Tag Archives: Trump administration

What Makes Trump an Autocrat?

The most dangerous thing about Trump is that he doesn’t see his power as belonging to the Office of the Presidency. It belongs to Donald J. Trump.


When used sloppily, the word autocrat is little more than an insult. An “autocrat” may simply be an executive who makes decisions you don’t like, one who acts on his own judgment rather than factoring in your point of view. The baseball GM who trades your team’s best pitcher is an autocrat. The boss who rejects all your suggestions is an autocrat.

But the sloppiness isn’t in the word itself; autocrat and autocracy really do have meanings that can be applied precisely. Calling a government an autocracy distinguishes it from a republic under the rule of law. Under the rule of law, powers belong to offices rather than individuals. The people who occupy those offices hold those powers in trust for the republic, and are constrained to use them to fulfill the missions the law assigns.

But in an autocracy, the distinction between person and office vanishes. The powers of an office belong to the person holding it, to use as that individual sees fit, including for financial or political benefit. Lower officials may or may not be disciplined by higher officials, but the law itself does not constrain them, and the highest official is accountable to no one.

Applying that word to the current administration has seemed like a stretch for most of the last 3 1/2 years. Sure, Trump has been cutting corners, subverting democratic norms, and fairly often even breaking laws, but life in the US just hasn’t felt like North Korea or Russia or Saudi Arabia. For the most part, it still doesn’t.

However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the non-autocratic feel of the United States has been due to Trump not getting everything he wants. He is, at heart, an autocrat. Those are the leaders he admires and the club he wants to join.

I am the State. In his heart, Trump has been an autocrat from the beginning. He has never understood or recognized the difference between his office and his person. That has been clear, for example, in the way he speaks and tweets. To him, speaking as President is no different than speaking as Donald Trump. His monologues flow easily from announcements of policy to expressions of petty resentments to grade-school insults against those who challenge him. While often hidden in the beginning, this attitude also has shown up in his behavior: Recently the public discovered that early in 2018, he tasked the Ambassador to the United Kingdom with bringing the British Open to the Trump Turnberry golf course. After all, why shouldn’t his ambassador drum up business for his golf course? He often has used his power as president to draw business to his hotels or his resorts.

His rhetoric equates threats to his personal future in politics with threats to the United States, in an I-am-the-State fashion. He has often described the Russia investigation — the attempt to discover just how involved the Trump campaign was in Russia’s effort to get him elected — as “treason” or a “coup“. His well-deserved impeachment, which flawlessly followed a process laid out in the Constitution, was likewise “treason” and a “coup“. The whistleblower who made Congress aware of his illegal attempt to extort political favors from Ukraine is “a spy”, and Trump strongly implied that he should be executed: “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.” Removing Trump from office, no matter how lawfully or justifiably, is equivalent to overthrowing the government of the United States.

In his book, James Comey tells the story of President Obama inviting him to have a conversation before nominating him to be FBI director. After the nomination, Obama tells him, they won’t be able to do this any more, because the President and the FBI director conversing outside of official channels would be improper. But Trump recognizes no such propriety. He regularly tweets out instructions for the Justice Department to investigate or lay off of people he either likes or doesn’t like. He has opinions as an individual, so why shouldn’t he express them as President?

The presidential power to pardon, more than any other power of the presidency, has been treated as a personal power to be used according to Trump’s whims and interests. All other recent administrations have made the pardoning power into a process centered on the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, usually with a few additional special cases (some of which were regrettable). But Trump has abandoned that process entirely; his pardons and commutations are pure expressions of personal favor granted to political allies, co-conspirators who might otherwise rat him out, criminals popular with his base, former contestants on his TV show, and friends of celebrities he wants to impress.

The original purpose of the pardoning power in a lawful republic, according to Alexander Hamilton, was to temper the justice system with mercy, so that it would not “wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel”. (Obama used his power this way, for example, when he commuted the excessively harsh sentences in hundreds of nonviolent drug cases.) But under Trump, the pardon has reverted to its royal roots: It is an expression of the sovereign’s personal beneficence, and puts the recipient in his debt, as Dinesh D’Souza clearly understands, as does Rod Blogojevich.

Adults in the room. The primary reason America hasn’t felt like an autocracy these last few years is that Trump’s efforts have not gone unopposed. The fundamental drama of the last 3 1/2 years has been the battle between Trump’s autocratic impulses and the republican values embedded in the United States government. (From the point of view of his supporters, who are rooting for the autocrat, this has been cast as a struggle against the “Deep State”.) Trump’s initial set of appointees had reputations and careers before they entered his administration, and many of them imagined that they were taking positions in a merely eccentric version of a typical Republican government. As a result, they frequently frustrated their boss’s desires.

  • Jeff Sessions may have been a racist and a xenophobe, but he also believed he was Attorney General of the United States. Power over the Justice Department belonged to Sessions’ office, not to him personally. And although the President had appointed him, his power did not derive from the person of Donald Trump. Sessions infuriated Trump by following Justice Department rules and recusing himself from the Russia investigation. He also ignored Trump’s repeated demands to launch investigations into “the other side”, i.e, Trump’s political opponents.
  • John Kelly and his deputy (and eventual replacement) Kirstjen Nielsen were anti-immigrant and went along with the cruel policy of family separations, but both saw the Department of Homeland Security as being defined by law. Nielsen was forced out after she refused to do “things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum”.
  • Rex Tillerson shared Trump’s pro-Russia views, had a basic hostility to the institutional culture of the State Department, and signed off on the second and third Muslim bans. But he believed he represented the United States rather than Trump, whom he regarded as a “moron“. Trump, Tillerson said later, hated to be reminded that his foreign policy was bound by laws and treaties. He “grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him, ‘You can’t do that, and let’s talk about what we can do’.”
  • Jim Mattis and H. R. McMaster enjoyed the large budgets Trump gave the Pentagon, but held traditional conservative views about America’s special role in global security. Their primary loyalty was to the longstanding mission of the Defense Department, not to Donald Trump. Consequently, they supported NATO and resisted abandoning allies like the Kurds.
  • Don McGahn was the primary lawyer for Trump’s 2016 campaign. But as White House Counsel, he repeatedly ignored Trump’s orders to obstruct justice.
  • Dan Coats was an early opponent of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and shared a number of Trump’s other views. But as Director of National Intelligence he believed in the mission of the intelligence services: to figure out what is going on in the world and report it as accurately as possible. After Trump sided with Putin against the intelligence services in Helsinki, Coats was not cowed: “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

I’m not sure who started using this phrase, but early on these people (plus a few others) came to be known (behind Trump’s back) as “the adults in the room“. Any kind of crazy idea might pass through Trump’s head, but the “adults” would keep him from doing too much harm. Republican Senator Bob Corker even tweeted about it: “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”

It’s not my intention to idealize the “adults”, because (as I indicated above) a lot of nasty stuff happened on their watch. I also don’t want to paper over the widespread corruption in the early Trump years. In addition to the “adults”, Trump’s Class of 2017 included Scott Pruitt, Michael Flynn, Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, and many others who left in well-deserved disgrace. Wilbur Ross belongs in that group as well, but is somehow still running the Commerce Department.

In spite of their flaws, though, each “adult” in his or her own way believed in the United States as a republic under the rule of law. They believed that there were things Trump could not do, and could not order them to do.

They’re all gone now. Jeff Sessions was replaced by Bill Barr, who has no trouble using the Justice Department to protect Trump’s friends and attack his enemies. The roles Kelly and Nielsen had at DHS are now filled (illegally, it seems) by Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, who created and managed the masked federal police who invaded Portland against the will of all local officials. Dan Coats’ job is now held by Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe, who has shown little interest in telling Trump anything he doesn’t want to hear, or keeping the public informed about Russia’s continuing efforts to aid Trump’s re-election. In place of Jim Mattis, we have Mark Esper, who was slow to oppose Trump’s impulse to use active-duty troops to put down peaceful protesters, but still not docile enough to make his job secure. McGahn’s replacement Pat Cipollone was in the room when Trump discussed pressuring Ukraine for dirt on Democrats, and said nothing.

Autocratic achievement unlocked. At this point, Trump’s conquest of the executive branch of government is virtually complete. The Pentagon is still holding out, but most of the rest has become his personal instrument, to do with as he will. Two recent examples stand out: the abuse of the Justice Department to suppress Michael Cohen’s book, and the sabotage of the Postal Service to undermine voting by mail.

Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen is serving a prison sentence, part of which results from him following Trump’s instructions to break the law. Like many non-violent criminals (Paul Manafort was another), Cohen was furloughed from prison to reduce crowding during the Covid-19 pandemic. But the Justice Department tried to use that situation as leverage to eliminate a problem for Trump’s reelection campaign:

But to remain at home, he was asked to sign a document that would have barred him from publishing a book during the rest of his sentence. Mr. Cohen balked because he was, in fact, writing a book — a tell-all memoir about his former boss, the president. The officers sent him back to prison. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that the decision to return Mr. Cohen to custody amounted to retaliation by the government and ordered him to be released again into home confinement.

In America as we have known it, no one connected with overseeing a federal convict should know or care how that person’s writings will affect the presidential race. But in Trump’s autocracy, things are different. If you work for the Justice Department, you work for Trump.

