Tag Archives: Trump

The Cult Is Armed

Last week, Politico ran an interview with a scholar of autocracy.You really–really–need to click through and read it in its entirety, because I lack the space and ability to offer a coherent synopsis.

The scholar, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, had made accurate predictions about Trump’s likely refusal to concede his 2020 defeat, and she made them well in advance of the election. During the course of the interview, she made several other penetrating observations. Among them: the likely permanence of the changes Trump has effected to the GOP. She says that his sway over the party has permanently transformed its political culture, changing it to an authoritarian party in which you don’t only go after external enemies, but also after internal ones. Authoritarian parties don’t allow dissent

When somebody like Trump comes on the scene and holds office, it’s really like an earthquake or a volcano, and it shakes up the whole system by gathering in this big tent all the extremists, all the far-right people, and giving them legitimation. The GOP was already going away from a democratic political culture, but he accelerated it and normalized extremism and normalized lawlessness. And so the GOP over these years has truly, in my estimation, become an authoritarian far-right party. And the other big story is that his agenda and his methods are being continued at the state level. Some of these things were on the agenda way before he came in, like getting rid of abortion rights and stuff like that. But these states are really laboratories of autocracy now, like Florida, Texas.

Ben-Ghiat made a particularly important point about a favorite Republican talking point that she noted is a time-honored strategy of right-wing authoritarianism. Authoritarians like to label democratic systems as tyrannical. (Psychiatrists might call that projection.) According to Ben-Ghiat, Mussolini was the first to make the accusation that democracies are tyrannical, democracies are the problem. That introduced a whole century’s worth of the strategy of calling sitting Democrats dictators. “Biden as a social dictator, [is] a phony talking point. It has so many articulations from “They’re forcing us to wear masks.”

Her observations about the “Big Lie” were equally interesting, especially for those of us who have read psychological profiles of Trump.

The genius of the “big lie” was not only that it sparked a movement that ended up with January 6 to physically allow him to stay in office. But psychologically the “big lie” was very important because it prevented his propagandized followers from having to reckon with the fact that he lost. And it maintains him as their hero, as their winner, as the invincible Trump, but also as the wronged Trump, the victim. Victimhood is extremely important for all autocrats. They always have to be the biggest victim.

There are several other points in the interview worth pondering, especially her acute observations about Ron DeSantis, but the one that really struck home with me was her response to the question whether the U.S. faces a civil war. She began by saying that she thought it unlikely.

But then she made a point I’d not previously considered.

I think that it’s not out of the realm of possibility, because if the Republicans tried to impeach Biden and impeach Harris, there would be protests. Whether that becomes a civil war is very different because it’s predominantly only one side which is armed, first of all….

The wild card is guns. No other country in peace time has 400 million guns in private hands. And no other country in peacetime has militias allowed to populate, has sovereign sheriffs, has so many extremists in the military, and that matters because of these other things. And in fact, if January 6 didn’t bring out a massive protest, what is going to bring out a massive protest? Because that showed that groups of people who were there were people unaffiliated with any Proud Boys or any radical group. And Robert Pape, who studied them, called them middle-aged, middle class, but they were all armed. Some of them had private arsenals and they showed up at January 6. So that’s the wild card. That’s one thing that’s extremely American, that violence, that the population believes it has the right to rebel against tyrannical government. Like Matt Gaetz says: The Second Amendment is not just about hunting. And here we go back to the idea of Biden as a dictator. And that only works if your citizenry is armed and ours is to a degree that no other country is in the entire world.

The insanity of America’s gun culture has been evident for a long time. What hasn’t been evident is the fact that “only one side is armed.”

Read the whole interview.



An Explanation That (Unfortunately)Makes Sense

As the Republican Party has morphed from a traditional political party into a White Christian Nationalist cult, pundits and academics have spent a lot of time studying the “base”–the GOP voters who have embraced the radicalization–and have developed a variety of theories about why so many “average Americans” have succumbed to its appeal. (Most of the research projects have come to the same conclusion I have: it’s pretty much all grounded in racism.)

Much less time and attention has been directed toward analyses of the conservative intellectuals whose theories of society were protective of tradition and who proposed policies justified by those theories. A few of them–especially those who were also political strategists–have been horrified by what the GOP has become, and departed, but most have embraced the mob dynamic.

The question is, why? Surely they are bright enough to see how destructive–even nihilistic– today’s GOP has become.

A recent essay by Damon Linker in The Week explored that phenomenon.Linker was once a part of that conservative intelligencia, working for four years at First Things.

