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Hitler and Trump

By Jon Blake

May 3, 2019

As I was packing three weeks ago for what has become my annual trip back to Oxford for the International Media Law Moot Court Championships in the second week of April, I scanned the overflowing bookshelves beside my bed to look for a book I could read in the nooks and crannies of a hectic and gratifying week-long schedule of events.  What caught my attention was the thinnest most unassuming of the books, a paperback so old and tattered that it had lost its binding.  When I pulled it out, the barely functional front cover read, “The Last Days of Hitler” by Trevor Roper, an historian whose work I had long admired and who, shortly after the end of World War II, Britain had tasked with investigating Hitler’s death, in part to counter rampant rumors that Hitler had escaped and was living in all manner of places plotting his return to power.  I remembered those rumors as a boy.  They were prompted by the fact that Hitler’s remains had not been found at the time Roper wrote his book.  A popular explanation was that the Russian military, which was first on the scene at Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, had found them and secreted them away in Moscow. Stalin had been a major promoter of the idea that Hitler had escaped.  When Stalin died eight years after Hitler’s death, the Russians revealed that since the end of the war they had had the remains of both Eva Braun and Hitler, including Hitler’s jaw.  Based on prewar dental records, it was then definitively proven to be Hitler’s. In the 10th edition of his book, Roper described the unfolding of these facts.

The book, as a physical object, was on its last legs, would not survive until my next opportunity to read it, and was the right length to read throughout the week and most likely on the eight-hour return flight.  I was also certain that it would be relevant to the issue of hate speech, a major theme of the moot court arguments and related discussions and currently a hot, life-or-death issue both in our country and worldwide.

And so I started reading the fragile, browning pages that fell out of the binding as I turned them and fluttered to the floor of the trans-Atlantic flight returning me home a week later.  What leapt at me from the first few pages were the uncanny parallels between the environment in the complex of bunkers in Berlin where Hitler spent the last several weeks before he and Eva Braun, whose existence he had tried to hide from his country for over a decade, committed suicide, and the environment in our nation’s White House.  Hitler was a supreme narcissist, often had temper tantrums when he foamed at the mouth, and humiliated his cabinet ministers, aides, and military commanders and fired them for any suspected disloyalty.  All but one of his circle of closet advisers were toadies, trying desperately to outdo each other in their sycophancy.

For purposes of comparison, recall the cringe-worthy televised Trump cabinet meeting at which each of the members spoke of what they most admired about the president.  Roper refers to Hitler’s closest advisors not as a government but as the court of a 16th century potentate in a small, backward and corrupt Southeast Asian nation.  Another similarity came to me as I listened to the taxi’s radio that drove me home from Dulles Airport after my return flight.  It was reporting on Trump’s purge of the Homeland Security Department, purges being a staple of Hitler’s governance style.

As I progressed more deeply into the text, I also began to notice individual-by-individual parallels between Hitler’s inner circle and Trump’s.  Uninformed by any other source of information inside the cabin of the United Airlines plane, I paired Goebbels with Steven Miller and Bannon; Borman with Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and perhaps Nick Mulvaney; Himmler with Wilbur Ross or Steve Mnuchin; Goering with Giuliani or perhaps Scott Pruitt; Schellenberg, Hitler’s foreign intelligence officer, with John Bolton; and, of course, Hitler with Trump.

My imagination took me one step further.  Could a play be written about Hitler’s last months that highlighted, but not explicitly, the parallels between the overall environment of the two men’s flailing governments and the mentalities of their leading figures?  It occurred to me that several of the figures among Hitler’s closest advisors in the play could be made up to look like their counterparts in the Trump cabinet, without the counterparts being identified by name.  It would be easy, I thought, to make up the actor playing Hitler to look like Trump because of his hair, the Himmler character to look like Wilbur Ross with his tired frog-like appearance, and the Schellenberg character to look like John Bolton, because of his distinctive mustache.

As I read on toward the end of the book, I came to the period beginning a few weeks before his death, when Hitler repeatedly ranted that the German people were not worthy of his heroic leadership and, in a campaign of brutal retribution, actively sought to impose maximum suffering on the German people.  Thus, he gave orders from his bunker to withhold military support for his soldiers and German citizens on the Eastern front in order to let the murderous Russian army penetrate Berlin, rather than the Western allies that generally respected the rules of war contained in the Geneva Convention.  To further explain Hitler’s motivation, Roper quotes from Mein Kampf, which Hitler had written fifteen years earlier, a slogan that defined his mentality as “world dominance or total ruin.”  He had come to the “total ruin” stage.

