In this surreal, apocalyptic moment, when the best investigative reporter covering the David Koresh-style death cult in the White House is 16-year-old Claudia Conway on her TikTok account, spilling as she struggles to keep her Trump-zombie mother at bay, it is time to take stock of America.
Heavily armed terrorists plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan while President Donald Trump, sick with Covid-19 and probably high on a cocktail of steroids and experimental drugs, tries to shift the blame to her. The president of the United States calls American soldiers who died in war “losers and suckers.” An anti-abortion zealot who served as a “handmaid” in People of Praise, a splinter group of charismatic Christians, is nominated for the Supreme Court by a man accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women. The nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, is the mask-less guest of honor at a Covid-19 superspreader event in the White House’s Rose Garden and may only be a few Zoom calls away from overturning Roe v. Wade.
This is who we are now.
Four years ago, the nation tumbled down the Trump rabbit hole. We’ve now been lost in the dark so long that it is hard to figure out which way is up. Trump wants to keep us that way: a Tommy-like catatonic nation on the perpetual edge of a psychological breakdown.
Trump’s most dangerous traits are his utter shamelessness and his pathological ability to employ the Big Lie — the autocrat’s weapon. He constantly repeats lies and conspiracy theories, leading the docile press and attention-addled public to talk about them, and thus distracting Americans from his scandalous and possibly criminal actions. He has based his entire presidency on conspiracy theories, flummoxing the mainstream press that has dutifully tried to cover him like a normal president. The most hopeless journalists in Washington are the “fact-checkers” who count Trump’s lies, when it is obvious that nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie. Margaret Sullivan, a media critic for the Washington Post, wrote this month that “the defining media story of this era is mainstream journalism’s refusal to deny Trump a giant megaphone whenever he holds out his hand.”
The most hopeless journalists in Washington are the “fact-checkers” who count Trump’s lies, when nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie.
In the era of social media when no one remembers what happened five minutes ago, let alone five months ago, it is sometimes difficult to realize just how brutal the Trump years have been. It may be jarring to remember, for instance, that Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives just 10 months ago.
But we don’t need to find a Dorian Gray-like portrait hidden away in a White House closet to be reminded of Trump’s viciousness and ugliness. Step away from Twitter and Instagram for a moment, and look back at a few key episodes from just the last year of his presidency, and it becomes obvious how he has poisoned virtually everything he has touched, in both domestic policy and national security.
Nothing Trump has done has been worse than his total abdication of leadership and responsibility during the Covid-19 pandemic. His refusal to take the threat seriously, particularly his aggressive opposition to masks, has led to a new pandemic-era stereotype: the white Trump supporter at Costco who refuses to wear a mask and punches the clerk who asks him to leave.
Trump has turned a simple piece of cloth designed to insulate from a global pandemic into the latest symbol in a roiling culture war. He has damaged the credibility of the once-world-leading Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, placing it in the hands of a director who has faced mounting calls to stand up to political interference.
Instead, CDC Director Robert Redfield has continued to cave to the White House; he angered CDC personnel and outside experts by giving what amounted to a hall pass for Vice President Mike Pence, clearing him to go to this month’s vice presidential debate with Kamala Harris, despite the fact that the White House had become a Covid-19 hot spot. On Monday, the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, said it will investigate complaints that the Trump administration has been politicizing both the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration.
Trump’s lackey, Mike Pompeo, backs the president’s claim that Covid-19 is a Chinese plot; Trump gets Roland Freisler — sorry, I meant to say William Barr — to threaten lawsuits against state governors for their efforts to curb the virus. Trump takes an Eva Perón turn on the White House balcony, dramatically ripping off his mask to emphasize, once again, that he only thinks about his own twisted, grotesque image.
To hide the truth about his pandemic failures, Trump has also gone after the watchdogs assigned to keep his administration accountable for its handling of the pandemic. In April, Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general of the Pentagon, was stripped of his leading role on the panel established to monitor the $2 trillion in coronavirus relief passed by Congress. Christi Grimm, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, was fired in May after issuing a report that highlighted widespread shortages of testing and protective gear in hospitals dealing with the pandemic.