Trump’s continuing failure to mobilize the country against Covid-19, a failure unparalleled in any other first-world nation, has made the prospect of voting in person in November risky. (It is still unclear how many infections resulted in Wisconsin after the Republican legislature forced voters to wait in long lines to vote in the state’s primary.) Certainly the prospect of voting in person has become less attractive, particularly to citizens with prior conditions that make them especially vulnerable.

Voting by mail, which states like Washington have been doing for years anyway, is the obvious solution. But that’s only if you want people to vote and to have their votes counted. If you’re trailing badly in the polls, as Trump is, and might be looking for an excuse to influence or challenge or ignore the election results, raising uncertainty about voting by mail is one possible strategy. And the best way to cast doubt on the viability of voting by mail is to cast doubt on the Post Office’s ability to deliver ballots in a timely way, particularly if those ballots are mailed from zip codes known to include many Democrats.

“If carriers are being told that, at the end of your shift, you need to be back at the office even if you haven’t collected all the mail that day, there could be ballots in those mailboxes,” says Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Democracy Fund Voice and a former Obama appointee to the Commission on Election Administration, a panel created in 2013 to identify best practices in running elections. “If the truck drivers are being told, ‘You leave the post office to take that day’s mail to the processing plant at your scheduled time to leave, even if all the carriers aren’t back in yet with that day’s mail,’ that can have an impact.”

And so the Trump donor newly installed as Postmaster General is intentionally slowing down the mail: eliminating overtime, getting rid of sorting machines, and in general gumming up the works. Trump has been quite open about what he’s doing. Commenting on negotiations on a new Covid-response package, Trump told Fox News:

If we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money [for the Post Office]. That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting; they just can’t have it.

In any past election, it would be inconceivable that the President would be manipulating the Post Office in an effort to stay in power. But something has changed during the Trump administration: It’s not your Post Office any more, it’s his Post Office.

That’s how autocracy works.

Those Executive Orders

Like everything Trump does, they don’t match what he’s says he’s doing.


Remember the government shutdown that lasted from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019? Congress was refusing to fund Trump’s border wall, so he pulled out of a previously settled deal to fund the government. When public opinion didn’t rally behind his position, he relented on funding the government, but declared a state of emergency and used it to seize money Congress had appropriated for other purposes and redirect it to his wall. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the legality of this move, which seems to usurp Congress’ constitutional power of the purse, but it has allowed construction to continue so long that the case may become moot because the money is already spent.

Cases like these are never one-offs. Having gotten away with something once, Trump is bound to try it again.

So here we are: The CARES Act was passed in March as an emergency appropriation intended to see the country through the economic impact of the Covid-19 epidemic. At the time, no one imagined that the US would botch its response to the epidemic so badly that a thousand people a day would still be dying in August, so most of the CARES provisions ran out on July 31, including a moratorium on evictions and the $600-per-week enhanced unemployment payments.

Nancy Pelosi’s House had the foresight to pass a follow-up, the HEROES Act in May. But Mitch McConnell refused to bring it to the floor of the Senate, and did not start negotiating any CARES extensions at all until late July. With much of the Republican Senate caucus already plotting their resistance to the Biden administration, McConnell doesn’t have the votes to pass any CARES-extension bill without Democratic buy-in. So he left the negotiations to the White House team of Steve Mnuchin and Mark Meadows.

The White House refused to budge from its plan, which is about 1/3 the size of the HEROES plan, and contains no money to fill the budget gaps of state and local governments. Politically, Trump looks like the one with the most to lose if nothing gets done and the economy crashes, so Pelosi is not inclined to cave in to his demands without getting some concessions in return. So no deal has gotten done. (Has anybody noticed that our Art-of-the-Deal President never seems to get to Yes on a deal?)

So we’re back to the emergency-executive-powers trick. Or something. Maybe.

Saturday Trump signed three memos and an executive order which, in typical Trumpian fashion, don’t actually do what he claims. Here’s what is kinda/sorta in them.

  • A $400 unemployment enhancement to replace the CARES $600 replacement. Except that $100 has to come from the states, which may not have any money to cover it. The $300 federal contribution comes from a $44 billion pot of money that FEMA has, and of course won’t need during this record-threatening hurricane season. (This is literally an idea out of House of Cards, which FEMA officials rejected as unrealistic at the time.) Since we’re talking about 30 million unemployed people, the money will run out in about five weeks, assuming that they actually receive it and that it’s legal for Trump to spend it this way at all.
  • Eviction protection. Except, not really. The executive order asks relevant government officers to “consider” doing something to stop evictions, and to “identify” existing federal appropriations that might help stressed renters and homeowners, assuming that there are any such appropriations. If your landlord has a court date for your eviction, nothing in this order interferes with that proceeding.
  • Cuts in payroll tax deductions. The order doesn’t actually cut what you or your employer owe in Social Security and Medicare taxes. It just stops collecting those taxes for a while. So temporarily you might see more money in your paycheck, assuming you’re still getting one from somewhere, but your arrears will be building up, and will come due after the election. If he’s re-elected, Trump wants to cancel that debt too, but that just raises a new question: How do Social Security and Medicare get funded?

So basically what we have is flim-flam put together with a constitutionally questionable claim on FEMA money. In the context of the border-wall emergency, Trump is pushing us closer and closer to a model where the President can take any money Congress appropriates and spend it however he wants. It should go without saying that this is very, very far from the process the Founders thought they were establishing.

James Fallows raises the question we should all be asking:

I am not aware of any of the “strict constructionists” who blasted Obama for executive-order overreach, who have weighed in about Trump’s l’etat-c’est-moi wave of appropriation-by-exec-order. Are there any?

To be fair, a handful of Republican lawmakers have said something that expressed concern of some sort. But most of the hand-wringing was of the “Now look what the Democrats made him do” variety. If you’re looking for a flat-out “This is unconstitutional”, you won’t find it. Apparently respect for the Constitution is like fiscal responsibility or free trade or freedom or any of the other high-minded principles Republicans have put forward over the years. All such principled expressions are made in bad faith, and go out the window as soon as they become inconvenient.

Trump Has No Endgame

Stop stressing yourself trying to anticipate the masterstroke in his nefarious plan.


Both in the mainstream media and among my social-media friends, I see people who ought to know better switching back and forth between two divergent and contradictory images of Donald Trump: the Magical Thinker and the Master Planner. Recognizing that the president is a magical thinker makes them despair over how our country will deal with the current crisis. But at the same time they have nightmares about the master planner who will find a cunning way to stay in power.

In everything else, Trump is the Dunning-Kruger poster child. But when the subject changes to the election, or to everything that happens between the election and the inauguration of a new president, they suddenly see him as the genius he claims to be. An evil genius, perhaps — a Lex Luthor or a Victor von Doom — but a genius all the same.

Magical Thinker. When we’re talking about practical governing or attempting to solve the problems of the nation, it seems obvious that Trump indulges in magical thinking: He believes he can make the world be what he wants it to be just by insisting that it already is. What he wants to happen will happen, because he says so: The virus will go away “like a miracle”. It’s no worse than the ordinary flu. Anybody who wants a test gets a test. We lead the world in testing. There is no shortage of PPE for hospital workers. The country is ready to reopen, and when it does, the economy will come zooming back. Everyone should be grateful to him for the great job he’s been doing.

His magical thinking is made even worse by his childlike inability to consider the future. His entire focus is on looking good right now, even if it will hurt him in the long run. During February and early March, for example, his happy talk about the virus seemed to be aimed at keeping the stock market high, because that was the core of his re-election pitch: The market is high, unemployment is low; I promised a great economy and I delivered.

There was never any chance he could keep that scam going until November, but it didn’t seem to matter to him. If the market stayed high today, that gave him a talking point today, and improved his poll numbers today. November was November’s problem.

His daily coronavirus briefings (which he continued until wiser heads made him stop) were full of short-term image-building that could never hold up over time. The hospitals have plenty of masks and ventilators, no matter what they say. And Trump is a genius who has genius ideas nobody else thinks of: Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug. Bleach can kill virus inside the body.

It’s obvious now that it was always in Trump’s best interest to do a good job fighting the virus. Imagine if he had sounded the alarm early and started emergency preparations back in January and February (as the disease experts inside the government were pleading for him to do). The death total would be lower by tens of thousands and the economy really might be in a position to reopen. What if the US anti-virus efforts were one of the world’s success stories rather than the cautionary tale of neglect and incompetence it is now?

He could have benefited from the we’re-all-in-this-together wave that has boosted the approval numbers of Democratic and Republican governors alike, even in the states that have the highest death totals. If he had met the crisis head-on and given the American people straight talk combined with the steady reassurance of realistic hope (like Andrew Cuomo did in New York), Covid-19 might have been the tailwind that pushed an otherwise unpopular president across the finish line to re-election.

But that strategy would have required a months-long time horizon, which he doesn’t have. He’d have needed to sacrifice the immediate satisfaction of bragging about how wonderful he is and what a perfect economy he has made. He just couldn’t do it.

He still can’t. With another month or so of lockdown, combined with a well-funded, well-organized national test-and-trace program and some realistic guidelines for gradual reopening, the worst of the crisis might yet be in the rear-view mirror by Election Day. But pushing the states to relax restrictions while the virus is still spreading is the same short-term magical thinking all over again. It feels good right now to tell upbeat stories about restaurants and barber shops reopening, and to imagine schools and baseball stadiums opening soon. But how will that look in the fall, when people start voting?