I found it frighteningly easy to imagine Trump, in a moment of impassioned pique at some failure in his crazy agenda, lashing out at his countrymen and supporters in similarly punitive ways.  In fact, journalists as a group and even individually have been cast in that role since the start of his Administration, and Trump has repeatedly and publicly incited violence against them.  That said, Trump clearly lacks the steely resolve that made Hitler such a powerful leader.  Even Trump’s intense hatred of Muslims and other minorities, though similar to Hitler’s pathological campaign to exterminate Jews, gypsies, and Slavs, is lazier and for show.  There is not much there, there.  In the end, Trump is always the con man and Hitler, the true believer, though both, at their core, were rooted exclusively in themselves—one a buffoon; the other a man monster.

Hitler’s last days were full of dramatic events, e.g., Hitler’s order to kill Goering, Himmler’s betrayal, Hitler’s last-minute decision about who should succeed him after he committed suicide, his last desperate and repeated deployment orders to a German Army division that had been destroyed weeks before he issued those orders, and Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun less than 24 hours before their joint suicides.  Perhaps oddest of all, as Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were being burned in the garden above the bunker to prevent Russian soldiers from desecrating their corpses, the remaining members of Hitler’s entourage in the bunker—from Goebbels, his wife and five children, Bormann, the Iago of the group, and ordinary typists and policemen, broke into festivities, smoked (an indulgence that Hitler had banned) and even danced in the bunker—a reaction that even surprised the participants, both at the time and later when they were interviewed.

Fascinating characters also abound.  For a week or so before Hitler’s suicide, a bizarre young woman who cultivated her reputation as a heroic spy and pilot, stayed in Hitler’s bunker.  Of all the witnesses of the last days’ events in the bunker, she had the most unreliable memory, or perhaps was the most delusional or histrionic.  There was also one man in the inner circle, though not in the bunker, Albert Speer who was clear-eyed from almost the beginning of Hitler’s ascendency about the events, Hitler, and the people surrounding him.  But Speer could not shake off the thrall that Hitler cast over him.  He was executed for war crimes after the Nuremberg trials.

Lastly, of Hitler himself, here are the ruminations of his Finance Minister toward the end, who had been a German Rhodes Scholar before the war:  “It was terrible to hear, that no counsel, no reasoned arguments, no reference to the fearful sufferings of our poor people, can break through those walls which the Fuehrer has erected around his convictions, and behind which he allows nobody to see.  Can it be that there is really nothing there—only the gigantic obstinacy of a deluded spirit, sacrificing all to its self-worshipping Ego?”

In a note to the 10th edition of the book, Roper tries to answer the question why the Germans acceded, with so little resistance, to Hitler’s increasingly volatile, unstable, and destructive leadership.  He observes:  “Dictatorships kill political intelligence in the governed, as well as in the governors.”  I wondered as I read that sentence whether it isn’t after all the best explanation for why Trump’s base is so loyal to him despite all of his crazed actions, policies, and exhortations.

 

Commentary by Terry Bacon

I published this article by Jon Blake in part because he is a well-educated student of history and a keen observer of politics and politicians and in part because other observers of our current political situation have also noted the parallels between Hitler and Trump.  Are the similarities between these two men worrisome enough that we should fear an American rendition of the madness and ultimate destruction of Nazi Germany?  The idea that history repeats itself is an old one.  It’s first recorded use in English was reportedly in 1561, but its most famous expression is from Spanish philosopher George Santayana, who wrote in 1906, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So it behooves us to recognize the ways in which Trump is like Hitler–as well as the ways in which he is not.  The preservation of our democracy may depend on it.

I’ve just finished watching a fascinating documentary on Netflix entitled, “The Dark Charisma Adolf Hitler,” which I would highly recommend.  As I watched it, I kept Jon Blake’s article in mind and noted a number of similarities between Adolf Hitler and our current president:

