By Maria Behan
There are so many scandals swirling around Donald Trump—whose scary-clown car of an administration is not yet one month old—it’s hard to focus. There’s the botched, and currently blocked, attempt at a Muslim-immigration ban. There’s the crackdown on illegal immigrants, purportedly some of them the “bad hombres” the president keeps warning us about. There are the tainted billionaires, nationalist bigots, and hostile know-nothings crowding his cabinet. And there's the spectacle of Trump’s repellant menagerie of spokespeople: press secretary (and occasionally rabid lapdog), Sean Spicer; counselor (and venomous praying mantis), Kellyanne Conway; and adviser (and Hitler Youth meerkat), Stephen Miller.
Nyet My President
But the scandal that’s doing the most damage to the Trump administration—and may yet take it down—is its murky dealings with Russia. Remember Paul Manafort, the Trump campaign manager who had to step down following charges that he’d received millions doing Russia’s bidding, including working for an oligarch closely tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin? And speaking of those close ties, there’s Rex Tillerson, Trump’s brand new secretary of state, who did loads of business with Russian oligarchs back when he was CEO of ExxonMobil—and who received an Order of Friendship award from Putin a few years back. Another key member of Trump’s team, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, is also tight with Russia. So much so, he recently was forced to resign when it came out that he violated the law by reassuring Russia that Obama-administration sanctions for tampering with the U.S. presidential election—Russian tampering designed to help Trump win—would be lifted once Trump took office. See a pattern yet?
And that doesn’t even take into account the unsettling bromance between Trump and Putin, which may be as innocent as a mutual-admiration society of fellow authoritarian oligarchs. Or as dark as a shared desire to mess with the world order and move America away from constitutional democracy. Maybe the roots of that oddly strong relationship—which upends the cornerstone of Republican foreign policy since the Cold War—is shared financial interests. It’s hard to tell, though it might be easier if Trump released his tax returns. Or maybe those roots are as lurid as the former MI6 agent’s allegations of a Russian blackmail plot involving Moscow prostitutes, “gold,” and Trump’s allegedly very literal desire to soil the Obama legacy. Bizarre as that last one sounds, you have to admit, it seems very Trumpian, no?
Things are so bad in America that for some of us, the best we can hope for is a constitutional crisis that will eventually boot Comrade Trump out of office (I hear Siberia is lovely this time of year). But until that happens, we have to live with the ever-fresh shock that the reins of U.S. power—hence, the lives of billions of people—are in the diminutive hands of an unstable, vindictive simpleton.
Yes, simpleton. Granted, some people (no one more than the man himself) think Trump is smart. But judging by his 4th-grade vocabulary, apparent difficulty with reading, impossibly dopey and often contradictory policy statements, and his execrable taste, I think Trump is remarkably—definingly—dim.
America entertained the idea of a simpleton president back in the 1970s with Being There, Jerzy Kosinski’s popular satirical novel (and the subsequent film with Peter Sellers). In the book and movie, Chance the gardener becomes a presidential advisor (and likely, his successor) when some mistake his banal observations for profundities. Sound familiar? But in the fictional world of Being There, Chance is a benign, almost Christ-like character. His real-life counterpart is far more malignant.
Tuned In Yet Out of Touch
Like Chance, most of what Donald Trump knows of the world comes from TV. Trump’s relationship with television is consuming—he’s actually been known to fire off tweets on policy based on reports he’d just seen on Fox News. As the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah observed: “That is insane. The commander-in-chief gets his intelligence from the same place your racist grandpa does.”
And Trump’s intense relationship with television is colored by his hazy, almost magical, thinking. He’s a reality-TV star who seems to think that reality can be changed by simply flipping the channel. For instance, in his first TV interview as president, Trump seemed deluded and genuinely pained when he asserted that the disastrously inappropriate speech he gave to the CIA on his first day in office wasn’t the fiasco the media (and the former CIA director, and pretty much anyone who saw it) made it out to be. “Turn on Fox and see how it was covered,” Trump urged the puzzled ABC News interviewer. “That speech was a home run. We see what Fox said.” He went on to call the coverage from the non-Fox television networks "very unfortunate." Just a week into office, and Trump was already menacing the press like a seasoned dictator.
Trump seems not to understand something as basic as the existence of verifiable, irrefutable facts (and their pesky counterparts, statistics; transcripts; and the audio, video, and photographic evidence of all the things he insists just aren’t so—from the smallish crowd at his inauguration to global warming). So it’s really no wonder he can’t get his head around more complex subjects, like the importance of a free press, not to mention the checks and balances written into the U.S. Constitution.
But at least at this stage in his would-be dictatorship, the fact that Trump doesn’t believe in things doesn’t make them not exist. For instance, the government’s judiciary branch has put a damper on Trump’s most outrageous action so far, a ban on Syrian refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries—purportedly to keep America safe, despite the fact that no one from any of those nations has carried out a terrorist act in the U.S.
As of this writing, the Trump administration has demurred on taking his morally and legally flawed executive order to the Supreme Court. I’ll wager that’s only because his advisors told Trump (who likely couldn’t figure it out himself) that given the fact that the current eight-justice Supreme Court is divided 4-4 along ideological lines, that appeal would likely result in a tie. And a Supreme Court tie would leave the Ninth Circuit’s halt on his immigration ban standing.