By November, another few weeks of boredom and struggle in May and June would be long forgotten. But a pandemic that in November is still killing thousands of Americans (but not thousands of Germans or Koreans or Canadians) every week will be hard to wish away.

Master Planner. When it comes to politics, though, many people who otherwise see Trump’s cognitive, intellectual, and psychological shortcomings imagine the existence of a Master Plan that ultimately makes it all work in his favor. If he seems to be charging towards a cliff, that can only mean that he has a parachute, or that a military helicopter is waiting to pluck him out of the air.

I mean, he couldn’t just be stupid or delusional, could he? He couldn’t possibly imagine that the cliff will go away because he wants it to, or that he will sprout wings and fly when he gets there? That would be as crazy as … well, all the other stuff he’s done.

But from this point of view, he’s not blundering his way through the virus fight; he wants the virus to be raging in November so that he can use it to suppress the vote. Or maybe he plans to declare martial law and cancel the election. Even if he loses the election, he must have a plan for that too.

Heather Cox Richardson, who usually strikes me as very level-headed, sees an ominous portent in Trump’s “ObamaGate” maneuvers.

It suggests that the Trump administration really is contemplating legal action against F.B.I. officials who were investigating the attack on the 2016 election. This is unprecedented. More, though, it suggests that the Trump administration does not anticipate a Democratic presidency following this one, since it could expect any precedent it now sets to be used against its own people. That it is willing to weaponize intelligence information from a previous administration suggests it is not concerned that the next administration will weaponize intelligence information against Trump officials. That confidence concerns me.

Gee. Inventing a talking point that helps him today creates a scenario where it all backfires somewhere down the road. Who could imagine Trump doing such a thing?

Apply the model of Trump that we see validated every day in every other part of his administration: He doesn’t “anticipate a Democratic presidency” because he doesn’t anticipate anything. Imagine being a Trump aide and raising the question “What are we going to do if Biden beats you?” Do you think you’d get an answer? Would you expect him to tell you to assemble a team and construct a Biden-beats-me contingency plan? Or would he just take your head off and replace you with somebody who doesn’t ask questions like that?

We need a plan even if he doesn’t have one. Trump never looks ahead, but once he gets into a bad situation he looks around. He isn’t bound by moral scruples or political norms or even the law. All options are on the table.

So I expect him to keep denying his poor prospects for re-election until at least mid-October. In the same way that Hitler in 1945 kept promising “miracle weapons” — like the V-2 rocket or jet fighter planes — that would turn the war around, Trump will always have some reason to project success: a last-minute vaccine announcement, a surprise uptick in the economy (or maybe just forcing the Labor Department to publish fake numbers), war with Iran, or a final ad blitz that will destroy Biden once and for all.

As the election approaches, though, it will eventually dawn on him that he’s really losing. As in the Reagan/Carter race of 1980, the voters who make up their minds at the last minute will ask themselves whether this president deserves another term, and they’ll say no. At that point — and not a second before — he will ask, “How can I stop this?” How can I stop people from voting? How can I discredit the vote count? How can I steal votes in the Electoral College? Can the Senate or the Supreme Court declare me the winner even though I lost? Can I just refuse to leave?

At that point, he’ll thrash like a fish in a net. But whatever he does won’t be well prepared or well planned. A military coup is a bit more complicated than just calling the Pentagon and ordering them to keep you in power. Politicians and bureaucrats and judges who cooperated with you when you seemed invincible may decide they don’t want to go to jail for you now that you’re on your way out. And those bands of overweight yahoos with AR-15s may be willing to get violent on his say-so, but who will they shoot and what will they accomplish? All that would require a plan, and there is no plan.

Democrats should not get complacent going down the stretch, because at the last minute Trump will be ready to try anything. But he won’t suddenly become a master strategist.

He’ll thrash and he’ll bluster and he’ll try crazy things. But like most things he tries, they won’t be well thought out. And like most things he tries, they won’t work.

Why the Country Isn’t Rallying Around Trump’s Flag

There is a substantial national consensus and someone needs to speak for it.
Unfortunately, our current President can’t.


The bullhorn speech. The highest presidential approval Gallup ever reported was published on September 24, 2001. Just ten months before, George W. Bush had lost the popular vote to Al Gore, resulting in a bitter dispute over Florida, and a widespread belief among Democrats that his presidency was illegitimate. In the poll published on September 10, Bush’s approval rating had been a lackluster 51%, barely higher than the 48% who had voted for him in November. But now, suddenly, 90% of Americans approved of his job performance.

Bush was the same man he had been two weeks before, but something historic had happened in the meantime: On September 11, the United States suffered a humiliating and horrifying attack. In New York, the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell, killing almost 3,000. In Washington, the Pentagon had been damaged. A fourth hijacked airliner, rumored to have been targeted at the Capitol, had been brought down by a self-sacrificing passenger uprising.

Three days later, Bush stood in the WTC rubble.

The president, who had been in office less than eight months, grabbed a bullhorn and started thanking the fire fighters and other first responders at the scene, telling them that they were in the country’s prayers. Someone in the crowd shouted that he couldn’t hear the president, and Bush replied with the words that made history.

“I can hear you!” he declared. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The crowd reacted with loud, prolonged chants of “USA! USA!”

In this electric moment, Bush captured the mood of the country, delivering just what the American people wanted a combination of gratitude for the rescue workers’ bravery and diligence, defiance toward the terrorists, and resolve to bring the evil doers to justice.

Rally round the flag. Other peaks of presidential approval reflect similar moments of national unity. In 1991 and 1945, the common emotion was pride and relief at the successful conclusion of a war. The first President Bush garnered 89% approval after the surprisingly one-sided victory over Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. President Truman reached 87% approval after the surrender of Nazi Germany. Perhaps the moment that most resembled 9/11 was Pearl Harbor, when a similar sense of national determination pushed FDR’s approval up to 84%.

Crisis has a way of uniting Americans around their president. Past mistakes and doubts are put aside. Had W ignored the terrorist threat before 9/11? Had his father’s uncertain policy led Saddam to believe he could get away with invading Kuwait? December 7, 1941 was not just a “date that will live in infamy”, it was also a shocking defeat for the Navy that Roosevelt commanded, and was soon followed by the defeat of American ground forces in the Philippines.

So if you had wanted to disapprove of any of those presidents, you could justify it. But somehow none of that mattered. The nation yearned to be united, and there was only one president to unite around. Lingering disagreements and disappointments would have to be transcended until the current challenge had been met and overcome.

Over time, this pattern has baked itself into the American psyche so deeply that it has a name: the rally-round-the-flag effect.

What about now? Right now, we’re in another national crisis of historic proportions. More than 50,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, almost all of them in the last month. Hundreds of thousands are sick, and nearly every American has felt the impact of stay-at-home orders intended to “flatten the curve” and blunt the upward trajectory of death.

We’re mourning, we’re hurting, we’re frightened, and we’re angry. So why isn’t the rally-round-the-flag effect working for President Trump?

One theory is that the country’s partisan divide has gotten so wide that it’s impossible to cross over and support a leader of the opposite party. But that doesn’t explain why the effect is still working at the state level, for governors of both parties: Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York, whose televised briefings have made him a national figure, scored an 87% approval rating in late March. And Larry Hogan of Maryland and Ohio’s Mike DeWine are Republican governors with similarly stratospheric ratings: 84% and 83%, respectively.

All those states (especially New York) have been hard-hit by the virus, and you could easily imagine people deciding to blame the governor rather than support him. But that’s not what’s happening. Past disputes are being forgotten. Past oversights are being forgiven. New Yorkers, Marylanders, and Ohioans want to be united, and they only have one governor to unite around. So that’s what they’re doing.

Trump’s problem isn’t us, it’s him. We’re still capable of uniting; he’s just not capable of leading us.

The country tried to unite around Trump. In early April, when he had finally stopped trying to happy-talk the virus into vanishing “like a miracle”, and proclaimed himself a “wartime president”, his disapproval fell below 50% for the first time since early 2017, and his approval rose near 46%, an all-time high.

Democrats were beginning to get seriously depressed about the fall election. In a true rally-round-the-flag moment, it wouldn’t matter that he had been consistently wrong about the seriousness of the virus, or that he had failed to prepare either the government or the public for the battle we are now in. It wouldn’t matter that the economy, which Trump had counted on to be his ticket to a second term, had collapsed. We’d all be in this struggle together, and he’d be leading us.

But that trend fell apart pretty quickly. By this week, Trump’s 538 polling average was back in familiar territory: 52.4% disapproval, 43.4% approval — with the trend line decidedly negative.

Why?

How it works. Sometimes we talk about the RRtF effect as if it were a knee-jerk reflex: There’s a crisis, so I’ll support the president. But it’s actually a more complex process than that.

The first thing to notice is that ordinary politics is divisive, while crisis politics is unifying. Ordinarily, our national political conversation is about issues we disagree on: Should abortions be easier or harder to get? Should government do more to help people, or just get out of their way? Do refugees and immigrants continually revitalize our nation, or do they steal opportunities from the native born? Do whites and men have unfair privileges they need to relinquish, or have they yielded too much already?