  1. Hitler ignored or perverted the rule of law and assumed absolute power.  After becoming Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, Hitler asked President von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag (the German equivalent of our Congress).  In the general election that followed, the Nazis received less than fifty percent of the vote, so in March of that year Hitler connived to have Hindenburg sign the Enabling Act, which allowed Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws without the new Reichstag’s involvement or approval.  In circumventing the legislative branch of the German government, Hitler seized sole executive and legislative power, effectively making him a dictator.   Trump cannot dissolve Congress, but he has found ways to circumvent our legislative branch of government when Congress won’t do his bidding.  After Congress wouldn’t fund his wall, Trump took money from other parts of government, mainly the Department of Defense, to fund the wall’s construction.  More recently, he and his administration have been ordering people like Don McGahn, William Barr, and others to ignore Congressional subpeonas.  Trump has extended “Executive Privilege” far beyond its traditional boundaries, and he’s used his power to pardon as a carrot or stick to reward people who are loyal to him or punish those who aren’t or might not be loyal.  Trump has not yet had the audacity to go as far as Hitler did in consolidating executive power, but that clearly is his impulse and desire.  He wants to make unilateral decisions and is frustrated when he can’t.  If he could govern without a legislature (aka Reichstag), he would.  Bear in mind that before he became president, he ran a business empire where he was the sole decision maker, virtually a god.  He doesn’t know any other way to govern.
  2. Hitler used violence against his enemies, killing many of them and sending others to prison or concentration camps.  Trump wishes violence upon his opponents.  He’s done it openly in rallies when he speaks about smashing a reporter or a protester in the face (and offers to pay the legal bills of any of his followers who will do that).  He praised the Montana GOP representative who body slammed a reporter, and he frequently talks tough in extreme ways, as when he said that if Iran went to war against the U.S. Iran would cease to exist.  Trump is a bully through and through and believes in violence as a means to an end.  We are fortunate that he cannot create a private police force like Hitler’s Storm Troopers and the Gestapo–because if he could he would–and thousands of his gun-toting supporters would join.
  3. Hitler took his racism and hatred to a genocidal extreme, ordering the deaths of millions of Jews, gypsies, and other people he considered undesirable.  Trump is also a racist and a misogynist.  His “Make America Great Again” is a euphemism for keeping America white, and his staunchly anti-immigrant position is a thinly veiled attempt to keep brown people out of the country.  He refuses to condemn white supremacist violence (ala Charlottesville) because it would rankle his base and, at his core, he approves of it.  His anti-Democrat, anti-liberal rhetoric is intended to inflame his supporters, and it works.  The instances of thwarted right-wing terrorist attacks against news media and Democratic politicians prove that point.
  4. Hitler reserved all the important decisions to himself, and while the Germans were winning in the early years of WWII they were content to allow him to make unilateral decisions because he considered him flawless.  As Nazi victories came so easily from 1939-1941, many Germans, including high-ranking military officers, thought he was a military genius.  Trump prefers to make all the major decisions by himself, too.  He once said, “I don’t listen to other people, deliberately.”  In a Fox News interview about all the empty positions at the State Department, Trump said, “I’m the only one who matters.”  Like Trump, Hitler was a narcissist and egotist who believed his own delusions about his infallibility and genius.  When the tide inevitably turned against him, he blamed everyone but himself.
  5. Hitler was at his best in large rallies.  He glorified in the adulation of the crowd and gave rousing speeches about the wrongs done to Germany by its enemies, about Germany’s rightful role in the world, and about his grand vision for the future of Germany under his leadership.  Sound familiar?  Trump is truly in his element at his political rallies, staged and orchestrated as they are by his staff, where thousands of MAGA hat-wearing loyalists hold signs with his name on them and clap, cheer, and chortle at his every pronouncement, no matter how false or nonsensical it might be.  Trump is a natural born marketer, and his favorite product is himself.  The glories heaped upon him by adoring crowds feed his ego like no other source of nourishment.   Likewise, Hitler stood proud and complete as throngs of Germans shouted “Sieg, heil!” and raised their right arms in the Nazi salute at pauses in his rousing speeches.
  6. Lastly, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, claimed that Hitler was sent by God to help the German people, and a bastion of the German Christian church not only supported Hitler but carried a version of the Nazi flag with a cross in the center instead of a Swastika.  Similarly, Franklin Graham and televangelist Paula White have opined that Trump was sent by God for the American people, a claim echoed by millionaire Michael Lindell at the recent CPAC.  More disturbing, a Fox News poll found that 25 percent of Americans believe Trump was sent by God.  When you believe that an obviously flawed leader was sent to you by the Almighty, then that person, by definition, can do no wrong.

