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Rights + Justice

America after Trump

He is the symptom, not the disease that runs deep and dire.

Michael Harris 14 Jan

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. His investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

The impeachment of Donald J. Trump for a second time was necessary. But it would be foolish to imagine our powerful and dangerously wounded neighbour to the south is on the mend.

With roaming bands of domestic terrorists on Capitol Hill out to hang Mike Pence, assassinate Nancy Pelosi, and hunt down other elected legislators, there is no argument that something needs fixing in America.

That is especially true if the FBI confirms that police or even members of the House of Representatives helped the rioters.

A lot of people have argued that the process of healing will begin the day Trump is no longer in the White House.

Surely with all three branches of the federal government in Democratic hands, the lying, hate-mongering, scapegoating, misogyny and race-baiting will end.

Surely Joe Biden won’t monetize the presidency, obstruct Congress, trample on democracy, rig the judiciary and demonize the media as Trump did for years and continues to do.

Many are even hopeful that with the end of a president who shows every sign of being a narcissistic psychopath, the sickness at the heart of U.S. politics has been plucked out.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Symptom, not source

Trump is doubtless the worst president the U.S. has ever had, but he is the symptom of what is wrong with the country, not the disease. This scammer’s ascent to power, and his ability to survive in office despite his tawdry antics, were not based on changing anything.

The secret to Trump’s unlikely political success is that he recognized certain things that were already there in his supporters. He merely reflected those things back from the stage of big-time politics. By doing that, he legitimized the simmering, irrational rage in his “basket of deplorables” on a range of issues, from immigration to race relations.

It worked.

Suddenly it was okay to hate Mexicans. It was okay to lock up children in cages. It was okay to call women pigs. It was okay to cozy up to dictators. It was okay to hate Cuba all over again. And most importantly, it was okay to lie non-stop from the Oval Office. For four destructive, scandal-ridden years Trump managed to manipulate and dominate U.S. politics, because this was all somehow popular with a lot of Americans.

The president also realized that millions of Americans danced around the golden calf of fame. So a New York flim-flam man, who self-describes as the King of Debt, was able to parlay his role as a TV reality-show host into the highest office in the land. Not a bad trick for someone with zero governing experience and a resume that featured a trail of bankruptcies, lawsuits and scandals.

Just as he made clear on the Access Hollywood tapes, Trump was able to grab a country by the privates and get away with it, because it had come to worship people like him. That’s why Cadet Bone-Spur famously said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. His base was unshakeable because it was utterly unprincipled. Instead, it was deeply aggrieved and eager to unleash a primal scream. The president obliged.

His unorthodox insights into the country ran deeper. Trump recognized a crisis in American values and exploited it. Democracy had somehow morphed into plutocracy. A person’s worth was their net worth, full stop. Well, with a little hero worship left over for the fame factor. The worst fate in the country was to be poor in America. Early in his presidency, while choosing his cabinet, which featured a number of Wall Street billionaires, Trump said that he didn’t want a “poor person” in an economic portfolio.

There was also a big hate dividend in Trump’s new politics for trashing “elites.” That came down to dismissing anyone who could see a nuance in an argument, or had a fact that contradicted conservative ideology or the demagogue himself. That is about as far as one can get from Lincoln’s better angels of human nature.

The imperial presidency

Trump realized too that America’s mindless adulation of the presidency itself was a ticket to ride on the dark side.

Americans have long forgotten a touchstone of democracy; the office never sanctifies the man.

When Richard Nixon was trying to deflect his own illegal activities in Watergate, he opined that if the president did it, then it was not a crime. Trump carried Nixon’s constitutional apostasy a step further. Even if the president did it, he could not be prosecuted. According to a chorus of legal sycophants, including former attorney general Bill Barr, the president was above the law because, in a way, he was the law. Like it is in Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

That’s why Trump’s long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen went to jail over arranging hush money to keep Trump sex scandals out of the news, while Trump remains an unindicted co-conspirator. The medieval conclusion of the justice department is that a sitting president can’t be indicted. There is, apparently, a divine right of immunity for political monarchs, and King Donald the First has played it to the hilt.

How far has this absurdity, which was first tossed off by Trump at a political rally in Iowa, been carried? In 2019, Trump lawyer William Consovoy argued in a federal Appeals Court in New York City that the president didn’t have to respond to a subpoena from investigators in seeking his long-promised but never delivered tax returns.

Why? Because even if he murdered someone on Fifth Avenue, Consovoy told presiding Judge Denny Chin, Trump couldn’t even be “investigated” while serving as president. An outrageous Trump boast had become a legal defence in a real courtroom.


Having wrapped himself in the aura of office, and effectively been given immunity from everything, Trump proceeded to Make America Racist again. While the country was in the grip of a spate of police shootings of Black Americans, the president talked about the “good people” on “both sides” in the wake of the torch-lit march of white supremacists in Charlottesville.