We’re a two-party system, so we tend to divide into relatively equal sides.

But when a crisis hits, most of us suddenly find ourselves on the same side. When the planes hit the World Trade Center, everybody became a New Yorker. When Nazi Germany surrendered, parties broke out all over America.

Being on the same side, a lot of us find ourselves thinking the same things. After 9/11, a huge majority of Americans were all thinking: “We can’t just let something like this happen to us. We have to find who did it and stop them. We have to make sure nothing like this happens again.”

But at the same time, a crisis makes us feel small in our individuality. It was paralyzing to imagine being in the WTC when the planes hit. What could you have done? And if people on the other side of the world were plotting similar attacks right now, what could you do about it?

That combination of factors creates an opportunity for a leader: When Bush picked up that bullhorn, he spoke for us, and spoke with the strength that we had together rather than the weakness we felt as individuals. (There’s a long conversation to be had about how he misused that strength, but that’s a different topic.) He didn’t say, “Listen to me!” He said “I hear you!” and he promised to channel our unified will into powerful action.

That’s what 90% of America approved of.

The consensus today. If you listen to cable news shows or watch the President’s coronavirus briefings, you might imagine that the virus is an ordinary-politics divisive topic. But it really isn’t. Pretty much everybody is thinking and feeling and wanting the same things.

  • We’re afraid of getting sick and dying, or of passing the virus on to our more vulnerable loved ones and watching them die.
  • We wish we could do something.
  • We’re bored and frustrated with staying at home, but we’re willing to keep doing it if it actually helps.
  • We sympathize with people who have lost relatives or friends without being able to visit them in the hospital or hold their hands.
  • We’re worried about our financial future.
  • We’re rooting for our doctors and scientists to figure out how to beat this thing.
  • We concerned about the long-term effects on our communities. (Will our local shops and bars and restaurants and theaters and stadiums ever reopen? Will they be recognizable when they do?)
  • We miss the lives we used to have.
  • We worry that people will do stupid things to make it all worse.
  • We admire the people who are risking their lives to take care of others, and we feel responsible for the people (grocery workers, meat-plant processors, delivery people) whose jobs require them to take risks on our behalf.

I could go on, but you can probably extend that list yourself.

The arguments we’re having on social media (or that other people are having for us on TV) are mostly artificial. When we talk about reopening businesses, my worry that stupid people will make it all worse may conflict with your desire to get out of the house and your worry that we’ve been wrecking our financial future, but we share all those concerns. Literally everybody wants to restore normal life safely, but none of us know exactly how to do that. We all wish we did.

That consensus creates the opportunity that many governors are using to raise their popularity: They hear us. They’re speaking for us. And they speak with the power we have together rather than the weakness and fragility we feel as individuals.

Why not Trump? The singular virtue that made Trump’s political career is that he has the best-defined personal brand of anyone who has ever run for president. People sometimes say, “You know what he thinks” or “You know where he stands”, but neither of those is actually true. (In reality, he likes nothing better than to get on both sides of an issue and then claim victory no matter how it comes out. Last week I pointed out how he was doing that in regard to reopening the economy, but you can see the same pattern many places. Like China, for example: He’s an anti-China trade warrior, but he also brags about his great relationship with President Xi.)

The real underlying truth is “You know who he is, and he never changes.”

“Who he is” is a divider, not a uniter. The heart of his 2016 campaign was to channel the resentment and anger of rural whites who feel like America has slipped away from them. His whole public persona (and I suspect his personality) is based on resentment. Wherever he goes, he has to define enemies: the Deep State, the fake-news media, Crooked Hillary, Shifty Schiff … it never ends. He recognizes no loyal opposition; those who are against him (or just not for him ardently enough, like Jeff Sessions) are “horrible people”. He couldn’t forgive John McCain, even in death.

Unifying politicians have a way of co-opting their enemies — the way W co-opted the so-called liberal media in the run-up to the Iraq War — but Trump must defeat his. They must visibly surrender and pay tribute to his victory. President Obama found diplomatic roles for George W. Bush to play, as Bush in turn had made use of Bill Clinton. But it’s impossible to imagine Trump asking Obama’s help — despite (or perhaps because of) all the countries where Obama continues to be popular. Obama would have to bend the knee and beg first, and even then Trump would probably refuse (as during the transition, he accepted Mitt Romney’s submission, but refused to offer him a post).

So even trying to speak for the country’s consensus would break Trump’s brand. Who would the enemy be? How could he hold a press conference without demonizing the reporters? How could he be smarter than everyone if he agreed with everyone?

On a deeper level, it would also run counter to his psychology. Look again at Bush’s bullhorn speech. “I hear you,” requires a fluidity of ego that Trump does not have. He is himself, and he is right, and he is better than everybody else. Speaking for the consensus requires putting yourself to the side. Trump will never, ever be able to do that.

Instead, we have the spectacle of his daily briefings, where the reporters are enemies and the doctors are rivals whose loyalty he must constantly assess. The dead are not individuals to mourn and the bereaved are not objects of sympathy or empathy. They are possible sources of blame, and so they must be removed from the spotlight as quickly as possible. There is only one spotlight, and only one person it should illuminate. The opinions that are validated must be his opinions, which he came to first, before anyone else. They can’t be yours or mine or anybody’s but his.

The Speech a Great President Would Give Now

If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.


Ever since Donald Trump made his famous descent down the escalator to announce his candidacy (and assert that Mexicans crossing the border are rapists), we’ve been lowering our standards to his level. Once in a great while he does something so outrageous that his opponents try (and usually fail) to draw a line in the sand. But for the most part we’ve just accepted that he will do the kinds of things he does: ignore obvious facts, insult large swathes of people who have done nothing to deserve it, funnel public money into his own businesses, deny that he said what he said, respond to his critics with schoolyard taunts, and so on. We’ve come to expect him to politicize everything, admit no mistakes, fire anyone who reveals inconvenient truths, and confront everyone who comes into his presence with the choice to flatter him or face his wrath.

At times I’ve been as guilty of this normalization as anyone. Given a choice between letting a lie or injustice go unremarked, and distracting my readers from what I saw as more important issues, I’ve often just shrugged off norm-violations that would have been major scandals in any previous American administration.

Still, every now and then I think it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves: “What would a real leader do in this situation?” Not because I imagine Trump will listen to our answer, slap his forehead, and say, “That’s a good idea!”, but just to maintain our own sense of what is good and right. If we’re ever going to have great presidents again, we need to hold a space in our imaginations that a great president could occupy.

So I have written a speech for a great president to deliver in the midst of the current crisis. There’s no reason Trump couldn’t deliver it, and I hope he does. For obvious reasons, he won’t. I accept that, but I’m still going to put the vision out there.

My fellow Americans:

Every president faces crises and makes decisions that could either save or cost lives. I have already faced my share: military conflicts in various parts of the world; hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as floods and tornadoes and the full run of other natural disasters. An economic crisis may not take as many lives as war or disease, but it can ruin lives, as people lose their jobs and homes and dreams for the future.

The current crisis, the one brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, is on a scale most presidents never need to confront. Thousands of Americans are dead, and some estimate that the eventual toll could be in the hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already sick. Tens of thousands of businesses hang in the balance, and millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Tens of millions are sheltering in their homes.

This is not only the greatest crisis of the four-year term I was elected to in 2016, but most likely it will overshadow the crises of the next four years as well. So whether I serve four years or eight, I believe I have already met the defining challenge of my presidency, the one for which history will judge me.

Public-health experts I trust tell me that we will go through the peak of this crisis in the next month or two. No one can guarantee what will happen after that, but I think it is safe to say that the most important chapters in the story of this pandemic will be written between now and the inauguration in 2021.

It is desperately important that we get this right. The decisions that are made between now and November or January — here in the White House, in Congress, throughout government at every level, and in homes all over this country — could save or cost the lives of countless human beings, and save or cost the livelihoods of countless more. When the stakes are this high, we can’t let politics interfere with doing the right thing.

And yet, how can it not, as we move towards the 2020 election? Already, both my supporters and my critics interpret everything I do in the light of that election. I deserve credit for this, blame for that — no I don’t, yes I do — it goes on and on. But none of those arguments save anyone. They just make it harder for America to move forward in unity.

When this is all over, there will be plenty of time to distribute credit and blame. There are undoubtedly many lessons to learn — both good and bad — from what we have done so far. But trying to do that analysis in the middle of the crisis, and absorbing that discussion into what was already a poisonous partisan environment before Covid-19 emerged, does not serve this country. Partisanship can only decrease the likelihood that we will judge correctly, or learn the lessons that might save us from the next plague.

Right now, there are many things I wish I could do for this country, but they are beyond my powers. I can’t banish the disease by executive order. I can’t decree a vaccine or effective treatment into existence here and now. I can’t speed time up so that we jump past the peak of the crisis and skip all the suffering Americans will have to endure in the coming weeks and months.

But there is one thing I can do: To a large extent, I can take partisan politics out of this struggle, and I’m going to do that right now with this announcement: I will not be a candidate for re-election in November, nor will I endorse any candidate in that election. Instead, I will lead the battle against this disease until my term ends in January.