Much has been written about the transformation of the GOP over the past several years from the party of Ronald Reagan to the party of Donald Trump and his populist imitators. But at the same time a parallel change has been taking place among conservative intellectuals.

This evolution of ideas and temperament has been catalyzed by the political shift to Trumpian politics, but it isn’t reducible to that change. Ideas, like psychological dispositions, shift according to their own logic. What we have been witnessing among growing numbers of conservative thinkers is a process of self-radicalization driven by the interaction of political events with prior ideological assumptions and moods.

Linker says that what he terms “self-radicalization” has been triggered by hope.

As he explains, during the George W. Bush Presidency, when the intellectuals within the First Things community met  to discuss the state of the country and the world, those meetings regularly “devolved into a cry of cultural despair, even though a friend and ally was then ensconced in the White House.”

That’s because the people in the room were profoundly alienated from the moral, cultural, and spiritual drift of contemporary American life, and they didn’t expect that to change. They supported the Bush administration and were willing to provide a public defense of its policy agenda. But in private they doubted any of it would fundamentally change the most troubling trends unfolding around them. Abortion would remain legal. Homosexuality would keep being normalized and even celebrated. Pornography would continue to permeate the culture. Euthanasia would become more widely accepted. Secularism would persist in its march through the country and its institutions.

According to Linker, despair has generally been the default disposition of these opponents of  cultural, moral, and political change. Despite the arguments  they marshaled against such changes, most (at least according to Linker) doubted they would be able to stem the tide. They fully expected to lose the fight for the culture.

By the time Trump burst on the scene in the summer of 2015, the traditionalist right had nearly given in to outright despair, even in public, with many moving into a purely defensive position. No longer hoping to reverse the direction of the culture, they now hoped they might merely receive modest federal protection from persecution at the hands of emboldened secular liberals.

Their embrace of someone like Trump might seem strange for defenders of “moral purity,” but Linker explains. They might not win the culture war, but in Trump, they saw someone who could tear down “the administrative state” and destroy government’s power to enforce liberal rules and regulations. He could rally popular opposition to “the reigning consensus of bending history toward justice defined in liberal-progressive terms.”

Trump or a populist successor “could at long last give conservatives their chance — not by slowing an inevitable march to the secular left but by razing the liberal edifice altogether, making it possible to found society anew on properly conservative foundations.”

In other words, if you can’t change it, destroy it.

Linker’s final paragraphs are chilling.

What comes next for these conservative intellectuals? Are they prepared to offer unconditional support for another Trump run for the White House, despite his treacherous words and deeds during the two months following the 2020 election? Are there any lies from the candidate or potentially reinstated president that would prove to be deal-breakers? Any acts or policies that would be considered a bridge too far? Or would they be willing to countenance just about anything in return for a presidential promise to crush the infamous enemy, the liberal-progressive regime that currently governs America?

We will learn the answers to these ominous questions soon enough.


it Always Comes Back To Racism…

Let me begin today’s discussion with a disclaimer: I’m fully aware that–at least in the context of public policy and governance–nothing is simple and linear. When it comes to humankind’s longstanding bigotries, for example, there’s ample evidence that they come to the surface more forcefully in times of economic downturn and/or unease, and can be triggered by recognition of demographic change.

But that said, there is also a veritable mountain of research confirming that today’s civil discord is primarily grounded in racism. We may not be having a “hot” civil war, but it is abundantly clear that the most prominent and damaging elements of our current dysfunctions are rooted in the same moral sickness that prompted the original one.

Recently, Thomas Edsall surveyed some of that evidence for the New York Times. Here’s his lede

Why is Donald Trump’s big lie so hard to discredit?

This has been a live question for more than a year, but inside it lies another: Do Republican officials and voters actually believe Trump’s claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election by corrupting ballots — the same ballots that put so many Republicans in office — and if they do believe it, what are their motives?

A December 2021 University of Massachusetts-Amherst survey found striking links between attitudes on race and immigration and disbelief in the integrity of the 2020 election.

Surveys have found that 66 percent of self-identified Republicans agreed with the statement that “the growth of the number of immigrants to the U.S. means that America is in danger of losing its culture and identity.”  (I have actually been amused–in a “black humor” sort of way–by the GOP’s recent laments about the dearth of workers, especially in the hospitality and food industries. They seem utterly clueless to the rather obvious link between severely depressed immigration numbers and the “inexplicable” lack of people willing to pick crops and be restaurant servers. But I digress.)

Edsall shared the following paragraph from an essay by four political scientists, further emphasizing the link between racial attitudes and unfounded beliefs.

