By Maria Behan
Your cell phone beeps with the latest news alert: U.S. President Donald J. Trump will be the guest of honor at a men-only Toby Keith concert in Saudi Arabia. A scenario so bizarre, it’s scarcely believable. But that’s where we’re at now: we live in scarcely believable times.
It’s not because of the “fake news” phenomena—however you define that term. The blame for the scarce believability of current events in America lies squarely on the hunched shoulders of the hobgoblin who has taken up residence in the White House.
Trump has always been hard to believe. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the New York real-estate developer tried to disguise his voice (as if you could disguise that voice) and pretend to be his own publicist to dole out “news” tidbits he hoped local media outlets would pick up on, like, “Actresses just call to see if they can go out with him and things.” And let’s not forget that Trump launched his political career with the false insinuation that Barack Obama’s presidency was illegitimate because Obama wasn’t born in America.
In the early days, Trump had real reporters to contend with—who saw through him and giggled over tapes of Trump masquerading as PR man John Miller or sometimes, John Barron. (Probably because it connotes both nobility and masculinity, Trump is obsessed with the name Barron. During his affair with Marla Maples, he reportedly sometimes referred to himself as “The Barron.” Being the classy guy that he is, Trump later bestowed that name on his youngest son, despite the sordid causes he’d employed it for in the past.)
By the time of the Obama “birther” smears, Trump had a way of bypassing the skeptical, fact-based media. He’d found a new platform that was tailor-made for peddling his curdled snake oil: Fox News. Fox was the brainchild of Roger Ailes, a political operative who’d helped elect Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Regan. In Ailes’s mind, working directly for political campaigns just yielded short-term gains; to reshape America’s body politic, you had to play the long game: changing the information that people got and hence, changing the people.
In 1992, Ailes told television journalist Charlie Rose, “If you want to have tremendous political influence and still be a womanizer, a drug abuser, or an alcoholic, you only have one choice of career, and that’s journalism.” Four years later, he co-founded Fox News as an outfit that would peddle right-wing narratives to viewers who felt they were losing something as America become more diverse and tolerant—and believed they were being mislead, ignored, or reviled by the established media outlets.
Recent revelations of Ailes’ sexual harassment of female employees have shown that his blithe statement to Rose was a confession, but as often as he seized the opportunity to harass the women working at Fox, Ailes never lost sight of his most ambitious goal. Two years into Obama’s presidency, Ailes told Fox News executives, “I want to elect the next president.” He was driven out as Fox CEO by an avalanche of sexual harassment charges a few months before, but in November 2016, Ailes achieved his goal. Both defeated and triumphant, Ailes died on May 18, 2017. As someone who has fantasized about joining a class-action lawsuit of people who’ve lost loved ones to Fox brainwashing, the words that come to my mind are less “rest in peace,” more “I spit on your grave.”
How Low Can He Go?
“A downward spiral,” is how one Republican senator described the trajectory of Donald Trump’s administration lately. For me, it’s difficult to visualize a downward spiral for a presidency that began with a nihilistic rant about “American carnage” and a pathetically pointless (and easily disproven) boast about the size of his inauguration crowd. But I guess the spiral Senator Corker was alluding to began when the president fired the FBI director investigating Team Trump’s ties to Russia, accelerated with news that Trump leaked top-secret intelligence to the Russians, and has continued to pick up velocity with leaks from ex-FBI Director James Comey’s memos detailing Trump’s attempts to meddle in FBI investigations. I’d go a step further than “downward spiral”: Trump’s presidency has hit the ground, where it lies twitching like a dying bug. As befits a man who announced his candidacy for president by descending a golden escalator with his ex-model third wife and insinuating that Mexicans are rapists and drug-dealers, Trump’s downward spiral is a spectacle indeed. There’s his press secretary lurking among the White House shrubbery, demanding that all camera lights be turned off before he addresses the media in near-total darkness. And White House staffers blasting the volume on TVs so that other staffers’ shouts and bickering won’t be intelligible to the press hovering outside.