Because Trump has refused to deal responsibly with Covid-19, Americans are treated like pestilential beasts by the rest of the world, barred from traveling to Canada or most of Europe. A U.S. passport, once the envy of the world, is now the mark of a plague-carrier.
Racism was one of Trump’s calling cards during the 2016 campaign, and his racist appeals have only deepened since he was elected. He has gleefully responded to this year’s historic social justice movement with hateful rhetoric, calling out to his racist supporters in front of the entire nation during the first presidential debate when he proclaimed: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
Above all, Trump has responded to the Black Lives Matter protests with a war against social justice, against Blue America, against Democratic cities and states — a strategy designed to please aging white voters in rural Florida and Pennsylvania watching it all on Fox News. He sent militarized agents from the Department of Homeland Security, his new secret police, to anonymously snatch and grab protesters he called “thugs” off the streets of Portland — a move designed not to quell protests but to generate further unrest, so he could exploit it again during the campaign. He had Homeland Security agents spy on protesters in 15 cities with drones, copters and airplanes; had Barr tell prosecutors to use sedition charges against protesters; had Barr threaten to prosecute Seattle’s mayor for not cracking down on protesters as viciously as the president wanted; designated New York, Seattle, and Portland “anarchy jurisdictions” because of social justice protests and threatened to withhold federal funds from those cities.
Trump has complained that removing statues of traitorous Confederates from cities and towns across the South is an attack on “heritage” and vowed to block any effort to change the Confederate names of U.S. military bases. He is now engaged in a last-minute, preelection effort to undermine voting rights and Black political power by having Republican Party lawyers file lawsuits seeking to block expanded voting procedures in the midst of the pandemic, and he has put a political crony in charge of the U.S. Postal Service to try to slow down mail delivery in a perverted attempt to make voting by mail more cumbersome.
Cruelty has been the point of Trump’s ruthless immigration crackdown, separating undocumented asylum-seeking parents from their young children and stuffing the children into cages in migrant detention centers. The Trump administration has continued its brutal immigration policies during this year’s pandemic; government contractors have demanded that migrants and their children eat cups of ice to try to fool the temperature checks they must pass before they can board deportation flights. Trump now threatens “sanctuary cities” by warning he won’t give them coronavirus-related aid if they continue to limit cooperation between local police and federal immigration agents.
The chronic headache of Donald Trump’s presidency has been the conclusive evidence that Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential campaign to help him win, and that Trump and his campaign did all they could to collaborate with Moscow. He sought out more foreign meddling for the 2020 campaign, when he tried to pressure Ukrainian officials to fabricate false evidence against Joe Biden; his corrupt actions on Ukraine finally led to his impeachment in the House.
To distract from these hard truths, Trump and his minions have advanced many lies. They have labeled the entire Trump-Russia investigation a hoax; claimed that the president has been the victim of a “witch hunt” led by special counsel Robert Mueller; claimed that a mythical “deep state” is out to get him; pushed sick conspiracy theories, including that a murdered Democratic staffer, rather than Russian intelligence, was responsible for the hack of Democratic emails and documents; and peddled the audacious lie that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that intervened in the 2016 election, and that the intervention was meant to help Hillary Clinton, not Trump.
Their latest falsehood once again involves Biden, Ukraine, and a laptop mysteriously discovered in a computer repair shop and passed to the New York Post, thanks to Trump crony Rudy Giuliani. The New York Post story was so rancid that at least one reporter refused to put his byline on it. The U.S. intelligence community had previously warned the White House that Giuliani has been the target of a Russian intelligence operation to disseminate disinformation about Biden, and the FBI has been investigating whether the strange story about the Biden laptop is part of a Russian disinformation campaign. This week, a group of former intelligence officials issued a letter saying that the Giuliani laptop story has the classic trademarks of Russian disinformation. (I separated the truth from Trump’s lies about Biden and the Ukraine in a piece last year.)
While Trump foments conspiracy theories, he fires anyone who tries to tell the truth. In February, immediately after he was acquitted in his impeachment trial by the Republican Senate, the president fired Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a staffer on the National Security Council. Both had testified against Trump in the impeachment proceedings in the House. Vindman, who later retired from the Army, was the victim of “a campaign of bullying, intimidation, and retaliation,” by the president, Vindman’s lawyer stated.