Instead, Trump, Steve Bannon, and the other flying monkeys in his administration will wreak their scapegoating, terrorist-baiting havoc in other ways. They’ll come up with workarounds like changing the wording to create a “new and improved” Muslim-immigration ban, or wait until Trump’s had an opportunity to add a fifth right-leaning judge to the court.
Yes, a single appointment stands between a Supreme Court that might temper Trump’s excesses to one that’s likely to enshrine them. That’s how fragile America’s vaunted checks-and-balances system is right now. At the moment, the judicial dam is holding, but who knows how long that will last.
We’re in even worse shape when it comes to what’s supposed to be the other constitutional check on presidential overreach: the legislative branch of government. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are firmly in the grasp of the Republican Party, which Trump is ostensibly a member of—although in truth, he and the Republican establishment are merely using one another to advance their own agendas.
What’s the Republican majority doing while President Nero starts fires all around the country and the world? Well, for starters, they’re moving to rescind legislation passed after the Virginia Tech massacre. Yes, you have that right: They want to restore the “right” of the mentally impaired to own guns. Talk about a noble cause. They’re also tirelessly stripping away environmental and consumer protections. But it’s not all about fulfilling the long-cherished Republican dream of shrinking government “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” as Grover Norquist put it. Sometimes Republicans legislators are all about making government bigger, especially when it comes to ramping up on laws limiting women’s reproductive autonomy and increasing military spending (despite the fact that as President Obama pointed out, the U.S. currently spends more on its military than the next eight nations combined).
Since he’s their Frankenstein monster, it’s important to hold Republicans responsible for Trump, but I'm not sure it’s actually possible to shame them into reining him in. Even if Trump were sacrificing newborns to Baal, I bet Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and other party leaders would just swallow hard, call it “unorthodox,” and get back to the hard slog of stripping away Obamacare.
Alternative Facts for an Alternate Universe
One of the indications that America is in danger of succumbing to an authoritarian alternate reality is the fact that even though much of the media presents daily proof that Trump is lying, deluded, or just plain wrong, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. Yes, those of us who read The New York Times and the Washington Post absorb and sometimes react to that information, but after awhile, it’s just deadening. And any actual facts that contradict the new regime’s make-believe will inevitably be dismissed as “fake news” by Trump and those who support him. They believe what they want to believe—and they know where to go to hear it.
It’s alarming how nakedly and consistently Trump and his minions promote skewed “alternative news” sources like Fox News, Breitbart, and other favorites of conservative crackpots. In his briefings, Press Secretary Sean Spicer often passes over more reputable news organizations to give right-wing media extra airtime—and, he surely hopes, extra credibility.
More traditional media outlets like the venerable Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which bends over backwards to be even-handed and genteel, are having a hard time adjusting to the mendacity and aggression that the Trump administration is doing its damnedest to make the new normal. PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff, who’s blended graciousness with steel through decades of interviews, recently struggled to maintain order—and her PBS gentility—as she attempted to get a word in edgewise with 55-lies-per-minute Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway. It made me want to weep for PBS (which, of course, the Republicans want to cut funding for—because who needs balanced news sources when, as our president keeps reminding us, we should all be tuned into Fox News?).
Historian and author Timothy Snyder warns that Trump’s primary goals are “a permanent kleptocratic authoritarianism and immediate personal gratification” and says that we have a year, or maybe less, to stop him from achieving those twin objectives. In Snyder’s view, Trump wants to take us back in time to undo the progressive reforms that originated in the 1940s with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.
That’s basically the storyline of Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, which explores what might have happened if Charles Lindberg, not FDR, had won the 1940 presidential election. When asked about that book recently, Roth said, “It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary president like Charles Lindbergh than an actual president like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance…Trump is just a con artist.”
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: Truth is not only stranger than fiction—it’s worse.
Yep, he really said it. At precisely 4:30 a.m. one morning last December, then President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that China’s seizure of a U.S. drone was an “unpresidented“ act. He meant “unprecedented,” of course—though the slip was a chilling foretaste of what was to come. On January 20, 2017, America did indeed become unpresidented.
On that literally dark day (it started raining the moment Trump mounted the podium to address the modest crowd assembled for his inauguration), the country traded a rational, eloquent cool-customer of a leader for an irrational, nonsense-spewing hothead. If you weren’t already certain of that, you only had to listen to Trump’s inaugural address: a resentment-raising, fear-mongering masterpiece that will go down in history as the “American carnage” speech.
It is my fervent hope that Trump’s reign won’t become the American carnage (or global carnage) presidency. But from his unqualified, unhinged (and seemingly, unsouled) cabinet picks to Trump’s flailing but persistent attacks on the judiciary, the media, immigrants, refugees, department stores, and Saturday Night Live, the signs are not propitious.
N.B: I lifted the subhead above from a sign I saw at the Woman’s March on Washington. For more on that march—and more of those great slogans—go here.
Previously published as ‘Nyet My President’ in Maria’s monthly SPOTLIGHT column in The Wild Word magazine. www.thewildword.com
For more great Wild Word essays see:
My Awakening at Standing Rock by Sarah Drumm
Why Trump Supporters Must Begin America’s Healing by Reverend Rachel Kessler
Surviving a Long Winter with Kids by Jami Ingledue