America is not likely to follow the disastrous path Nazi Germany took, despite these similarities between Hitler and Trump.  Hitler was a powerful orator, and Trump is barely articulate.  Hitler was a powerful enough speaker to enlist the majority of German citizens in his quest for national and racial superiority, and he came to power when the German people were suffering from runaway inflation, depression, starvation, high unemployment, and national humiliation following Germany’s defeat in WWI.  Trump is claiming to make America great again, but most people believe the country was already great.  We aren’t suffering the deprivations the Germans were in the 1920’s and 30’s.  When Trump claims that he’s responsible for everything good in our lives now, including a robust economy, most of us know better, and when he tells us the press and the Democrats enemies of the people, we know he’s just trying to inflame his base.  In the end, I take solace in Jon Blake’s conclusion that Hitler was a true believer and a man monster, whereas Donald Trump is a con man and a buffoon.

I don’t normally quote Karl Marx, but in this case the quote is too apt.  He said, “Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself.  He forgot to add:  the first time as tragedy; the second time as farce.”  Hitler was the tragedy; Trump is the farce.

I’m going to close my commentary, first by thanking Jon Blake for allowing me to publish his article, and second by quoting Teddy Roosevelt:

”Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”

Here is a salute to all true patriots.

 

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How Donald Trump Wins

His Five Strategies for Conning His Constituency

He is a deeply flawed leader–a vain, narcissistic self-promoter; an exemplar of moral turpitude; an absurdly uninformed, undisciplined and inarticulate thinker; a grandiose misfit who can’t

Photo of Donald Trump with one arm raised
Donald Trump with arm raised

tolerate criticism and lashes out at every slight, deriding opponents with schoolyard taunts and blatant misrepresentations.  He is scandalously hostile or indifferent to our closest allies but embraces dictators and tyrants like new-found best friends.  And he lies, so shamelessly and so often that truth is obscured in the chaos of the noise and confusion he creates.

He is our president.

How he won the presidency—and how he maintains a loyal following among a devoted minority of Americans—is a case study in the art and practice of manipulation.  He longs to be incomparable among men, and while he is a deeply flawed leader of our nation he is unquestionably a great flimflam man, perhaps the greatest in history.  Flimflam is the art of fraud and deception, a con game achieved by clever manipulation of victims.  Donald Trump practices this dark art through the accomplished use of five strategies:  ignoring, counterattacking, obfuscating, agreeing (and then disregarding), and minimizing contamination.  He uses these five strategies so predictably that they’ve become behavioral tics, his signature moves for confounding both his allies and his enemies.

Ignoring Controversies

One of Trump’s most frequent strategies, especially in dealing with issues that would derail a normal president, is to ignore the issue long enough for it to die on the vine.  He has done this successfully so far with the Stormy Daniels controversy.  An alleged affair with a porn star is tawdry enough to rank with Bill Clinton’s use of a cigar with Monica Lewinsky, but Trump has simply declined to respond to the allegations with one notable exception—when he lied on Air Force One about not knowing about Michael Cohen’s payments (just days before the election) to Daniels to buy her silence.  But for that one slip, Trump has consistently ignored the Stormy Daniels controversy and allowed his minions to deny the affair and deflect Michael Avenatti’s ongoing attacks.

Photo of Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti
Porn star Stormy Daniels and attorney Michael Avenatti

The Daniels affair has generated ongoing buzz because Avenatti (Daniel’s attorney) has doggedly pursued it in the media, but Trump has been more successful in ignoring his affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal, with whom he had an ongoing relationship after First Lady Melania Trump gave birth to their son.  It is arguably more morally repugnant to have an affair while your wife is nursing a baby than to have a one-time romp with a porn star, but the McDougal affair has faded into the recesses of public memory because McDougal lacks an Avenatti bulldog.

Ignoring his affair with Karen McDougal has worked beautifully for Trump.  So has ignoring the controversy surrounding White House aide Kelly Sadler’s comment that they could ignore John McCain‘s opposition in the Senate “because he’s dying anyway.”  That impolitic blunder made huge waves in the press and brought well-deserved ire down on a White House insider who crudely attacked a war hero and highly respected Senator.  Trump dealt with the controversy—by ignoring it.  He refused to address the aide’s comment and did not fire her, as most normal people would, and his minions chose to deflect attention to the outrageous comment about McCain by attacking “leakers” in the White House.