Divisions over racial equality were closely related to perceptions of the 2020 presidential election and the Capitol attack. For example, among those who agreed that white people in the United States have advantages based on the color of their skin, 87 percent believed that Joe Biden’s victory was legitimate; among neutrals, 44 percent believed it was legitimate; and among those who disagreed, only 21 percent believed it was legitimate. Seventy percent of people who agreed that white people enjoy advantages considered the events of Jan. 6 to be an insurrection; 26 percent of neutrals described it that way; and only 10 percent who disagreed did so, while 80 percent of this last group called it a protest. And while 70 percent of those who agreed that white people enjoy advantages blamed Trump for the events of Jan. 6, only 34 percent of neutrals did, and a mere 9 percent of those who disagreed did.

In his column, Edsall traced the scholarly dispute between researchers who believe that poll respondents claiming to believe The Big Lie really do know better, and are using their purported agreement as a way of signaling that they are part of the tribe/cult, and those who think these respondents have actually imbibed the Kool Aid. He also quotes Isabell Sawhill of The Brookings Institution, who suggests that there is a dynamic at work here– that what was originally an “opportunistic strategy to please the Trump base” has had the effect of solidifing that base.

It’s a Catch-22. To change the direction of the country requires staying in power, but staying in power requires satisfying a public, a large share of whom has lost faith in our institutions, including the mainstream media and the democratic process.

In response to an inquiry from Edsall, Paul Begala wrote

Trump lives by Machiavelli’s famous maxim that fear is a better foundation for loyalty than love. G.O.P. senators don’t fear Trump personally; they fear his followers. Republican politicians are so cowed by Trump’s supporters, you can almost hear them moo.

Elected officials who know better may lack both the backbone and integrity to oppose the party’s Trumpist base, but–as a professor from MIT pointed out–there’s a reason the base loves Trump, and it’s simple: racial animus and Christian millennialism.

No wonder they engage in an unremitting culture war.

As a sociologist at N.Y.U. described our current, dangerous political dynamic: “In capturing the party, Trump perfectly embodied its ethno-nationalist and authoritarian tendencies.”

I guess labeling the GOP as “ethno-nationalist” is nicer than calling it out as irredeemably racist. But it means the same thing.


America’s TASS

Remember TASS? It was the media arm of the Soviet Government–the Russian News Agency, owned and operated by the government. 

Fox News–or as those of us resistant to its messaging like to call it, “Faux News”–isn’t technically owned by the GOP. But it might just as well be; it is the not-so-unofficial arm of the radical lunatics who are now fully in control of a once-reputable political party. This assertion doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone outside the cult, but recent revelations are, if anything, more troubling.

Not just troubling, actually–horrifying.

As The Washington Post and other media outlets have reported, the wacko pundits of Fox had arguably more influence over Trump than members of his official cabinet (not that those cabinet members had been plucked from the gardens of competence…). New revelations from books written by former staffers are eye-opening.

Stephanie Grisham, former press secretary to President Donald Trump, remembers the challenges that came from so many Fox News hosts having the direct number to reach Trump in the White House residence.
“There were times the president would come down the next morning and say, ‘Well, Sean thinks we should do this,’ or, ‘Judge Jeanine thinks we should do this,’ ” said Grisham, referring to Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, both of whom host prime-time Fox News shows.

Grisham — who resigned from the White House amid the Jan. 6 attacks and has since written a book critical of Trump — said West Wing staffers would simply roll their eyes in frustration as they scrambled to respond to the influence of the network’s hosts, who weighed in on everything from personnel to messaging strategy.
Trump’s staff, allies and even adversaries were long accustomed to playing to an “Audience of One” — a commander in chief with a twitchy TiVo finger and obsessed with cable news.

Investigations into the insurrection have uncovered text messages that illustrate just how closely these unelected, unhinged ideologues were connected to the White House during Trump’s Presidency.

As the violence in the Capitol was occurring, several Fox News hosts sent texts to former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, texts that, as the Post reports, “crystallize with new specificity just how tightly Fox News and the White House were entwined during the Trump years, with many of the network’s top hosts serving as a cable cabinet of unofficial advisers.”

A former senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid details of private discussions, said Trump would also sometimes dial Hannity and Lou Dobbs — whose Fox Business show was canceled in February — into Oval Office staff meetings.

A report from The Week also reported the extent to which Trump relied on Fox pundits for policy decisions.

Alyssa Farah, a Trump White House communications director, said the goal of Trump’s staff was to “try to get ahead of what advice you thought he was going to be given by these people,” because their unofficial counsel “could completely change his mind on something.” 