I almost pity his spokespeople. Day after day, the only defenses those Trump mouthpieces have against a jaded, borderline jeering press are laughably transparent verbal dodges—which their boss will contradict a few hours later on Twitter. Then again, should we pity people who’ve sold any souls they may once have had to the devil? (I’d almost believe that Trump and the devil are one and the same, except they were both reportedly spotted at the same Playboy Mansion party back in the ‘80s.)
True to Trump’s essential nature as a man who ruins everything, he makes it impossible for his many detractors to sit back and enjoy the operatic spectacle of his downfall. Yes, it’s bleakly amusing to watch the ogre-ish president and the malevelolent lickspittles who speak for him play out the psychodrama of their untenable situations. But Trump’s downfall is also wounding the country—and may wind up costing lives, both in America and abroad.
For those of us who want to see this president go down, a turning point came when Trump revealed top-secret information to two emissaries from Vladimir Putin’s Russia: Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak (the latter a known spy). Inevitably, Trump’s hallmark vaudevillian flourishes were on full display. According to the White House’s own account, Trump told the Russians that the pesky FBI director he’d fired the day before is a “nut job”—and gloated that his departure would alleviate the pressure his administration was getting over its many-tentacle ties to Russia (of course, the opposite is true). And there was the White House’s incredibly naive decision to bar the U.S. press while allowing Russian media in—not to mention Team Trump’s shock and betrayal when those darn Ruskies made the photos public.
The optics of those photographs didn’t look good, both literally and figuratively. There’s Trump and Kislyak yucking it up in the Oval Office—or maybe they were competing to see who had the most double chins. (As in the hand department, the U.S. leader once again came up short.) The most telling photo shows the three men together: Trump looking a bit bewildered and left out, the two Russians laughing giddily, locking eyes in a gaze that says, “Can you believe what this dope is doing for us? It’s more than we dreamed of when we got him elected!”
The chilling part of that fever dream of presidential incompetence is that Trump—the self-described master player who gets outplayed by everyone he negotiates, meets, or rides an elevator with—shared top-secret information with a country that wants to do harm to America and its allies. And how long will those allies stay allies if they can’t trust the man in charge of the U.S. government? Not only might the country find itself increasingly isolated, it may be excluded from the kind of international intelligence-sharing that thwarts terrorists. The full ramifications of Trump’s disclosure are unclear, but they may include endangering the Israeli source of the leaked information, closing off a pipeline that might have yielded more intel on ISIS plots, even speeding up the execution of a plan to take down planes with explosive-packed laptops.
The scenarios in which President Trump gets played have grown wearisomely familiar during the past few months. First, a Fox newscaster or one of his fellow dubiously elected authoritarian leaders transparently butters him up. (Exhibit A: Turkish President Erdogan congratulating Trump on “the legendary triumph he has garnered in the aftermath of the elections.”) Trump responds by smirking with unconcealable self-satisfaction, then gives his flatterers precisely what they want, whether it’s a whiff of legitimacy for their discredited government or a tweet shilling for their network.
While it advances the nefarious plans of the Russians, Trump’s ineptitude is impeding those of the Republicans in Congress. The president’s myriad missteps have stalled his party’s push to cut healthcare for millions while providing tax bonanzas for the rich. And to roll back government protections for the environment and consumers—also to provide financial bonanzas for the rich. Despicable as those agenda items look to progressives and well, pretty much anyone, it might be possible to make a case for some of them by citing conservative doctrine. But Republicans’ willingness to look the other way while Trump dumps on the Constitution and undermines national security is indefensible. As Jeffrey Toobin wrote in The New Yorker, “It’s a certainty that history will look unkindly upon the moral blindness of contemporary Republicans.”
“We generally do not want to have anything to do with this nonsense,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov observed of the Comey imbroglio. America feels the same way, Dmitry. But alas, it looks like things will get darker before the dawn finally breaks. And increasingly, that dawn looks like it will come in the form of the resignation, impeachment, or jailing of the man who is probably the most corrupt president the country has ever seen, and unarguably its most incompetent.
For more great Wild Word essays see:
The Love Lessons I’ve Learned as a Stepfather by James Prenatt
Learning About Love At Grandma’s Table by Annie Mark-Westfall
Why Jesus Broke The ‘Billy Graham Rule’ by Reverend Rachel Kessler
When Parenting Feels Like Drowning by Jami Ingledue