I’m in a bleak place right now, and I’m going to say that Trump has not made any dumb moves. He has made dumb moves by the normal standards of human behavior and according to the objectives and criteria that most people use. If you love your country, it’s dumb to run for president when you don’t know anything, and have no coherent vision of where the country needs to go, and lack the ability to concentrate and work hard — and so in that respect, Trump is a disastrous example of the Dunning Kruger effect. But what if you don’t care about your country at all — you only care about yourself? What if all you want is attention and adulation? Then it’s not so dumb. Most people want to be seen as honest and honorable, and so it would be dumb for them to tell transparent lies; to operate despicable scams like Trump University and bribe the Attorney General of Florida not to look into said scam; to have a personal charity that’s a joke and a slush fund, and so on. But — what if you’re shameless and lacking all integrity, and you genuinely cannot distinguish between a truth and a lie — you consider the truth to be whatever is convenient for you in that moment? And what if you have the insight that a sizable portion of the American people don’t care whether you have a sense of honor or not? What if it gives them a frisson and a thrill that you are completely amoral: a hollering, bullying thug? What if you know that you could “shoot a guy in the middle of Fifth Avenue,” and your supporters would continue to worship you? It takes a special kind of genius to understand that huge numbers of people are THAT base, and THAT eager to have a king, a Third World strongman, rather than a US president. Trump has that genius; the rest of us do not.
Trump rode that escalator down and launched his campaign saying of the Mexicans: they’re bringing drugs, they’re rapists, etc. And I watched in disbelief and said: Holy smoke! It’s Hitler! He’s just using Hitler’s tactics from Weimar Germany, blaming the Depression and Germany losing WWI on the Jews. Does he seriously think Hitler tactics will work in the US? And then I saw him sweep the Republican field with those tactics! And then, last November …
He’s a reality show star, and he has turned our national discourse — and international politics — into a reality show, with lots of conflict and drama, all of it stressful, and scary, and empty, and signifying nothing. He played the news channels like a violin during the campaign. Every “dumb” and “disqualifying” thing he said earned him limitless air time. Real news and real issues in the campaign were not discussed. Russia was feeding him tidbits from the material they hacked and posted to WikiLeaks during the campaign — but they stopped when he attacked the Khans — a Gold Star family. The Russians concluded at that point that Trump was simply nuts and he could not win. But then — it didn’t seem to bother his supporters at all! And the Russians started feeding the Trump campaign Hillary-bashing non-news stories again. Trump, it turned out, was smarter about how low-down the American people are than Vladimir Putin, his mentor, head Watergate burglar and role model!
I look at how Germany and Italy went fascist in the 1920s and 1930s — how two European democracies willingly committed suicide and became tyrannies. I look at how Augustus in ancient Rome claimed to have restored the Roman Republic when he had done nothing of the kind — he was just a military dictator. And so was every Caesar after him. I look at what Vladimir Putin did to Russia’s chance to become a democracy — and how much of Russia’s wealth he and his gangster friends have pocketed, (Putin may be the richest man in the world), and how popular Putin is with many Russians. I look at what Erdogan is doing to Turkey and what El-Sisi is doing to Egypt, and what Duterte is doing to the Philippines … These dictators may not have the genuine support of the majority of the people in their countries, but they could not have debased/degraded/destroyed democracy without the tacit consent of huge numbers of people; a sizable part of the population in each of these countries is willing to lose civil liberties and follow a demagogue who says “Only I can fix it.” I spent years studying Latin America, and I’d look at the overthrow of Allende in Chile, a strong democracy, and the installation of the military junta and General Pinochet. I’d look at how things like that went down in Brazil and Argentina …
And I’d think: of course, that could never happen in the United States of America! Donald Trump knows better. Our Constitution may turn out to be too strong for him to triumph over in the end, but he has come much farther and closer thus far than I could have dreamed possible, and there is a good 30 – 40% of our population who wouldn’t mind a bit if he declared martial law, said we were in some kind of national state of emergency, and suspended the Constitution — especially the First Amendment. In that regard, Trump is much smarter than I am. We are in a kind of lull now, as we were during the first eight months of W’s presidency. We knew he was shallow and ignorant, and couldn’t talk in a coherent sentence, and was putting people in charge of departments they hated, in order to destroy those programs. We weren’t happy, but we got on with our lives. He’d do stuff like go on vacation for the whole month of August in 2001 and we’d think: well, that doesn’t seem like a good idea, but it’ll probably turn out okay …
Then, a few weeks after his first month-long vacation, 9/11 happened. And he was able to spin that into a way to launch a lying war of choice in Iraq, and consolidate power, and earn re-election. Would Trump be able to do the same if his inattentiveness, incompetence and lack of adequate staffing leave us vulnerable and something equally disastrous happens? Or if he causes something disastrous to happen as a distraction from the “Russia thing” and as a pretext to consolidate power? I’ve worried about that a lot:
Sometimes I think America would see through him and call him out in such a situation. I go back and forth about whether he could do it or not. But it is always a mistake to underestimate him.
He has the brilliant insight that many Americans are happy for our democracy to commit suicide, and it never would have occurred to me that such numbers of citizens could value our Constitution so little! Every time he lies, it batters democracy. Every time he obfuscates, every time he attacks the press, every time he creates a false equivalency between partisan media without fact-checkers and the legitimate media that feature a separation of news articles and editorials and have real fact-checkers on the pay-roll — we move closer to becoming a failed democracy and a Third World country. And his supporters go right along with him. He’s smart enough to know they don’t give a rat’s ass about a separation of powers, a system of checks and balances and the ideals of the Enlightenment that our system of government stems from; I’m dumb enough to be surprised by their behavior, day after day.