Trump also deftly ignored the criticism following his Oval Office meeting on immigration when he said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”  Likewise, he ignored criticism of his failure to condemn far-right extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia, who marched through the streets carrying torches, screaming racist remarks, and attacking counter-demonstrators.  In both cases, his unpresidential behavior drew widespread bipartisan ire, and he dealt with it by ignoring it.  Trump knows that news cycles have a short half-life and when people become preoccupied with the latest controversy the previous one loses steam and fades into the dustbins of memory, disregarded by his loyalists and deflated in the minds of detractors whose endurance, after all, does have limits.

Counterattacking Opponents

Trump has frequently said that he is a counterpuncher.  What this means is that he allows no slight, insult, or opposition to go unpunished.  He uses this strategy to defend against the most serious threats to his self-image or position:  Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, the firing of James Comey, the Mueller investigation, and credible vocal critics.  He counterpunches principally through ad hominem attacks, labeling his opponents “Crooked Hilary,” “Slippery James Comey,” “Crazy Bernie (Sanders)”, “Goofy Elizabeth Warren” and “Pocohontas,” “Little Rocket Man (Kim Jong-Un), “Dickie Durbin,” “Liddle Bob Corker,” and so on.  In an unusual moment of candor, Trump revealed his purpose in using these schoolyard put-downs to 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl when she asked why he relentlessly attacked the press.  He replied, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Photo of Josef Goebbels
Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels

That is Trump’s strategy in a nutshell:  to discredit his opposition through relentless accusations and name-calling, which he knows will stick in the minds of many rank-and-file voters if he repeats it often enough.  As Nazi Propaganda Chief Josef Goebbels once observed, “The rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine.  Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious.”  Trump knows this better than any living politician.  If you append a simple, demeaning moniker on an opponent and say it frequently enough through mass media, you can discredit your opponents and persuade millions of people to believe the worst about them, even if they’re lies.

The Mueller investigation of Russian meddling in our 2016 election is the most serious threat to Trump’s ego, credibility, and presidency, and his counterattack on Robert Mueller is consequently more complex though it’s essentially the same strategy.  Through a rotating team of lawyers, he has sought to denounce the investigation as unconstitutional, politicized, and unfair.  Many of his Twitter attacks are focused on the Mueller investigation, wherein he repeats the words, “Witch hunt,” “no collusion,” and “angry Democrats.”  His lawyers, notably Rudy Giuliani, frequently appear on news channels berating the investigation for one reason or another.  Giuliani confessed recently that they were attempting to damage Mueller’s credibility enough to undermine any subsequent attempt to impeach Trump.  Never mind that the truth matters and that Russian meddling in our democracy is a serious and ongoing threat to the country; their only aim is to protect Donald Trump.  And it appears to be working.  An alarming number of Americans today believe the Mueller investigation is politically motivated.

Creating Alternate Realities to Obfuscate the Truth

A common Trump strategy is to blatantly lie so as to create an alternate reality.  His charge last year that the Obama administration wiretapped his campaign phones is one example.  There was absolutely no truth to this charge, but to Trump the truth doesn’t matter.  His aim is to make noise and distract both his supporters and detractors with conspiracy theories so patently ridiculous that only fools would believe them—and plenty of fools do.  They’re the same fools who argue that the Earth is flat, that NASA faked the moon landings, and that our government masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon.  The lunatic fringe is eager to believe such nonsense, but a sizable part of the population is also gullible because they want to believe Trump’s claims.  They support the conservative tide he represents and are willing to believe it’s possible that Obama, whom many of them hated, could have stooped to wiretapping his political enemies. Here, confirmation bias is working in Trump’s favor.  People are inclined to believe something that confirms what they already think is true, so if Trump’s claims the Democrats are to blame for separating immigrant children from their parents–a claim Trump has made many times although it’s untrue–people in Trump’s base are inclined to believe it because they are already biased against Democrats.  Similarly, Trump has claimed that Democrats want to protect criminal gangs like MS-13.  This is another blatant lie, but enough of Trump’s supporters will believe it because they want to believe Democrats are weak on crime.

Just a month ago, Trump was promoting what he termed “Spygate,” the idea that the FBI planted a spy in his campaign.  He railed against this phony offense on Twitter, and many of his supporters ate it up.  Trump’s been trashing the FBI (largely because of their role in the Mueller investigation and because the hated James Comey used to direct the agency), so Trump’s more gullible loyalists could well imagine that he’d been wrongly spied upon by our own government.  When Congressional leaders heard the classified account of what the FBI actually did, the Spygate charge lost its luster.  No less a conservative Republican than Trey Gowdy said there was nothing to Trump’s Spygate charge, and Paul Ryan later confirmed Gowdy’s conclusion.  Both of these Trump-manufactured conspiracy theories were nonsense, but he doesn’t care.  His goal is to use fake facts to create noise in the system, to rile up his supporters and dominate the news cycles until he uses Another Next Big Lie to sow more confusion.

