same logic—we’re told—applies to Obamacare and the border.
Maybe. But I question whether that is in fact a winning strategy, and even if it is, whether Trump is able to think strategically in that way, or is merely lurching transactionally from one fistfight to the next, with any “strategic” considerations merely grafted on after the fact by outside observers invested in the idea of Trump as idiot savant. (Perhaps they’re only right about the first part of that sobriquet.)
In part this parade of disasters flows from the fact that the fruits of Trumpian incompetence and corruption continue to flower, and will never stop, even in the post-Mueller world. This week alone we saw further revelations about Kushner’s security clearance; what looks very much like a Chinese agent wandering around Mar-a-Lago; ongoing (and proper) Congressional oversight including a request for six years’ worth of Trump’s tax returns; a Congressional subpoena for the full, unredacted Mueller report; and more. Amid all that Trump is doubling down on red meat issues that only solidify his base—which would already follow him right off a cliff, and needs no incentive to get out and vote—at the risk of further alienating everyone else. And he can’t win in 2020 with just his base, assuming the Democrats can get out their own voters.
But once again, I don’t believe Trump is even think in those kind of practical terms.
I think he just like to hear his crowds cheer.
Having begun this essay by stating how much the focus on Russiagate has distracted our attention from the other horrors perpetrated by the Trump and his administration, indulge me in a brief digression on that point, as it’s relevant and instructive. (I promise.)
Over the past two years, one of the things that made me most confident that there was as yet unearthed, direct evidence that Trump conspired with Russian assets beyond what we already know (which is substantial) was his daily, almost comical insistence that he didn’t. He used “NO COLLUSION!” the way other people use commas. That, as many noted, was not behavior typical of an innocent man.
In retrospect, I think there are three possible explanations.
One, as I wrote a few weeks ago (amid of chorus of many others), is that there was collusion however you want to define it, even if it didn’t rise to the level of a prosecutable felony….so much so that Trump was terrified of it coming out. He may remain thus. Note his characteristic 180 on his initial braggadocious claim that the public should see the full report.
Two, that he was—and remains—terrified that the Mueller investigation would uncover his impressive resume of other crimes over a lifetime of grift, which of course it did. Indeed, it lifted the lid off the whole Gowanus Canal/Superfund site sewer that is the Trump business empire, which the intrepid frogmen of the SDNY and others are currently exploring (in hazmat drysuits, I hope).
And three, that he is quite simply a rotten little child who doesn’t behave like a normal adult human being, which makes for a frustrating and unpredictable foe. As Steve’s illustration for this essay suggests, Trump’s tweets alone make the case for obstruction.
In New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan endorsed that theory:
Trump would happily obstruct justice even if he knew he was as innocent as the driven snow. It’s his core instinct. He’ll always act guilty—whether he’s guilty or not. He cannot see the process of an inquiry as a way for the entire system to examine and fix itself—let alone exonerate him. He instinctively recoils from any independent challenge to his control. Letting the law take its course would require a modicum of appreciation of a liberal society, and an understanding that the world doesn’t simply revolve around him. And he is clinically incapable of either.
And so if Trump is charged or accused of anything, he has the identical reflex. Always deny. Always lie. Always undermine. Never concede. Accuse your opponents of doing exactly what they accuse you of. Even if you’re innocent. This is the Roy Cohn playbook, and it’s damaging when even a real-estate developer deploys that kind of tactic, but in a president, charged with the faithful execution of the laws, it’s potentially fatal. But it will also mislead others, as it may have in this case. Most people tend to assume that someone who is acting incredibly guilty probably is a little guilty. But that misses the particular mind-set of this particular president.
We knew all this, though we’d rarely seen it so baldly on display as in the last two weeks.
This instinct is now playing out on multiple fronts, as the lack of empathy that puts Trump in a perennial state of rage in the first place is the same force that makes him turn it on the weakest and most vulnerable members of humanity.
As I’ve written in the past (Dear Huddled Masses: Go F—- Yourselves, June 21, 2018), when it comes to immigration, the entire rationale of “law and order” and “securing the border” is just a fig leaf for the real animating factor for Trump and his disciples, which is sheer racist nativism and hatred of immigrants, legal or otherwise. Not for nothing is immigration Trump’s signature issue, going all the way to back to his announcement of his candidacy nearly three years ago, anchored on the “Mexicans are rapists” theme. And need we mention Trump’s own familial hypocrisy on the topic, and Melania’s on chain migration, and Miller’s on asylum seeking?
As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg notes, “Trump is growing ever more lawless and autocratic.” We are seeing it before our eyes: with the madness at the border, with his administration’s open defiance of Congress, with the continuing, coy incitement violence among his supporters, and with hints that he may not yield power even if defeated in 2020. Nothing suggest that trend is going to get better; in fact, very much the contrary.
Meanwhile, Ms. Nielsen rides off into the sunset, where—as Goldberg and others such as Jeffrey Toobin noted—she ought rightly be remembered as a monster and pariah.
Couldn’t have happened to a nicer gal.
Illustration: “It Was Tweets Killed the Beast!” by Steve Bernstein