If Trump is able to succeed in creating a legal buffer by curtailing the Mueller investigation and getting Kavanaugh on to the Supreme Court it will be with strong assistance from the Republican controlled Congress. Republican Senators could have urged Trump not to nominate Kavanaugh, but to choose a conservative with a different view of presidential power and immunity, as that is not yet a partisan or ideological issue. Similarly, at any time in the last 20 months, either House of Congress could have begun a real investigation into Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin or passed laws seeking to protect the Mueller investigation. Their failure to do that only solidified their role as co-conspirators with regards to Russia, but also to the corruption that has defined this administration.
Kavanaugh is a smart and very well educated man who has for several decades chosen to use his intellect and education to ensure that his class retains its wealth and privilege and that those born into less fortunate circumstances do not threaten that wealth or privilege. A smart man can only do that if he believes in his own righteousness and pushes out all ideas that threaten the assumptions of righteousness, and rightness, around which he has built his life and his ideology.
When Brett Kavanaugh gets confirmed, which barring extraordinary and unforeseen circumstances will happen, and Donald Trump is given a get out of jail free card from the Supreme Court we should remember that it was Republican Senators, not Donald Trump, who voted to confirm him, shepherded Kavanaugh through a Senate hearing and withheld important documents about Kavanaugh from Senate Democrats and the American people. For anybody who has been paying attention during the last few months, years or decades this is not exactly a shock, but it is nonetheless significant. We now must recognize that there is no scenario where the GOP would act to rein in an erratic and dangerous President. The depths of their complicity grows with each passing week, but last week was a big one.
If the last three years or so have taught us anything it is that there are no turning points, crossing of Rubicons, or other dividing lines in the unfolding of the Trumpian assault on our democracy. Manafort’s conviction has faded into the background, just as Woodward’s book will in a few weeks. However, the media, even the progressive media, cannot get away from this narrative. The fundamental problem with this approach is that if everything is a turning point, then nothing is a turning point. If everything is signal and not noise than ultimately everything is just noise. Because what we are experiencing is without precedent in American history, we keep grasping at straws that might bring us back to the familiar and less frightening terrain of more normal American politics. This is natural, but is also, at its core, denial about just how grave a threat the Trump administration, and the political party that now supports him, represent.
While Wolf’s comments may have been more offensive than any similar speech in the past, they are also a reminder that gatherings of the media political tribes, where animus can be put aside for an evening, like the White House Correspondents Dinner, no longer have a space in Donald Trump’s divided, hyperpartisan and mean spirited America. For those in conservative media who have always tried to keep one foot in mainstream respectability, Wolf’s speech is a reminder that is no longer possible. Spokespeople like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and more importantly media enablers of Trump’s viciousness and democratic rollback from previously respectable or semi-respectable media outlets and even those from more moderate media outlets who simply profit from the fight, will no longer be given a free pass. For the huge majority of Americans who were not at the dinner and who don’t make their living talking about Trump (I do it on a volunteer basis), this is very good news.
A big Democratic win in November will slow down the decline of American democracy, but unless the broader questions of how to create a new narrative about our society and economy that does not perpetually pit us against each other, how to create political and electoral laws and institutions that are consistent with contemporary realities of democracy, how to reinvigorate news outlets that have a somewhat more than tenuous relationship to the truth and how to train a population that has been addled by Fox News, Twitter and hyper-partisanship to distinguish between fact and fantasy are addressed, the downward spiral of American democracy will continue.
In this context, occasional statements by the people like Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) that if the President fired Robert Mueller, it would be the beginning of the end of his presidency or by the office of the Speaker Ryan urging Trump to let Mueller finish his job, should not be taken at face value. These are not principled statements by patriotic Americans. Rather they are last ditch efforts by ethically broken politicians to salvage their reputations by words that, if the last two years teach us anything, are extremely unlikely to be backed up by meaningful action.
Regardless of Donald Trump’s intentions, his comments, despite being made in an informal setting are an apt reflection of the state of American democracy. When the leader of a powerful authoritarian regime moved his country further away from democracy while consolidating his power, the American president used that not as an opportunity contrast our political system with China’s but to indicate his preference for authoritarianism. This should make it clear just how imperiled our democracy is.
While seeing Kasky humiliate Marco Rubio by challenging him to stop taking NRA money or watching Emma Gonzalez similarly embarrass NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch is very encouraging for adults who support gun reform, there is much more to these young people’s message than that. In her most well-known speech, Gonzalez repeated the refrain “we call BS.” While most of that refrain was targeted at the gun lobby and their apologists, it was also aimed at pro-gun reform legislators who have not been aggressive, or successful, enough in their efforts to change American gun policy. Gonzalez, and her generation, are not just calling BS on the NRA, but on those who are cowed by arguments like the one that asserts that none of the proposed laws would have stopped the shooting.
Those who seek to craft policies to address the problem of easy and widespread access to extremely powerful firearms are confidently and dismissively told by legislators who receive generous support from the NRA that those efforts can never lead anywhere due the Second Amendment. This misinterpretation of the Second Amendment is wielded like some kind of magical trump card that can, and frequently does, end any conversation or debate about guns. In democracies, rational policy solutions must be discussed and debated not shouted down by a small minority of the American people hiding behind an extreme interpretation of a sentence written more than 200 years ago. Thus, for several decades now the Second Amendment has been wielded not as a way to guarantee individual freedom, but to make mass shootings easier and ultimately stifle democracy.