Like a good propagandist, Trump understands the value of symbolism.  He surrounds himself with American flags, military bands, and members of the military.  He professes outrage at NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem and uses the media to excoriate them, saying not only that they should be fired but that they should leave the country.  He wraps himself in the symbols of patriotism and denounces his opponents for being unpatriotic.  In the 1930’s, Hitler did the same thing in Germany, and the Nazi flag became a symbol of righting all the imagined wrongs that Germany’s enemies had inflicted on the Motherland.  Hitler built his power base by excoriating his enemies and adopting German patriotism as both a rallying cry for his supporters and a weapon against his detractors.  When Trump declares that Democrats are unpatriotic, you should not believe it–but many people will, particularly those in his polarized base–but also many people who might be on the fence.

Illustration of Donald Trump and an American flag
Donald Trump and the American flag

Appearing to Agree—and then Disregarding the Agreement

During his presidential campaign, Trump was repeatedly asked to make his income tax returns available.  He delayed by saying that his returns were being audited, so he could not release them.  The IRS said that an ongoing audit did not matter; his returns could be released.  But Trump stuck to the assertion that he couldn’t release his returns until post-audit.  Then the election came and went, and he still hadn’t released his returns.  Afterwards, when people asked for his returns, he said he won the election without releasing his returns, so it obviously didn’t matter to the voters.  He still hasn’t released any returns.

With this strategy, Trump appears to agree with someone, makes excuses why it can’t happen right away, and then allows the issue to become a non-issue by delaying until it no longer matters.  Another example of this strategy is his response to the Parkland, Florida mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  In the horrific aftermath of that massacre when there was so much emotional fervor about gun control and taking steps to curtail the violence in our schools, Trump met with some Stoneman Douglas survivors and parents, and he earnestly promised to take steps to curb school violence, including some gun control measures.  He spoke loudly and (in)sincerely in a cabinet meeting about not being afraid of the NRA.

Then he appointed a commission to study how to end school violence, and he put Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in charge of it (surely the best way to ensure that nothing beneficial will come from it).  Recently, the DeVos commission said they were studying many ways to curb school shootings but were not looking at guns as an issue.  So much for Trump being unafraid of the NRA and being invested in ending school violence.  Just over two months after the Parkland shooting, he was a headline speaker at the NRA Convention.  When Donald Trump appears to agree with you, watch out.  He is as insincere as a con man’s smile and slipperier than a smooth-soled shoe on ice.

Minimizing Contamination

Here is a warning to Trump’s close friends:  you may be in-house now but if stuff sticks to you you’ll be out-house soon.  Among Trumps close friends who’ve felt the wind on their backs as they’ve

Photo of Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen leaving a Federal courthouse

been dumped are Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, and Michael Cohen.  Trump demands unconditional loyalty, but his own loyalty to others is barely skin deep.  His strategy, when scandal strikes nearby, is to minimize the contamination by distancing himself from the infected party.  After Paul Manafort came under Mueller’s microscope, Trump’s staff spun the idea that Manafort was a minor player in the campaign.  Trump dismissed him as having served only 45 days on the campaign.  Likewise, after Michael Cohen’s woes deepened, the official line was that Cohen actually did very little legal work for Trump and is no longer representing Trump.

Trump’s White House washing machine has a huge spin cycle operated by the likes of Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and no distortion of the truth is too large for these intrepid image cleaners.  They can make the dirtiest laundry look and smell brand new, or at least they try hard.  Many  people can see through this charade and recognize the attempt to manipulate reality, but enough other people will be fooled to make the effort worthwhile.

 

The pattern here is as evident.  If an issue is an embarrassment to Trump that he can’t make go away he will ignore it until it drops off the front page.  If an issue is serious, he will counterattack, usually through ad hominem attacks or he’ll try to create an alternate reality based on big, bold lies.  If he can’t avoid an issue, he may appear to agree and then disregard the agreement later, and if the issue is an insider who’s caught in a scandal, he will minimize the contamination by distancing himself.  What these strategies rely upon is the gullibility of a large part of Trump’s audience and his willingness to misrepresent the facts in order to create noise and confusion.