The election will still happen, and I’m sure the candidates who vie to replace me will debate their views and their plans with all the vigor we expect from a presidential campaign. But I will take no part in it. If any members of my administration want to participate in that election, God bless them, but I will ask them to step away from whatever active roles they might be playing in managing our country’s response to the virus.

I cannot insist that others follow my example. But I can ask political leaders at all levels to do what they can to take partisan politics out of this effort. Most of us tell ourselves that we entered politics to do something important. Let me suggest that nothing you might do in future years from future offices will be quite so important as what you do these next few months. Lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Going forward, there are many choices to make, and I expect to hear much argument about what should happen next. A healthy democracy always has room for disagreement. But let those discussions center on the health and well-being of our citizens, not on the November elections, and especially not on me. My political future is already set: I will finish my term and then return to the private sector to await history’s judgement on my actions. I pray history will be able to say that I rallied a unified nation to take decisive and successful action.

God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.

Accelerating Corruption and Autocracy

Ever since he came down the escalator pledging to protect us from Mexican rapists, Donald Trump has shown corrupt and autocratic tendencies. Before long, he was leading chants about locking up his political opponents, welcoming Russian help in his campaign, encouraging his supporters to be violent, profiting off of campaign events, and saying that he would only accept the election results “if I win“.

Since taking office, he has funneled public money into his private businesses, continued building his wall without a Congressional appropriation, refused all demands for financial transparency and Congressional oversight, obstructed the Mueller investigation, assembled the most corrupt cabinet since Nixon, lied many times per day, and repeatedly expressed his envy of dictatorial regimes like North Korea and China.

But the authoritarian drift has definitely accelerated in the three weeks since every Senate Republican but Mitt Romney voted to let Donald Trump remain in office, despite proven abuses of power. As Atlantic’s Adam Serwer puts it, Trump’s acquittal marked “the end of the Trump administration, and the first day of the would-be Trump Regime.” Think about what we’ve seen since the Senate’s abdication of its constitutional role in controlling would-be autocrats.

A purge of “disloyal” officials. The disloyalty here is not to the United States, but to the person of Donald Trump.

Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, for example, has behaved exactly as an officer should: When something about Trump’s Ukraine call seemed odd to him, he reported his concerns up the chain of command. When Congress subpoenaed him, he appeared and testified honestly. For this, he was not just fired, but escorted out of the White House like a criminal. His twin brother, who played no role in the impeachment hearings, was also fired just out of vindictiveness. (Fortunately, the Army has refused Trump’s suggestion that Lt. Col. Vindman be investigated and disciplined.)

Other people who are now gone: Ambassador Bill Taylor, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, and Deputy National Security Adviser Victoria Coates. They join everyone in the FBI who had any connection to the original Russia investigation, most of whom were purged long ago: James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Bruce Ohr, and Lisa Page, as well as the Justice Department leadership that refused Trump’s pressure to shut the investigation down: Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein.

The purge is expected to continue throughout the administration. (See below for purges at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.)

Interference in the Stone trial. It’s important to understand what Roger Stone (along with Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn) represents: the last loose ends in the obstruction of the Mueller investigation. (One of the obstruction-of-justice claims explored in Part II of the Mueller Report was that Trump engaged in witness-tampering with Manafort, including hinting at a pardon.)

Stone was the Trump campaign’s link to WikiLeaks and from there to the Russians who hacked Democratic computers. Manafort was the campaign’s link to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and from there to Russian intelligence. Flynn’s relationship with Russian Ambassador Segei Kislyak (in particular why Flynn and Jared Kushner approached him about creating a “back channel” to Russia) has never been explained. These men are not just Trump’s “friends”, they’re his accomplices.

In the Stone case, Trump (through Bill Barr) reversed the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation (causing all four prosecutors to withdraw from the case rather than participate in political corruption of the processes of justice), attacked the judge, and attacked a juror. He didn’t stop Judge Amy Berman from sentencing Stone to 40 months in prison, but he did set up his justification for a post-election pardon, along with pardons of Flynn and Manafort. This would send a clear message to anyone else who could testify against Trump: Keep your mouth shut and the boss will take care of you.

Notice what has been missing from Trump’s defense of Stone: acknowledgment of the fact that he’s guilty. Stone lied to Congress to protect Trump, and he threatened a witness who could expose that lie. A jury of his peers unanimously found that Stone’s guilt had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Pardons for money. Corrupt Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich got the attention, but the most obviously corrupt of Tuesday’s pardons was tax evader Paul Pogue, whose family has contributed over $200K to the Trump Victory Fund. Criminal financier Michael Milken was pardoned after a request from billionaire Nelson Peltz, a Milken business associate who had just hosted a Trump fundraiser that netted the campaign $10 million.

Pardons to maintain a corrupt network. Jeffrey Toobin pointed out the authoritarian flavor of the other Tuesday pardons:

Authoritarianism is usually associated with a punitive spirit—a leader who prosecutes and incarcerates his enemies. But there is another side to this leadership style. Authoritarians also dispense largesse, but they do it by their own whims, rather than pursuant to any system or legal rule. The point of authoritarianism is to concentrate power in the ruler, so the world knows that all actions, good and bad, harsh and generous, come from a single source. …

In this era of mass incarceration, many people deserve pardons and commutations, but this is not the way to go about it. All Trump has done is to prove that he can reward his friends and his friends’ friends.

Trump’s pardons did not percolate up through the Justice Department’s Pardon Attorney. They all had some personal connection to Trump or his circle of friends and donors. Blagojevich, for example, was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice”, and his wife pleaded for his pardon on Fox News shows Trump is known to watch. (It’s worth noting that there is no doubt about Blagojevich’s guilt. We have the tapes.) Bernard Kerik was a crony of Rudy Giuliani.

All the beneficiaries of Trump’s mercy were convicted of the kinds of white-collar crimes Trump’s people might commit themselves. That was the point, Sarah Chayes (who covered Afghanistan for more than a decade) explained in “This Is How Kleptocracies Work“:

In return for this torrent of cash and favors and subservience, those at the top of kleptocratic networks owe something precious downwards. They owe their subordinates impunity from legal repercussions. That is the other half of the bargain, without which the whole system collapses.

That’s why moves like Trump’s have to be advertised. … Trump’s clemency came not at the end of his time in office, as is sometimes the case with such favors bestowed on cronies and swindlers, but well before that—indeed, ahead of an election in which he is running. The gesture was not a guilty half-secret, but a promise. It was meant to show that the guarantee of impunity for choice members of America’s corrupt networks is an ongoing principle.

Threats to the rule of law. The Justice Department had retained some measure of independence until Bill Barr became attorney general. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, shared Trump’s policy goals, but respected internal procedures for maintaining the rule of law. For example, he recused himself from the Russia investigation because of his own connection to the Trump campaign — a move which angered Trump and for which Sessions was never forgiven.

But Barr has made a number of moves in the Justice Department to shield Trump from investigation and intimidate his enemies. The best summary I’ve found is by Marcy Wheeler:

  • The Stormy Daniels hush-money investigation sent Michael Cohen to prison, but all the follow-up evaporated after Barr took over at DoJ. Cohen claimed he worked under Trump’s instructions, and that the Trump Organization reimbursed his illegal campaign contribution. But those leads have been dropped.
  • SDNY seems to be slow-walking its investigation into Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine shennanigans, now that a new US attorney has been appointed. The head of the neighboring Eastern District of New York has been put in charge of Ukraine-related investigations that SDNY had been pursuing.
  • A new US attorney in D.C. has led to a “review” of investigations there, including cases involving Michael Flynn and Erik Prince.
  • Barr assigned Connecticut US attorney John Durham to investigate the origins of the Trump/Russia investigation. Anyone tempted to investigate further Trump wrongdoing now knows that they risk becoming targets themselves.
  • Barr tried to stop the Ukraine whistleblower’s account from reaching Congress, and did not recuse himself even though he is mentioned in the complaint.

Tightening control of the intelligence services. Like the Justice Department, the intelligence services maintained their independence when Dan Coates was Director of National Intelligence, and the subsequent acting heads had failed to bring them under control.

As a result, occasionally conclusions unfavorable to Trump have made it to Congress or the American public: Russia did help elect Trump in 2016. North Korea is not denuclearizing. ISIS is not defeated. Trump may not like to hear such facts, or to allow the American public to know them, but the whole point of having intelligence services is to correct the leadership’s misperceptions.

The most recent example was a February 13 briefing to House leaders of both parties, in which Shelby Pierson, an aide to then-acting DNI Joseph Maguire, reported that Russia was repeating its 2016 interference in the 2020 election process, again for the purpose of electing Trump.

You might expect an American president to react to such news by giving Vladimir Putin a stern warning to back off — as Bernie Sanders did when told that the Russians might be working to help him win the Democratic nomination. But no: Trump welcomed Russian help in 2016, sought to extort Ukrainian help with the 2020 election, and seems to welcome further Russian help now.

The intelligence report did make him angry, but at the intelligence services. He dismissed Maguire and replaced him with Richard Grenell, who has no intelligence background whatsoever. In a Washington Post column, retired Admiral William McRaven lamented Maguire’s fate:

in this administration, good men and women don’t last long.