His dog-whistle bigotry was just getting started. While millions of Americans recoiled in horror at the heinous police murder of George Floyd, Trump focused on the excesses of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Proud Boys loved it, and so did a lot of other closet racists who had once been silenced by simple common decency, which they conceive of as political correctness. The people in the shadows finally had their man.

But Trump’s greatest political instinct was his perception that in contemporary American politics only the winner gets to smoke the real cigar. And, as it turned out, a surprisingly long list of people would do anything to take a puff, including GOP heavyweight, Mitch McConnell. As majority leader in the Senate, he did more dirty work for Trump than the gardeners at Mar-a-Lago.

A party that sold its soul

It pays to remember something. All Trump had on offer when he ran for the leadership of the Republican party was the promise of victory. The GOP was so hungry for power, it overlooked everything about Trump — from his degrading treatment of women, to his bogus claim that the only way he could lose the party’s presidential nomination was if the whole process was fixed. They wanted that real cigar, and he handed it to them. But the price of “winning” was enormous.

The GOP had to side with the president after his 2016 victory; even after every U.S. intelligence agency in the land, as well as special prosecutor Robert Mueller, confirmed that Russia had interfered in the presidential election on Trump’s behalf.

Never mind that top Trump officials lied about their dealings with the Russians. Never mind that Russian representatives took part in documented meetings at Trump Tower with some of the president’s family members present.

Trump had kept up his end of the bargain by delivering the White House. Now he owned the GOP the way he did his golf courses and hotels.

So the Republican Senate had to exonerate the president against impeachment charges in 2019, despite tape-recorded conversations of his efforts to withhold already approved military aid to Ukraine — unless President Volodymyr Zelensky dished political dirt on Trump’s presidential rival Biden. It was no longer an abuse of power for a sitting U.S. president to seek foreign assistance against his domestic political rivals by extortion.

Republicans had to sit on their hands as Trump tried to deflect criticism of his serial lying by attacking the U.S. media as the “enemy of the people.” The GOP would go to war over the Second Amendment, but the First could apparently be ignored, unless it was to defend hate speech.

How sick did the war on the media get? After the slaughter of Jamal Khashoggi on the orders of the Saudi government, Trump sided with the prime suspect, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. His GOP caucus had watched him do the Sword Dance with the Saudis and remained silent. A resident of the U.S. and a Washington Post columnist hideously slaughtered meant zero to Donald Trump.

The GOP also had to look the other way while Trump carried out an orgy of nepotism at the White House, hiring his daughter and son-in-law as senior advisors. Between the two of them, they didn’t have the knowledge or the experience to advise a small-town mayor, let alone the most powerful political leader in the world.

The biggest Big Lie

Things got worse after Trump’s Nov. 3 trouncing at the hands of Biden. Devoid of any evidence, the GOP rallied around Trump’s Big Lie that there had been widespread election fraud, and that the contest had been stolen by the Democrats. There was more evidence that the Earth was flat, but a power-hungry GOP baselessly challenged the legitimacy of Biden’s victory anyway.

Even after Trump probably broke the law weeks after losing the election, by asking the Secretary of State of Georgia to find him 11,780 votes, the precise number it would take to win the state from Biden, the vast majority of Republican elected officials found other things to talk about. It was one thing for Rudy Giuliani or Lindsey Graham to pressure electoral issues. But when the person occupying the Oval Office does it, you have a mob boss, not a president.

And the GOP had to watch in cringeworthy silence, as Trump used his powers to offer presidential pardons to convicted felons like his former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and three former disgraced GOP House Representatives, including one, Steve Stockman of Texas, serving a 10-year sentence for fraud and money-laundering.

No sun in sight

For those who think the darkness is giving way to an inevitable dawn in America because Trump lost the presidency in November, and is now impeached for a second time, consider these facts:

According to Gallup’s annual survey, Trump was voted the Most Admired Man in America in 2020, beating out Barack Obama. This despite being impeached and failing miserably to contain the pandemic in America, where nearly 400,000 people have perished.

Trump got nearly 75 million votes in 2020, 10 million more than he received in 2016, including 200,000 new supporters in South Florida.

The president increased his support amongst white, working-class voters and chalked up the highest share of non-white votes for a Republican in 60 years.

Trump won 32 per cent of Latinx votes.

According to a Politico/morning consult poll, 70 per cent of Republicans bought Trump’s Biggest Lie that the 2020 election was neither free nor fair.

And here’s the clincher.

On the very day of the infamous insurrection on Capitol Hill that killed five, disrupted the constitutional business of government, and made America look like a banana republic on the brink, Trump received the support of 147 Republican representatives and senators in a no-evidence challenge of Biden’s presidential victory.

That does not sound much like a redemption song. That sounds like a bugle call to arms in the continuing battle for America’s troubled soul.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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