So, he didn’t fire Flynn, for weeks, though he knew Flynn lied. And he attacks his own Justice Department for the revised, bigoted Travel Ban he signed, and he makes nonsense of their case before the Supreme Court. And he doesn’t bother to hide that he’s trying to make money off of the office he holds and so is his family, and he could care less about the emoluments clause. And he says the House Republican healthcare bill is the best bill ever — and then he says it’s mean. And he leans on Comey about Flynn and himself, and he fires Comey and tells Lester Holt, and the Russians in the Oval Office, that he did it because of the Russian investigation. Were those dumb things to do? Only if he wanted to govern effectively. He doesn’t care about that — he can’t even conceive of what that means. He wants attention. He’s exposing himself as corrupt and as obstructing justice, but he doesn’t care about that, either. It makes for exciting reality TV! The talking heads are buzzing about it. It drives up ratings. Impeachable offenses emerge … and he knows that McConnell and Ryan and the rest of the Republicans will do NOTHING about them. They all care about the “truth,” and whether he is a Russian Manchurian candidate who has destroyed our national security and national sovereignty, about as much as Devin Nunes does. They’ll turn a blind eye to every sign of treason and colluding with an enemy power, and every impeachable, Constitution-degrading offense. Eventually, he’ll probably fire Mueller — and Republicans will turn a blind eye to that, too. Trump is trashing our system, but he doesn’t care about our system or our Constitution. As Mr. Khan pointed out, Trump has never read it. Trump has the wisdom of a psychopath to know that if you violate all norms and operate without a conscience, that very ruthlessness frees you in many situations, and gives you an edge over foolish, naively thoughtful people who are capable of empathy and who try to do the right thing.
Republicans everywhere are learning from Trump’s example. Greg Gianforte body-slammed a mild-mannered reporter at least a foot shorter than he was for no reason. He threw the guy to the ground, shouting at him, punching him, choking him, and broke his glasses. Then he and his campaign lied about it to the police and presented the reporter as the aggressor. The audiotape and the accounts of the other reporters present proved Gianforte a liar. That’s a pretty stupid thing to do as a candidate the night before the election, right? Brutally assault someone for no reason and lie like a coward to the cops about it?
But it turns out Gianforte, like Trump, is smarter than the rest of us. Montana voters ate it up! They were glad to see a Jew reporter from The Guardian with a slight build get pummeled; they warned other reporters to expect the same! Republicans in DC said Gianforte had “made a mistake.” Imagine if someone assaulted you that way for no reason and lied about it — would it just be a “mistake”? But he got a slap on the wrist for the crime. He’s not going to jail — he’s going to Congress! Trump called it a “great win in Montana.” It’s actually a great win for what Trump is trying to turn this country into: a thugocracy. Maybe I am wrong to say that Trump has no vision of what this country can become. It’s just that his vision is very, very different from mine.
Can Trump miscalculate? Sure. He’s gone bankrupt and simultaneously built three casinos that competed with each other and lost fortunes … but then Russian gangsters bailed him out and funded his new projects when most world banks wouldn’t lend to him because he’s a bad risk. He used his financial crash as a pretext to stop paying taxes. He says that “makes me smart.” Maybe, using the criteria that he and the Republicans now use, it does. Is it possible that once the Republican healthcare bill robs 23 million of care, and years go by without Trump accomplishing anything except hitting a lot of golf balls and tweeting, that Democrats can take back Congress in 2018? It’s possible. But Trump has done well so far betting on the American people to vote against their own interests. It’s the very people who voted for him that he’s sticking it to, and they don’t care so long as he bashes and scapegoats vulnerable minorities, and bellows and swaggers, and liberals are upset. General Pinochet and the junta in Chile miscalculated in the end; they held a plebiscite, and they lost power. But they ruled from 1973 to 1990 with something like 40% of the population supporting them to the very end — 40% of Chileans didn’t mind the loss of a free society, the crippling of the economy for many Chileans, the thousands who were tortured, murdered, disappeared by the military … and even after civilians took over, Pinochet and his fellow murderers got away with what they had done. Franco, in Spain, died in bed at a ripe old age, still in power. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is still chugging along at age 93.
Hitler fell in the end. Mussolini wound up on a meat hook. Men with this kind of genius are not infallible. But they have a cunning kind of wisdom that makes fools of those of us who are idealistic, who believe in the best in humanity, who believe in the principles that we were taught, as children, our countries are founded on. Men like this have a deft, unerring instinct for lowering the bar and playing to the lowest common denominator. Instead of speaking to the best in us, men like this know how to appeal to people’s lizard brains and stoke fear. They know how to coax the inner schoolyard bullies in millions of people into the light of day. It’s thrilling to jettison your ethics, and giggle and embrace the idea that “might makes right!” There’s a naughty kind of fun to be had in a brown-shirt or black-shirt gang in a fascist state, beating up a Jew or a communist! There’s naughty fun to be had, voting for a man yelling “Lock her up!” and bragging about “inspecting” women in pageants in their dressing rooms, and bragging about grabbing women by the pussy, and making fun of a disabled journalist. It upsets the liberal snowflakes so much! It’s hysterical! It’s such naughty, forbidden, transgressive bliss, it’s worth losing your health coverage in the form of tax breaks to multimillionaires, apparently, for over sixty million Americans.
Who knew? That guy with the “very good brain” named Donald J. Trump; he’s known all along.