In a different article, the WaPo quotes a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center:

Nothing in Grenell’s background suggests that he has the skill set or the experience to be an effective leader of the intelligence community. … His chief attribute seems to be that President Trump views him as unfailingly loyal.

As Ambassador to Germany (a position he still holds), Grenell was noted for his identification with right-wing parties like Alternative for Germany. (US ambassadors typically avoid such partisan interference in the politics of our NATO allies.) The German news magazine Der Spiegel couldn’t get an interview with Grenell, so it interviewed more than 30 sources including “numerous American and German diplomats, cabinet members, lawmakers, high-ranking officials, lobbyists and think tank experts.”

Almost all of these sources paint an unflattering portrait of the ambassador, one remarkably similar to Donald Trump, the man who sent him to Berlin. A majority of them describe Grenell as a vain, narcissistic person who dishes out aggressively, but can barely handle criticism. … They also say Grenell knows little about Germany and Europe, that he ignores most of the dossiers his colleagues at the embassy write for him, and that his knowledge of the subject matter is superficial.

Oh, by the way, Grenell used to work for a corrupt Moldavian oligarch, but didn’t register as a foreign agent. Under any previous administration, he wouldn’t be able to get a security clearance.

Grenell in turn has ousted the #2 intelligence official, Andrew Hallman, replacing him with Devin Nunes staffer Kashyap Patel, who is known for promoting pro-Trump conspiracy theories. More personnel changes are expected.

The NYT reports that Grenell has “requested the intelligence behind the classified briefing last week before the House Intelligence Committee where officials told lawmakers that Russia was interfering in November’s presidential election and that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia favored President Trump’s re-election”.

This move recalls how Vice President Cheney abused intelligence during the Bush administration: By “stovepiping” raw intelligence to his own office rather than letting it pass through the analytic process, Cheney was able to manipulate conclusions that favored the policies he preferred, most notably the invasion of Iraq.

Summing up. If you don’t follow US government closely, you may not see the problem. After all, the President is in charge. Why shouldn’t the people under him do what he wants? Isn’t that how it always works?

It isn’t, and there are good reasons why it doesn’t. One problem — you might fairly say it was THE problem — the Founders were trying to solve when they wrote the Constitution was how to control executive power. Unfettered executive power quickly becomes dictatorship, and the rights of the People are then only as safe as the Dictator allows them to be.

For that reason, power was divided among the three branches of government, so that Congress and the Courts would be able to hold the President in check. Congress got the power of the purse and the power of oversight, both of which are now in jeopardy.

Subsequent to the Founding, executive power has also been controlled through the professionalization of the various departments, each of which balances political control by the President with its own inherent mission. So the Justice Department takes its policy from the President, but pursues the departmental mission of justice. The intelligence services try to find truth, the EPA protects the environment, the CDC defends public health, the military safeguards our country and its allies, the Federal Reserve balances economic growth against the threat of inflation, and so on. For the most part, presidents have known when to keep their hands off.

Until Trump. More and more, Trump makes everything political. There is no truth other than the story Trump wants to tell. There is no mission other than what Trump wants done.

Students of authoritarianism have been warning us about his dangerous tendencies since he first began campaigning. But, as Rachel Maddow noted Friday night, we are well past the time for warnings. “The dark days are not ‘coming’,” she said. “The dark days are here.”

Let’s Talk Each Other Down

Looking around this week — in the media, among my friends, inside my own head — I observed that a lot of people are freaking out. Because Trump was acquitted, because he has started his revenge tour, because Republicans know he abused his power and don’t care, because the Democrats are doing it all wrong, because a virus is spreading out of control, because the State of the Union was full of lies, because both the National Prayer Breakfast and the Medal of Freedom have been desecrated, because a US senator willfully and illegally endangered the life of a whistleblower, because it’s been 65 degrees in Antarctica, because the Attorney General has given Trump carte blanche to violate campaign laws, because a billion-dollar disinformation project has begun, and because, because, because.

There’s been no lack of stuff to freak out about, if that’s what you feel inclined to do. You’re not wrong. I can’t tell you that all those horrors aren’t happening. But let me try to talk you down in a different way.

In general, people freak out for a very simple reason: They’ve been telling themselves “It’s all going to be OK” when they don’t really know that. When events start to crack that false sense of certainty, one natural reaction is to flip over completely to: “We’re all doomed.”

Allow me to point something out: You don’t really know that either.

So if you come to me hoping I’ll tell you it’s all going to be OK — sorry, I can’t do that. But I can tell you this: Uncertainty is the natural state of human beings. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe things will be OK — or something in between, more likely. That’s how life is and always has been. It might be true that the arc of the Universe bends towards Justice, but you can never count on that bend being visible in any given lifetime. If you’ve comfortably lived in denial of that reality until this week, I’m sorry you had to find out like this. It’s not really my fault, but never mind: Accept my apology anyway, because probably nobody else will offer one.

You know something that’s even worse? You might be in this state of uncertainty for the rest of your life. Maybe we’re doomed, but maybe we’re not. Nobody really knows. Democracy in America might soon be over, or it might get a reprieve. Truth might finally drown in a sea of disinformation, or maybe it will figure out how to swim in that sea. People are endlessly surprising. Just when you think they’re hopeless, they do something hopeful. And vice versa.

So: Breathe. Breathe again, to make sure that one wasn’t just luck. Keep breathing. You can do this, at least for now.

And try to accept something: You don’t need to know that it’s going to be OK.

You can do something to make things better without being sure it’s going to work. Because … well, what else are you going to do? (I don’t know if you’ve ever tried giving up, but I can tell you a little about that too: It’s no fun either. Sometimes when you get worn down, you might think that waiting helplessly for inevitable destruction would be an nice relief. But trust me. It isn’t.)

Affirmations can be useful in a situation like this, but only if you choose to affirm things that are at least vaguely believable. Try this one: I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.

Now say it out loud. “I don’t know that things are going to be OK, but I don’t need to know. I can try to do good things anyway.”

Maybe one or two of the things you’ve been trying to do really are doomed, and maybe that’s finally become obvious to you. You can shift your effort to something else. There’s no lack of things to do that still might be useful.

Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. We all like to think that we do, but we don’t.

Now let me tell you something about the particular challenge we’re facing now: Trump. At his core, Trump is a bluffer. He puffs himself up to make people think he’s bigger and richer and stronger than he really is. It’s the only trick he knows, but sometimes it works: He scares people into giving up or going along. (That’s what we just saw happen in the Senate. You don’t really believe that all those Republicans thought keeping him in office was good for the country, do you? Or even good for their party, or for themselves? They got scared, so they went along.)

When something like that works for him, he uses it to puff himself up further and scare more people. That’s what’s been going on this week.

Don’t help him.

Don’t run around scaring other people about how big and powerful he is. When a bluffer gets on a roll, you can never predict how far it will go. But we do know one thing about bluffers: When their empires start to collapse, they collapse quickly, because each failure causes more people to think “I don’t have to be scared of this guy.”

You can never predict exactly when that process is going to start. The balloon always looks biggest just before it pops.

Steve Almond put it like this:

We must organize rather than agonize.

This optimism should not be confused with naiveté. We all know that the Trump regime will do everything in its power to rig the 2020 election. We’ll see more voter suppression, more fearmongering, more Russian trolling.

Nihilism remains the GOP’s ultimate Trump card. They are counting on citizens of good faith to give up, to quit the field, to say “who cares?” So is the party’s most reliable ally, Vladimir Putin. And so are the oligarchs, domestic and foreign, who have converted our planet into a vast and decaying casino.

Don’t let them sucker you.

Be a fanatical optimist. Make a plan. Take action. Listen to your conscience. Vote.

A brighter dawn might await all of us, but we have to work for it.

I’ll quibble with him using the word optimism rather than hope. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.) But the key word there is might. If you’re waiting for a guarantee, for a political almanac that will tell you exactly when the sun will rise and the tide will turn, you’ll keep waiting and you’ll do nothing. Don’t go that way.

Be hopeful. Throw your effort out there and see what happens. Because you never know.

If Obama …

A series of thought experiments Democrats have been running for the last three years is the “What if Obama did this?” genre. It most recently showed up Wednesday, when House Manager Adam Schiff created a fantasy about Obama’s race against Mitt Romney in 2012. (Romney, of course, is now a senator and was sitting in the room.)

[Schiff] suggested the hypothetical example of Obama telling [the Russian president at the time Dmitry] Medvedev, “I know you don’t want me to send this money to Ukraine cause they’re fighting and killing your people. I want you to do me a favor though,” Schiff said, echoing wording in Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he allegedly asked him to investigate the Bidens.

“I want you to do an investigation of Mitt Romney and I want you to announce you found dirt on Mitt Romney,” Schiff continued with his hypothetical. “And if you’re willing to do that quid pro quo, I won’t give Ukraine the money to fight you on the front line. “

Schiff then asked senators if there is any question Obama would have been impeached for that kind of conduct.

“That’s the parallel here,” he said.

At times I wonder about the usefulness of if-Obama thought experiments, because they’re based on the assumption that the same moral rules ought to apply to everyone. In recent years, though, more and more Republicans have adopted a purely tribal point of view which rejects any reciprocity between Our Side and Their Side. Of course it would be wrong if Obama had done the same thing that is right when Trump does it, because by definition Obama is wrong and Trump is right. [1] Republicans seem to be losing the capacity to feel shame about this kind of hypocrisy. [2]

Even recognizing that, though, I can’t resist one more if-Obama thought experiment, because I don’t think Schiff’s fantasy goes quite far enough. Instead of 2012, let’s think about 2016, and suppose that Obama believed — as he undoubtedly did believe — that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the country.