In April, Trump also fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community who told Congress that an anonymous CIA whistleblower had filed a complaint about Trump and Ukraine. Atkinson’s warning helped trigger the impeachment proceedings. Like a Soviet dissident on his way to the gulag, Atkinson issued a last-minute plea to whistleblowers in the intelligence community not to give up hope in the face of Trump’s Stalinist purges: “Please do not allow recent events to silence your voices.”
Steve Linick, the State Department’s inspector general, was fired in May while investigating allegations that Secretary of State Pompeo and his wife had asked State Department personnel to run personal errands; he was also probing how Trump unlawfully declared an “emergency” to bypass congressional approval for arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
The only government investigations Trump wants are those of his enemies, so he was happy that the Justice Department inspector general launched an inquiry into the FBI’s investigation of his links to Russia — but furious when the inspector general concluded last December that, despite some errors in the investigation, the FBI had sufficient reason to open the original probe and that FBI officials acted without political bias. To placate the president, Barr had to spin the report’s findings to try to make it look more damning than it was.
Barr also arranged for John Durham, a malleable federal prosecutor, to conduct a special investigation of the intelligence community’s handling of the Trump Russia case. Durham will reportedly not release his findings before the election, almost certainly because he didn’t find much that would excite Trump’s base. (Another Barr special investigation designed to go after Trump’s enemies — into whether Obama administration officials wrongfully “unmasked” the identities of Americans in intelligence reports — has just been abandoned.)
After it became clear that Durham would not issue a report before the election, Trump predictably ranted that Barr has failed to arrest Barack Obama and Joe Biden. But the president has apparently forgotten how much Barr has already done to go after his enemies while protecting him and his friends. One of Barr’s most blatant actions to protect Trump came in September, in the case of E. Jean Carroll, who has sued Trump for defamation for publicly denying that he sexually assaulted her in a New York department story in the 1990s. Barr moved to block her defamation case, mounting the absurd argument that Trump was acting in his official role as president and head of the government when he said he didn’t assault Carroll, adding that “she’s not my type.” That move would allow the Justice Department to substitute the government as the defendant in the case instead of Trump, thereby blocking Carroll’s lawsuit.
In fact, Barr has turned a blind eye to so much corruption and criminality by Trump and his circle that the New York state attorney general’s office has effectively taken the place of the absent Justice Department.
New York Attorney General Letitia James — now the closest thing the country has to a real United States attorney general — filed a lawsuit in August accusing top officials of the National Rifle Association of raiding the group’s funds in a decadeslong pattern of fraud, draining $64 million from the nonprofit in just three years. She is also investigating the Trump Organization, reportedly for improperly inflating the value of its holdings.
Still, the actions of Trump’s acolytes are sometimes so blatant that it is hard even for federal prosecutors to ignore them completely. In August, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and one of his most visible henchmen during his 2016 campaign and the early days of his presidency, was arrested on a Chinese billionaire’s yacht and charged with ripping off millions of dollars from donors in an online fundraising scheme supposedly designed to build a wall on the Mexican border.
While it would be cleansing to get rid of Donald Trump and his cronies, it will not be enough. Regardless of whether Trump wins reelection, the rot at the heart of the Republican Party — particularly its deep-seated racism — is not going away anytime soon. With or without Trump, America is in for a generation-long death match between the supporters of white identity in what is left of the Republican Party and supporters of a more diverse society, primarily Democrats.
Using the Supreme Court, the Senate, and the Electoral College, Trump and the Republican Party are trying to build defenses against changing demographics. Those mechanisms allow the party that controls the right states to retain power, even if that party does not represent a national majority. The Republican Party’s objective is the political hegemony that comes from the strategic control of key states; it helps explain Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s recent tweet, in which he noted that “we’re not a democracy.”
These are the same tools that the southern slavocracy used in the 1850s to try to stop the rising political power of the Northern and Midwestern majority that was starting to turn against slavery. It was the Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott case in 1857 that led to enormous frustration in the North.
But it also led to the rise of Abraham Lincoln.