Farah said Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Pirro, and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs had the most influence on Trump. Michael Pillsbury, an informal Trump adviser, told the Posthe saw the biggest impact from Dobbs, whose show was canceled last February. Trump began embracing lawyer Sidney Powell and other election fabulists after watching them on Dobbs’ show, and he was inclined to believe their patently false claims in part because he was seeing on TV, he added. 

“It taught me the power of the young producers at Fox, and Fox Business especially,” Pillsbury told the Post. “These young producers who are in their mid-20s. They come out of the conservative movement, they’ve never been in the government. They are presented with these reckless, fantastical accounts. And they believe them and put them on for ratings.”

During the four years of the Trump Administration, sane Americans frequently felt we were living in “never-never land”–that what we were witnessing was just too bizarre to be real. (According to multiple reports, our allies shared that level of disbelief.)

I guess when you inhabit a culture that puts a premium on click-bait, a culture that equates celebrity with merit, wealth with competence (remember that wonderful line from “If I Were A Rich Man”? “When you’re rich, they think you really know…”) and dismisses expertise and knowledge as “elitist,” you lose your anchor to reality.

To the best of my knowledge, even TASS never sank to the level of a Lou Dobbs or Tucker Carlson.



The Emerging Story Of January 6th

Like many people who read this blog, I receive the daily Substack newsletters issued by Heather Cox Richardson. They are always informative, but Richardson is especially good at two things: concisely summarizing important news, and providing historical context for it.

Her October 31st newsletter focused on in-depth reporting from The Washington Post–and did so in a way that illuminated the importance of that reporting.

The Post’s report was a “deep dive” into January 6th–the events leading up to the insurrection, an in-depth description of that event, and the machinations that followed it. It involved a team of 75, including more than 25 reporters;  they “reviewed video and court transcripts, followed social media posts, and interviewed more than 230 people.” The report, which can be found in its entirety here, concluded that Trump was to blame.

It also uncovered what I can only call an “intentionality” that surprised me.

Like most of my friends, I have blamed Trump for the uprising, but not in the intentional, purposeful, planned way disclosed by the Post’s investigation. His presidency was so inept, his lack of intellect and discipline so pronounced, his complete ignorance of the way government worked so debilitating, that it simply never occurred to me that he might be capable of actually planning a coup. Riling up his supporters, sure–egging them on, sure. Taking satisfaction from the mob’s “acting out,” absolutely. But deliberately engaging in planning to overturn an election seemed beyond his limited abilities.

Evidently, I was wrong. (That has been happening a lot…) As Richardson summarized,

The report concludes: “Trump was the driving force at every turn as he orchestrated what would become an attempted political coup in the months leading up to Jan. 6, calling his supporters to Washington, encouraging the mob to march on the Capitol and freezing in place key federal agencies whose job it was to investigate and stop threats to national security.” It notes that the former president did not make any effort to stop the attacks until it was clear they wouldn’t succeed, and that lawmakers assumed he was backing the rioters….

The Washington Post report places the insurrection into context: “The consequences of that day are still coming into focus, but what is already clear is that the insurrection was not a spontaneous act nor an isolated event. It was a battle in a broader war over the truth and over the future of American democracy,” it says. “Since then, the forces behind the attack remain potent and growing.”

There is much more detail in the linked Letter, and it is chilling; I encourage you to click through and read it.

Although the Letter didn’t address it, I think these new revelations explain something I’ve been unable to understand: the persistence of Trump’s repetition of, and his base’s professed belief in, The Big Lie.  Given the utter lack of any probative evidence of voter fraud or other “rigging,” why the constant insistence that Trump “really” won an election he clearly lost by over 8 million votes?

Here’s my theory: If someone is mounting a coup–especially in a country with a historical commitment to democracy and majority rule–the question of legitimacy looms large. Had Trump been successful (or if he ultimately succeeds in reclaiming the White House) think how much better–how much more self-serving and legitimizing–it would be to claim that he is being “restored” to a position to which he was really entitled.

The effort on January 6th to subvert a democratic election failed, but we aren’t out of the woods by a long shot. A frightening number of our fellow-Americans have imbibed the Kool Ade and joined this cult, aided and abetted by a pretty sophisticated disinformation industry. Worse, most of the rest of us continue to discount the clear and present danger they pose. We continue to believe that coups happen elsewhere.

The Washington Post concluded that America is in a fight for the survival of democracy. We need to listen, because it can happen here.

On January 6th, it almost did.