Let’s take one further step and imagine that Obama understood what Vladimir Putin was capable of. Already in July of 2015, Trump is telling Russian agent Maria Butina that he would revoke the sanctions Obama had placed on Russia after its invasion of Crimea. [3] So Putin has good reasons to want Trump elected. But what if Obama goes to Putin and puts in a higher bid for his support?

Maybe he says something like: “During the transition period after the election but before the new president takes office, I’ll be in a position to help you out in Ukraine — at least if the election turns out the way I hope it does. We’ll forget about sanctions, and if you want to take over the rest of Ukraine, that would be OK too; we wouldn’t do anything. Of course, we’d expect something in return. But anyway, I just wanted you to know that you should be rooting for Clinton, the same way I am.”

Obama doesn’t want to be guilty of a criminal conspiracy, so he doesn’t spell out what he wants, other than for Putin to “root”. But let’s say Obama’s personal lawyer — just to make it specific, let’s choose Greg Craig, a Democrat who was indicted in a Mueller-related case, but found not guilty — talks to some of Putin’s people and lets them know that Putin should do for Clinton all the stuff he had been planning to do for Trump. Again, nothing specific — just do it.

So Putin does: His people hack Republican computers and Trump campaign computers, then pick out the most embarrassing stuff and release it (drip, drip, drip) via WikiLeaks. They use their social media resources to push hundreds of anti-Trump fake news stories to exactly the kinds of wavering voters Trump needs. And all that stuff doesn’t happen to Clinton.

When Clinton wins, Obama does exactly what he said he would. He cancels the Russia sanctions, and stands by idly while Putin carves up the rest of Ukraine.

On the one hand, this is all reprehensible: My fantasy of Evil Obama has torpedoed an ally, put the rest of eastern Europe at risk of Russian expansion, and invited foreign interference in a US election. But by the standards put forward by Trump’s current defenders Obama has done nothing wrong.

  • He never specified what Putin should do, so there was no deal. He hinted and Putin understood what he meant, possibly due to more roundabout channels of communication, but that doesn’t matter. As Jim Jordan said about Trump’s Zelensky phonecall: “Tell me where the quid pro quo was.” If it’s not spelled out, it doesn’t count.
  • Laws were broken — anti-hacking laws, campaign finance laws, etc. — but because Putin broke them without Obama’s direct instructions, that’s crime doesn’t count against Obama. There may have been all kinds of collusion between Obama’s people and Putin’s people, but (as the Mueller Report says) “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” If there’s not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy, there’s no problem.
  • Whether or not to defend Ukraine is a policy decision that is within the president’s power. He can’t be officially called to account for exercising his legitimate prerogatives, no matter how destructive to the national interest those decisions turn out to be. “Maladministration,” Alan Dershowitz tells us, “is not a ground for impeachment.”
  • But what about his corrupt intent in making this deal-that-wasn’t-a-deal? His party may have gotten political advantage from it, and national security may have suffered, but that doesn’t make it corrupt because Obama honestly believed Clinton’s election was in the public interest. Serving his party’s partisan interest above the national interest is not an abuse of power, because in the President’s mind, his party’s partisan interest is the national interest. As Dershowitz put it: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” It would be even less of a problem if he thought somebody else’s election was in the public interest.

So: trading Ukraine to the Russians to get Hillary Clinton into the White House — you may not like it, but it’s just one of those things. “Get over it,” Mick Mulvaney would say.


[1] This shows up most clearly in the Republicans whose beliefs about impeachment have made a 180-reversal since Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and his trial in 1999. Lindsey Graham is the most obvious example; he proposed a very expansive definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for Clinton then but a very restricted one for Trump now. Mitch McConnell looks just as bad. In 1998 he asked the question: “Will we pursue the search for truth, or will we dodge, weave, and evade?” This time around, he’s on the side of dodge, weave, and evade.

Lawyers who testified for the Republicans have also reversed themselves since Clinton. Then, Alan Dershowitz said “you don’t need a technical crime” to impeach Clinton. But as he watched these last two decades from his seat in the Afterlife, James Madison must have changed his mind. Because for Trump “the Framers intended that the criteria be, high crimes and misdemeanors — that is, existing criminal statutes.”

Jonathan Turley likewise didn’t think Republicans needed to prove that Clinton violated any specific law. “While there’s a high bar for what constitutes grounds for impeachment, an offense does not have to be indictable. Serious misconduct or a violation of public trust is enough.” But it’s not enough now that Democrats have impeached a Republican. “This would be the first impeachment in history where there would be considerable debate, and in my view, not compelling evidence, of the commission of a crime.”

Given this context, I’m not surprised that Republican senators don’t worry about the precedent they’re setting for a future Democratic administration. The precedent is that the rules are looser for Republicans than for Democrats. I expect them to uphold that precedent in any future impeachment.

In case you’re wondering, I laid out my criteria for impeachment before I knew what Robert Mueller would report, and long before the Ukraine scandal erupted. The current articles of impeachment fit them perfectly:

(1) Loyalty to self has eclipsed loyalty to the country. … (2) The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process. … (3) The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2).

[2] I wonder how much this tribal perspective is related to the increasing identification between the GOP and evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals see no similarity between their own sins (which God forgives) and other people’s sins (for which they will burn in Hell). So Trump is forgiven and Clinton is not — end of story.

[3] The 2015 video of Trump responding to Butina is worth watching for another reason: It demonstrates how much mental deterioration Trump has suffered in the last five years. In this video, he is asked a question and he answers it. He stays on topic for two whole minutes and speaks coherently the whole time. How long has it been since you’ve seen him do that?

Remember Normal Presidents?

Every previous president since Pearl Harbor would have handled the Soleimani announcement very differently.


It’s now been ten days since the United States assassinated top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport, and we still have no coherent explanation of why it was done, why it was legal, and what strategy the assassination is a piece of. Apparently even Congress hasn’t been able to get these questions answered in a classified briefing.

One of the ways Trump gets normalized is that we often compare his actions to his own previous conduct, as in “This is even worse than the last ridiculous thing he did.” As a result, our expectations of presidential behavior drift continually downward. I mean, sure, the claims of an “imminent” threat to American lives, some deadly Iranian scheme that came apart because we killed Soleimani, are almost certainly false. (Once a plot is under way, i.e., truly “imminent”, you disrupt it by stopping the perpetrators, not blowing up the mastermind. Killing Bin Laden after the hijackers were on their way to the airport would have done nothing to prevent 9/11.) But Trump’s like that — what’s one more lie after the many thousands we’ve already heard from him?

Another way we normalize Trump is to cut his actions into tiny pieces and find horrifying precedents for each one. (As in: “So Trump lied about the imminent threat? W lied about WMDs.”) And so we allow the Trump administration to become a Frankenstein monster, stitched together from all the worst aspects of previous presidencies.

To correct these normalizing tendencies, I want to raise the question: What do we normally expect from an American president when there’s been a major military development?

Talk to us. The very least we expect from a normal president is that he address the American people, to acknowledge what has happened himself, as soon as possible.

This tradition is as old as mass media. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling December 7 “a date that will live in infamy” and asking the House and Senate to declare war on Japan. The speech was broadcast live over the radio, and “attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81% of American homes tuning in”.

[The speech] was intended not merely as a personal response by the President, but as a statement on behalf of the entire American people in the face of a great collective trauma. In proclaiming the indelibility of the attack, and expressing outrage at its “dastardly” nature, the speech worked to crystallize and channel the response of the nation into a collective response and resolve.

Every subsequent president has carried on this tradition of using the mass media to reach out to the American people when issues of war and peace arose. This week I examined a number of such examples, including these:

How a normal president sounds. I could have included many other examples, but the list above is a good sampling. Some the actions announced turned out well and some turned out badly. (It’s probably unfair to expect him to have foreseen this, but Nixon’s Cambodia campaign was a step down the road to the killing fields.) Some of the speeches were more honest than others. (The Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example, was not quite how LBJ described it.) But despite the differences in era and philosophy and personality, all these speeches share a number of features that made them “presidential”.

The most obvious thing they share is a tone: They are all calm but serious. The President, whoever he might have been at the time, projects an attitude of thoughtful determination, as if he were saying “I know there will be consequences to this act, but I have thought them out to the best of my ability. I am not acting rashly out of unreasoning fear or blind anger.”

They are also in some manner humble. This might seem like a strange trait for a leader to display when he is invoking the greatest power his office affords him, but American presidents do not hold their power as a personal possession, the way a divine-right king would. Presidential power is held in trust for the American people. No one is worthy of the power to start bombing some other country or to send troops into harm’s way, but our country has to place that power somewhere. So we have placed it in our president, under supervision from the Congress, who is just a human being like the rest of us. Any human who assumes that power is quite right to be awed by it.

The speeches are not self-aggrandizing, which is the opposite of humble. FDR, for example, could have used the opportunity to pat himself on the back: He had shown the foresight to begin a draft a little over a year before. His Lend-Lease program had armed countries that would now be our allies, and had developed a weapons industry we would now be relying on. But he mentioned none of that.

