I’ve been trying to take a break from this creature, our mad president, think about something a little deeper than this sad and destructive man’s desperate need to be the most important angry two year-old in the world. It’s hard to do, especially since he can still, literally, blow up the world and there’s really nothing that can stop him (as he prioritizes the federal executions of several black men and a heavily medicated mentally ill woman who was serially raped for her entire childhood). We learn that he had the insane conspiracist Sidney Powell back to the White House Sunday night, for Kraken’s sake. He has shown over and over that he is capable of unspeakable things in the service of his damaged ego.
Because history fascinates me, I listen to a couple of history-based podcasts. One I rarely miss is Robert Evans’ “Behind the Bastards” a gleeful telling of the stories of some of history’s most repulsive and destructive creatures. Evans recently featured Roy Cohn, a peach, and Robert Welch, intellectual force behind the John Birch Society, and the other moral godfather (along with Cohn) of Donald Trump. The Welch/John Birch Society episodes, along with an excellent documentary on Showtime about this great entertainer:
once again made this connection for me:
Robert Welch, the candy tycoon who along with Charles Koch’s father Fred and a few other extreme “libertarian” types, founded the John Birch Society in 1958 (galvanized by the “activist” Supreme Court ruling that segregation was unconstitutional). These extreme right wing conspiracy theorists were considered an embarrassing lunatic fringe by other Republicans throughout my childhood. Their unapologetically extremist candidate, Barry Goldwater, lost in a landslide in 1964. Then Reagan (who got 489 of 538 Electoral College votes in 1980!!) embraced and normalized a core of their belief system (particularly when it came to racism, wealth and Communism) for his fellow Republicans. Then we had Gingrich, Cheney, Barr and co. et, voila! — the current Republican party. Under this Orange Menace, we have a full-blown John Birch Society Republican party marching in lockstep, menacing traitors in their midst, as their kind always does… No conspiracy too wild for America! Democrats rape children and drink their blood, take that to the bank, losers. A testament to the staying power of big “ideas”…
Now, to the title of this post. A friend sent me a recent article from the Atlantic, an excellent post mortem on Trumpism, which, like a super zombie from a low-rent horror movie, is unlikely to ever truly die. Here are a couple of insights from the author, George Packer. He mentions LBJ’s lie about the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” (to justify escalation of the American war against Vietnam) and Nixon’s trying to cover up the Watergate break-in as examples of standard presidential lies.
But these cases of presidential lying came from a time when the purpose was limited and rational: to cover up a scandal, make a disaster disappear, mislead the public in service of a particular goal. In a sense, Americans expected a degree of fabrication from their leaders. After Jimmy Carter, in his 1976 campaign, promised, “I’ll never lie to you,” and then pretty much kept his word, voters sent him back to Georgia. Ronald Reagan’s gauzy fictions were far more popular.
Trump’s lies were different. They belonged to the postmodern era. They were assaults against not this or that fact, but reality itself. They spread beyond public policy to invade private life, clouding the mental faculties of everyone who had to breathe his air, dissolving the very distinction between truth and falsehood. Their purpose was never the conventional desire to conceal something shameful from the public. He was stunningly forthright about things that other presidents would have gone to great lengths to keep secret: his true feelings about Senator John McCain and other war heroes; his eagerness to get rid of disloyal underlings; his desire for law enforcement to protect his friends and hurt his enemies; his effort to extort a foreign leader for dirt on a political adversary; his affection for Kim Jong Un and admiration for Vladimir Putin; his positive view of white nationalists; his hostility toward racial and religious minorities; and his contempt for women.
…So a stab-in-the-back narrative was buried in the minds of millions of Americans, where it burns away, as imperishable as a carbon isotope, consuming whatever is left of their trust in democratic institutions and values. This narrative will widen the gap between Trump believers and their compatriots who might live in the same town, but a different universe. And that was Trump’s purpose—to keep us locked in a mental prison where reality was unknowable so that he could go on wielding power, whether in or out of office, including the power to destroy.
…For his opponents, the lies were intended to be profoundly demoralizing. Neither counting them nor checking facts nor debunking conspiracies made any difference. Trump demonstrated again and again that the truth doesn’t matter. In rational people this provoked incredulity, outrage, exhaustion, and finally an impulse to crawl away and abandon the field of politics to the fantasists.
For believers, the consequences were worse. They surrendered the ability to make basic judgments about facts, exiling themselves from the common framework of self-government. They became litter swirling in the wind of any preposterous claim that blew from @realDonaldTrump. Truth was whatever made the world whole again by hurting their enemies—the more far-fetched, the more potent and thrilling. After the election, as charges of voter fraud began to pile up, Matthew Sheffield, a reformed right-wing media activist, tweeted: “Truth for conservative journalists is anything that harms ‘the left.’ It doesn’t even have to be a fact. Trump’s numerous lies about any subject under the sun are thus justified because his deceptions point to a larger truth: that liberals are evil.”
And, as Dear Leader Mr. Trump himself once famously said: God bless these United Shayyysssh…