This is how Donald Trump wins.  It’s how he’s always won, and it’s how he will continue to win.  God help us if the country’s best interests get in the way because nothing matters to Trump except winning.

 

Photo credits:  Trump with arm raised:  Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com; Trump in front of U.S. flag:  VILevi / Shutterstock.com; Trump at rally:  a katz / Shutterstock.com; Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti:  JStone / Shutterstock.com; Michael Cohen:  JStone / Shutterstock.com.

 

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Trump as the Walls Close in

On May 2, 2018, Ty Cobb, Trump’s long-time White House attorney, resigned.  Cobb had been leading Trump’s legal effort to handle the Robert Mueller-led Russian investigation, and he’d been preaching cooperation with Mueller rather than confrontation.  Cobb’s advice from the beginning of the Special Counsel’s investigation had been to maintain a cordial and professional relationship with Mueller.  But as the walls close in on Trump he is slinging more mud at Mueller, and Cobb is reportedly frustrated at Trump’s bellicose “counterpunching.”  Trump is circling the wagons and bringing in a more belligerent team of lawyers, most recently Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor and mayor of New York, and attorney Emmet Flood, who represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.

Days before, the New York Times reported a set of questions that Mueller and his team purportedly want to ask the President, and this revelation shook up the White House.  Now the Trump team is suggesting that he won’t agree to meet with Mueller to answer questions, and Mueller responded by hinting that he may subpoena Trump to appear before a grand jury.  Meanwhile, a group of conservative Republican House members have drawn up articles of impeachment against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.  Rosenstein responded by saying that the Justice Department would not allow itself to be extorted.  A game of tit-for-tat that was being played with tennis balls is now being played with cannonballs.

After Rosenstein’s comment, Trump lashed out with a series of tweets aimed at the Justice Department and Mueller’s Russia investigation:

A Rigged System – They don’t want to turn over Documents to Congress.  What are they afraid of?  Why so much redacting?  Why such unequal “justice?”  At some point I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!

There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap).  What there is is Negotiations going on with North Korea over Nuclear War, Negotiations going on with China over Trade Deficits, Negotiations on NAFTA, and much more.  Witch Hunt!

So disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russian Witch Hunt were “leaked” to the media.  No questions on Collusion.  Oh, I see…you have a made up, phony crime, Collusion, that never existed and an investigation begun with illegally leaked classified information.  Nice!

As these tweets illustrate, Trump is increasingly alarmed and distracted by the ongoing Russia investigation and is threatening courses of action that could lead to a constitutional crisis—or at the very least a near-total dismantling of the Republican Party.  Short of cooperating with Mueller and telling the truth, which Trump is incapable of and might incriminate him anyway, the President has few safe options, especially if he does “use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved”:

  • He can fire Rod Rosenstein, which he has repeatedly threatened to do. However, firing Rosenstein could prompt Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign (which he has indicated he may do if Rosenstein is fired).  In and of itself, firing Rosenstein is dangerous because it could be construed as obstruction of justice and it would likely fuel the ire of Democrats and some Republicans with a conscience, and if Democrats take control of the House next November they could initiate impeachment proceedings based on this action.  Besides, firing Rosenstein won’t necessarily derail the Mueller investigation.  To truly derail it, Trump would need to appoint a new Attorney General who has no scruples and is one of Trump’s loyal toadies, in short, a person who would do whatever Trump orders him to do (Does Scott Pruitt come to mind?).

 

  • Trump can fire Robert Mueller, but this option is even more dangerous. As legislators on both sides of the aisle have indicated, they would view this action as tantamount to obstruction of justice.  Mueller is respected by a bipartisan spectrum of lawmakers.  Trump’s firing of him would generate greater disapproval among the American electorate as well as in Congress and would fuel a backlash in the press (except for Fox News, the President’s personal propaganda machine).  Ty Cobb was one of the moderating voices on Trump’s legal team.  With his departure and the arrival of more aggressive lawyers, we may see Trump follow this course of action, especially as Mueller’s team comes closer to the President.  If that happens, Republican members of Congress will be forced either to defend Trump or defend the rule of law and our system of justice, and the schism created could further destroy the Republican Party.

 

  • Trump’s legal team could attempt to disrupt Mueller’s proceedings by creating a legal sandstorm—filing lawsuits and motions aimed at obfuscating the issues and delaying the Russia investigation long enough for it to lose momentum (and interest among the American public). This option seems most likely, but it’s doubtful that it would succeed long enough for Trump to reach the end of this term of office.  Nevertheless, this is a tactic they will likely adopt.