Unity. Every one of the speeches is an attempt to unify Americans behind the action being announced and the policy it represents. Consequently, they all strive to be non-partisan. Again, look at FDR: He could have reminded the country that Republican congressmen voted against Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act 24-135, a decision that now looked short-sighted. That might have scored points with the voters and helped Democrats unseat those Republicans. But he made no mention of parties: The nation had been attacked, and he called for the nation — not just his party — to respond.

That model has stood until the present administration. Frequently in the speeches above, the president quotes or refers to some past member of the other party to demonstrate the bipartisan nature of the policy he is carrying out. Ronald Reagan quoted former Democratic Speaker Sam Rayburn. Nixon referenced a bipartisan list of presidents:

In this room, Woodrow Wilson made the great decisions which led to victory in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt made the decisions which led to our victory in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower made decisions which ended the war in Korea and avoided war in the Middle East. John F. Kennedy, in his finest hour, made the great decision which removed Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba and the western hemisphere.

Johnson’s speech is especially noteworthy in this regard, because it took place in August, 1964, just three months before the election. The idea that Barry Goldwater was a hothead not to be trusted with nuclear weapons would soon become a theme of Johnson’s reelection campaign, but nothing in the Gulf of Tonkin speech hints at that. Quite the opposite:

I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States, and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia. I have been given encouraging assurance by these leaders of both parties that such a resolution will be promptly introduced, freely and expeditiously debated, and passed with overwhelming support. And just a few minutes ago, I was able to reach Senator Goldwater, and I am glad to say that he has expressed his support of the statement that I am making to you tonight.

In none of the speeches does the president snipe at his predecessors, blame them for the current predicament, or gloat over the way things have turned out. No president ever had a better opportunity to throw shade at the previous president than Barack Obama, who had succeeded at something George W. Bush had failed to do for seven years: kill Bin Laden. But Obama passed up that opportunity to boost himself by tearing down his predecessor. Instead, he acknowledged the “tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals” over the previous ten years. He closed by asking Americans to

think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

What is presidential? The presidential speeches seek to evoke three kinds of unity: Unity as Americans facing an external challenge, unity of vision between the president and Congress, and unity of the United States with its allies. The speeches are not always entirely truthful — among his other roles, the president is the country’s chief propagandist — but the untruths are aimed at the enemy, not at other Americans. The president takes a generous, hopeful view of how Congress, our allies, and the nation as a whole will respond. The vision is consistently about what we can do together, not what the president as an individual is doing for us or against our opposition. He seeks to paper over any past differences, in hopes of moving forward as a united nation.

Now look at Trump. The day after the Soleimani assassination, Trump made a public statement, but not a particularly formal one. He addressed reporters at Mar-a-Lago, not the nation from the White House. (The text begins “Hello everybody”, not “My fellow Americans”.) The brief announcement does not mention Congress or our allies, but has an unusual number of first-person references: “at my direction … under my leadership … I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary”, leading up to Trump’s list of accomplishments:

Under my leadership, we have destroyed the ISIS territorial caliphate, and recently, American Special Operations Forces killed the terrorist leader known as al-Baghdadi. The world is a safer place without these monsters.

Trump also took a slap at previous administrations:

What the United States did yesterday should have been done long ago. A lot of lives would have been saved.

The message asks for nothing — not from the public, not from Congress, not from our allies. Trump simply reports what he has done for reasons that are not entirely clear. (It can’t be that we have a right to know.) He does not warn us of hardships to come, or of possible Iranian reprisals. He warns Iran, though of what “I” will do.

The United States has the best military by far, anywhere in the world. We have best intelligence in the world. If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran.

After Iran’s response — a missile attack on the Iraqi base from which the Soleimani mission was launched — Trump finally gave a more formal speech from the White House. He begins, not with a salutation to the audience or even with a statement of the policy of the United States, but with a pledge from Trump the Individual:

As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

He does not say how he will prevent that from happening, given that he tore up the agreement that had been blocking Iran’s nuclear program. He goes on to ramble fairly incoherently about the evils of Iran. Again he does not mention Congress, and while he does mention both NATO and the partner countries in the Iran nuclear deal, it is not at all clear what he wants them to do, other than “recognize reality”.

Again, he exaggerates his “accompliments”:

Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence.  These historic accompliments [accomplishments] changed our strategic priorities.  These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.  And options in the Middle East became available.  We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.  We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. … Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi. … Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration.

But the most unpresidential thing of all in this speech is the way that he goes after his predecessor, in some cases distorting the truth to do so, and in other cases just simply lying. Under Obama’s Iran deal, “they were given $150 billion”. [False. A much smaller sum of Iran’s own money was unfrozen. Iran was “given” nothing.] “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” [Theoretically possible, but Trump provides no evidence. He appears to have just made this up.] “The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” I’ll let PolitiFact handle that one:

This is False.

The Iran deal put a cap on enriched uranium that would have lasted until 2030, at which point other agreements would have continued to limit Iran’s nuclear development.

Some of the deal’s restrictions would have eased beginning in 2025, but the key elements that prevented Iran from enriching the levels of uranium needed to make a bomb would have remained in effect until 2030.

Other terms would have lasted forever, including the prohibition on manufacturing a nuclear weapon and a provision requiring compliance with oversight from international inspectors.

Think about what these statements do, relative to what we would expect from any previous president. They feed a cult of personality around Trump. He is not the current avatar of the President of the United States, he is himself, accomplishing things that his predecessors at best played no role in, and more often provided obstacles he had to overcome. He wields power as a personal possession, not in trust from the American people or overseen by Congress. America’s allies are not equals, they are vassal states that he need not consult, but can make demands on.

He makes no appeal for unity, and does not reach out to the opposition party. Instead, he uses the attention provided by the current crisis to claim his predecessor’s accomplishments (we became the top oil producer under Obama), and to spread lies about him. Democrats should feel slapped in the face by this, not invited into an American unity.

In addition to the televised addresses, Trump has access to media FDR never imagined. His Twitter feed has been non-stop partisan, in the most vicious way. Just this morning, for example, he retweeted an image of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in Muslim dress, with an Iranian flag behind them. In his own words, he told this lie:

The Democrats and the Fake News are trying to make terrorist Soleimani into a wonderful guy

Nothing he says speaks to Democrats in Congress, or to the 54% of the American people who voted for someone else in 2016, or the 53.4% who voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in 2018. He is leading us down a path that may well end up in war, without seeking approval from Congress or even trying to make a case to anyone other than the minority of the country that supports him.

No previous president would do such a thing.

Trumpist Evangelicals Respond to Christianity Today

Nearly 200 Evangelical leaders responded to the Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office, which I discussed at some length last week in “The Evangelical Deal With the Devil“. How they chose to respond says a lot about how Trump appeals to their flocks.

CT’s case had three main points:

  • Trump is guilty as charged: “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”
  • Beyond the articles of impeachment, Trump has conducted himself in a grossly un-Christian way: “[T]his president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
  • Religious leaders who defend Trump are distorting the Christian message and damaging the credibility the Evangelical movement: “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”

Protestant Christianity has a long history of “remonstrances“, where some religious leader attempts to tell his colleagues that they’ve taken a wrong turn. (Arguably, Protestantism began with a remonstrance: Luther’s 95 theses.) So we know exactly how honest and sincere Protestant leaders respond to such challenges: They answer the points in the context of their faith.

In this case, a thoughtful counter-remonstrance would argue that Trump is not guilty, or that his overall behavior is not immoral, or that defending him is an appropriate example of Christian witness, not a distortion of it. You might expect a response full of Biblical texts and comparisons to proud moments from the history of the Evangelical movement.

The letter from the 200 does none of that. Not a single point from the editorial is confronted directly. Neither Trump’s impeachable actions nor his general morality is mentioned. The loss of credibility that comes from identifying Christianity with Trumpism is not addressed. Instead, the 200 responders make two points:

  • They feel insulted. The particular statements that they believe insult them are not actually in the CT editorial, but were made by the author in interviews. As so often is the case when conservative Christians claim offense, they are the ones who decided that the shoe fit them. The CT editor talked about “evangelicals on the far right”, but did not name any.
  • The author of the CT editorial is an elitist who looks down on less educated believers, so the majority of Evangelicals shouldn’t identify with him or pay attention to what he says.

Like so much of Trump’s defense in the larger culture, this argument is entirely tribal, and not at all based on facts or principles: Trump is one of us, and if you oppose him, you’re not one of us.

The one time the letter alludes to the Bible is an up-is-down distortion.

We are proud to be numbered among those in history who, like Jesus, have been pretentiously accused of having too much grace for tax collectors and sinners, and we take deeply our personal responsibility to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — our public service.

But Trump does not at all fit the model of a tax collector (like Matthew) or a “sinner” (like Mary Magdalene). He is a head of government, like Herod, who does not repent his immoral actions or seek to change. The Bible contains no example of Jesus (or any prophet) pandering to power in the way these Evangelical leaders have.

Quite the opposite, the prophets repeatedly confronted immoral rulers, as I have observed at length before. The Christianity Today editorial fits well into this prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. The letter responding to it does not.