It has become a new American routine: wake up, check Twitter, and ask “What the %&* is he talking about now?”
Two years after Donald Trump launched a campaign in June 2015 loaded with conspiracy theories, bigotry, and lies, his unhinged proclamations no longer really shock. In some respects, Trump’s administration follows the autocrat’s playbook in such a predictable fashion that articles I wrote many months ago – considered pessimistic and paranoid by newcomers to authoritarian politics at the time – describe the current climate well.
As I predicted in March 2016, the United States under Trump has an autocratic and kleptocratic administration in conflict with democratic norms, resulting a continuous test of checks and balances. This month, Democrats are gearing up to sue Trump for repeatedly violating the emoluments clause, the Republicans threatened to pass a devastating health care bill without allowing the population to see what’s in it, the White House banned cameramen from interviewing Senators, and Trump was filmed requesting praise from elected officials in a sycophantic ritual familiar to anyone who has studied a dictatorship.
Taking cues from the autocrat’s playbook
The administration’s mix of brazenly thwarting laws and maintaining opaqueness on policy was predictable. It mirrors the structure of Trump’s campaign, which vacillated between spectacle (the rallies, the insults) and secrets (the long trail of financial and personal misdeeds left under-covered by reporters due to a mix of NDAs and reporter apathy.) In his first four months, this dynamic persisted as the Trump administration pulled the US toward autocracy through abuse of executive power.
That is, until May, when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The President’s firing of the man investigating the President’s campaign set forth a chain of events culminating in an investigation into obstruction of justice – and raising the troubling question of whether, in an administration this corrupt, evidence of obstruction of justice will even result in repercussions.
It is clear that the greatest loyalties of Trump’s team lie not with the constitution, but with Trump
The issues at the heart of the Russian interference crisis go beyond the standard uncertainty that arises when democracy declines. Never before has “to which country does the greatest loyalty of the president lie?” been the central question of a US federal investigation.
It is clear that the greatest loyalties of Trump’s team lie not with the constitution, but with Trump, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions made clear in a hearing in which he danced around perjury. The same holds for the rest of the GOP, who have failed to function as a check on Trump’s autocratic impulses or investigate his foreign ties.
Living through the Trump administration is like reading a wildly implausible suspense novel and wanting to flip to the back to see it how it all turns out, only to find key pages are missing. The obstruction of justice announcement may indicate a benchmark in the investigation, but it is difficult to assess the outcome in a country where presidential norms have so quickly eroded.
Leaks and rants – this is how the US government now communicates
I am an American journalist – or, in the parlance of the Trump administration, a member of “the opposition party” and an “enemy of the people” – so my tasks include decoding Trump’s 140-character tirades to find meaning in the cavalcade of covfefe. I am joined in this effort by civic organizations, concerned citizens, and legal experts who must monitor his tweets for potential violations of law, like casually confessing to federal crimes.
Trump has a habit of doing just that – he essentially told NBC’s Lester Holt he had committed obstruction of justice in a television interview in which he raged about the FBI. This is how the US government communicates now, through leaks and rants.
Which brings me to Trump’s cryptic June 16 “witch hunt” tweet, in which the president declared that he is “being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director.” His tweet was the first official confirmation of this news, though it is difficult to discern its precise meaning.
Why does he say “the man,” when Trump has boasted that it was his own idea to fire Comey, telling both NBC News and the Russians who he invited into the White House the day after that he did it to relieve the pressure. Is he trying to shift blame or attention onto someone else?
Or is Trump referring here to himself, in inadvertent tribute to his unparalleled narcissism and constant self-contradictions? This farcical notion becomes more plausible when one examines Trump’s prior statements on Comey’s firing, in which he refers to himself in the third person: “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” he told Holt.
Can even obstruction of justice be spun away?
Apparently America has descended to the point where the host of a reality TV show based around firing people is now a president spuriously firing top-level officials, and has decided that “obstruction of justice” is an inconvenient storyline that can be cut from the script. The administration that coined the term “alternative facts” has taken this logic beyond the realm of propaganda and tried to apply it to the law. Trump lies so openly and confesses so plainly that it exhausts the public’s ability to process his words, much less interpret what they mean in a legal context for a head of state.
Trump lies so openly and confesses so plainly that it exhausts the public’s ability to process his words
There are some who believe Trump is too dim-witted to carry off the manipulations of both law and the public that have defined his presidency. “He’s not playing three-dimensional chess,” pundits insist snidely, unaware that the game is actually charades.
Many do not realize they are playing along with him, abetting his administration by reporting planted stories of palace intrigue or doubting the criminality that takes place in front of their eyes. Trump is the kind of guy who can beg Russia to access Hillary Clinton’s emails at a press conference and, nearly a year and multiple federal hearings later, still have people asking if there’s really anything to that whole Russia story.
Make no mistake about it: Trump is no outsider
Trump’s reign has been described as part of Russia’s plan to stir up chaos, and while this was likely an FSB goal, the Kremlin really did not need to do more than aid their mark’s rise to power and let him be himself. Contrary to “outsider” myths, he has long had presidential aspirations: he flirted with a run in 1988 and 2000, and ran in 2012.
He was mentored in the 1980s by Roy Cohn – the infamously corrupt GOP operative who abetted Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon before introducing Trump to Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, his partners in the Russian interference scandal – who taught Trump to deflect, deny, and attack whenever challenged.
These are not unfamiliar tactics; they are ugly but standard tools, employed by past political operatives. But under Trump, these tactics take on a more ominous sheen, for there is no sign he bears any of the humanity, however deeply flawed, of previous Cohn mentees like Nixon. Trump’s pathological lies and persecution complex flow seamlessly into autocratic propaganda, while the propaganda in turn provides fodder on which his insatiable ego feeds.
While the campaign pulled America beyond statesmanship into showmanship, the presidency has pulled us into something beyond both – a nosedive into megalomania and vengeance that defies both logic and law. The American presidency has never felt as personal as it does with Trump. We know that if he hurts, he will make us all hurt; if he goes down, he will ensure the country goes down with him.
Restoring democracy will require great determination and trust
And so we are left waiting to see what damage he does. We are hanging at the crossroads between a deeply damaged democracy and a burgeoning autocracy, the latter of which will be hard to escape, the former of which will require great determination and trust to rebuild. Trump tells us he’s being hunted, but it is citizens who are hunkering down, waiting for the beginning of the end.
We do not know what horrors we will pass, but we do know that when we come out the other side, our country will not be the same
When sovereignty is on the table, when an internal and external threat seem to merge at the fundamental level of the presidency, nothing is certain other than that a dark road lies ahead. We do not know which direction this road will turn, we do not know what horrors we will pass, but we do know that when we come out the other side, our country will not be the same.
We’re living in the tunnel at the end of the light. And so the public seeks any semblance of illumination – flickers of unclassified intelligence, even neon signs blaring TREASON – simply for the relief at being able to see.
As for the moment, America remains in the dark – in a limbo that feels like hell.