  • The most likely option is for Trump to continue his mud-slinging on Twitter and try to discredit the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, and Robert Mueller to the point that the public turns against them. He keeps repeating “NO COLLUSION” and “WITCH HUNT” as though if he says it enough people will believe it.  However, while his base succumbs to this ruse, and some Americans will tune out because they’re sick of the whole mess, Trump’s poisonous behavior is alienating many others in the citizenry who will be driven to vote against him and the Republicans who support him.  That Trump’s legal team is pursuing this option was confirmed when Rudy Giuliani went on Fox News and called New York FBI agents “stormtroopers.”  Discrediting our justice system and law enforcement officials is a cynical tactic that could cause some Americans to lose faith in the justice system.  We’ve come to expect no less from Trump, who would readily burn down revered institutions to save his own skin, but Giuliani’s participation in this spectacle is a dispiriting departure from the “law and order” mayor he once was.  Look no further for a man who has sold his soul to the devil.

 

  • A final option for Trump is to create an even bigger national issue that totally takes the public’s focus away from the Russia investigation—starting a war or provoking an adversary like Iran, Russia, or North Korea to attack American assets or interests and then strike back in retaliation. Creating an armed conflict with mounting casualties and ongoing military action would no doubt take the public’s focus off the Russia investigation.  In times of crisis, people rally around their national leaders, and Trump surely knows this.  We don’t see evidence that Trump will follow this course of action, but he hasn’t been pushed to the brink yet.

We do predict that if Trump sees a serious threat to his presidency he may use his presidential powers to pardon Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen (maybe not), and anyone else in his inner circle who’s in danger of indictment, especially family members at risk:  Donald Trump, Jr. and Jared Kushner.  Trump won’t care about the hullabaloo arising from such pardons.  He’ll just do what he can to protect those closest to him.  The one provision of the U.S. Constitution that may stymie him in his use of presidential pardons is the requirement that the president faithfully execute the powers of his office, and parsons for the purpose of self-protection would likely violate this constitutional requirement and subject him to impeachment.

Trump is a man without scruples, and he has a wounded animal’s impulse for self-preservation.  As the walls close in, he will lash out and become more vicious.  And if he goes down, he’ll go down swinging.

 

Art credits:  Top two illustrations:  Doddis@dreamstime.com; bottom two illustrations:  Reniutami@dreamstime.com; feature photo:  Danny Raustadt@dreamstime.com.

 

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Senator Jeff Flake’s Speech on Trump and Truth

Reflections Blog

On January 17, 2018, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake gave a landmark speech on President Trump’s abuse of the truth and attacks on the press.  He is one of the few Republican lawmakers with the courage to speak out against this president’s mangling of the truth and corrosive effects on American values and culture.  Flake’s message is too important to forget.  Sadly, he has decided not to run for reelection.  Without his voice in the Senate, we risk losing one of the few Republican checks on Donald Trump’s deleterious and reckless disregard for all we hold dear in this country.  Here is the full text of the Senator’s speech:

Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident …” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.

As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.

It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.

2017 was a year which saw the truth — objective, empirical, evidence-based truth — more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase “enemy of the people,” that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.

This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward — despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.

I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of US based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.

Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful — in fact, we question the powerful most ardently — to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship — and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.

No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.

Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.

No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism — who must constantly deflect and distort and distract — who must find someone else to blame — is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.

Now, we are told via Twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.

And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.

Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth — and not partners in its destruction.

It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial — such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.

But many untruths are not at all trivial — such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career – the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate — to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all — the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” — as the president has many times — is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.

Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth — so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington – is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.

Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.

Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.

But a recent report published in our free press should raise an alarm. Reading from the story:

“In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being “demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, the report continues, with our President, quote “laughing by his side” Duterte called reporters “spies.”

In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call ‘fake news’ today, isn’t it?”

There are more:

“A state official in Myanmar recently said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.

Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”

And on and on. This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.

We are not in a “fake news” era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.

In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.

What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world — made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.

We are a mature democracy — it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring — or worse, endorsing — these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.

I sincerely thank my colleagues for their indulgence today. I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: “What is truth?” His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled “Oh Say, What is Truth.” It ends as follows:

“Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,

For the limits of time it steps o’er.

Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst.

Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,

Eternal… unchanged… evermore.”