Nobody is chanting “lock him up” about the White House Chief of Staff, but the case that Kelly mishandled national security information almost makes itself. In a White House that can be charitably described as dysfunctional, one of the few seemingly competent people, Rob Porter, lacked the security clearance needed for his job, which involved a lot of access to important documents that the President needed to see. Kelly, perhaps just in the name of expedience, decided that ignoring Porter’s lack of security clearance was okay. This would be a problem for any administration but is particularly galling given that Kelly serves a President who made accusations of mishandling of classified data by his opponent one of the pillars of his campaign.
In Trump’s America, this is the no longer out of the ordinary, but it reveals that the erosion of American political institutions and the American people’s confidence in those institutions is not a peripheral effect of the Trump presidency, but is indeed the goal of the Trump presidency. The Nunes memo was an effort to discredit the FBI, Robert Mueller and indeed the rule of law in America. This may be essential for the survival of the Trump administration, but the impact on American democracy, and the American state, will be profound.
A year into the Trump administration and the marches are still massive and widespread, if underreported, but marches do not translate directly into victories at the voting booth. This is not an issue of those who attend marches not voting. There is no reason to believe that is the case. However, although there were marches all over the country this year and last, the biggest demonstrations occurred in safely blue districts. The march in Manhattan was inspiring, but we New Yorkers have little ability to affect the 2018 election directly through our vote, as many New Yorkers, like San Franciscans or Angelenos are represented from the City Council to the US Senate by Democrats who rarely face competition.
Trump’s descents to into the most blatant forms of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment are now frequent enough that the responses are predictable. His apologists assert that he was misquoted or that he is simply saying what many Americans believe. The former approach is essentially dishonest, but the latter explanation is significant. There is a fair amount of truth to the belief that many Americans disparage countries whose populations are largely non-white, but that does not make Trump’s remarks less offensive. Instead it is evidence that racism is not some rare condition that Trump happens to have, but rather a widespread set of opinions that remains a cancer on American politics and society.
The question Americans should be asking ourselves in not whether or not Donald Trump has the mental facilities and stability to be President-he doesn’t, but why so many in the Republican Party ignored that reality for the last two years. In fairness to those Republicans who had significant concerns about Donald Trump, it was not clear what they could have done to stop him from getting the nomination, but it is also clear that once he was the likely nominee, no meaningful effort to derail his nomination was made by any in the GOP leadership. Moreover, those same Republicans elevated hatred for Hillary Clinton to a sacrament, in pursuit of which anything, including supporting a deeply unstable man like Donald Trump, was acceptable.
Election outcomes may be the next target of Trump’s relentless effort to define anything he doesn’t like as fake news. This could take the form of Republican candidates, particularly those with strong support from the President, refusing to accept defeat in close races. This may sound extreme and unlikely-and it would have even three years ago, but this is a different America. Donald Trump himself made it clear during the 2016 election, that he would not simply accept the election outcome if he were to lose.
Through a relatively steady drumbeat of accusations of partisanship, behind the scenes shenanigans and consistently lying to the American people, the Trump administration, mostly with support from the Republicans in Congress, has largely defanged the Mueller investigation. Mueller may or may not be fired, but it probably does not matter. If he is fired it will not be the major paradigm shifting event that many hope. Instead, it will be a two day story. If Trump, or a subordinate at the Department of Justice, fires Mueller on December 22nd, America will be talking about something else by New Years Day at the latest and perhaps by Boxing Day. If Mueller remains in his position, any further indictments, findings or statements will be mostly grist for the partisan mill that is Washington.
The shift among many on the right from disagreeing with the opinions or reporting slant of The New York Times, The Washington Post or CNN, to seeing any negative story in those outlets as simply not true is the cause of this and deeply threatens not just our democracy, but the future of a unified and cohesive US as well. This has not happened by accident, but as the result of concerted effort by the Trump team done with the support and encouragement of the rest of the Republican Party. We see this every day when Sarah Huckabee Sanders questions the veracity and the motives of an article or report she doesn’t like or when Donald Trump sends out a Tweet with the words “Fake News,” frequently in all capitals. As long as this continues, the Mueller investigation, almost regardless of what it turns up, will move very few voters or members of Congress and change very few minds.
Despite the fear of a President Pence being somewhat overblown, those hoping for a combination of Mueller indictments and a big Democratic win in 2018 to combine to save us must consider what impeachment would mean for the country. One of the unique characteristics of the Russiagate scandal, which is the most likely series of events that could potentially lead to impeachment, is that none of the news we are hearing now is actually news. While some details are new and Robert Mueller III is doing a great job of connecting the dots, the evidence of Russian meddling in our election with the knowledge of the Trump campaign was present well before the election. In fact, the GOP leadership was briefed about this in fallof 2016.
If the major news media, other than Fox calls the election in 2020 for the Democratic ticket, which of the following Tweets from Donald Trump is more likely “I congratulate the Democratic candidate on her/his victory and look forward to working with them on the transition,” or “FAKE NEWS CNN is saying I lost. Other FAKE NEWS media will do the same soon. But Fox hasn’t called the race yet. I WON despite illegal votes cast.” If you think the first Tweet is more likely you have either been living under a rock for the last two years or are allowing blind optimism to outweigh all the evidence that surrounds us. Moreover, if Trump sends out the second Tweet roughly 35% of the American people will believe his notion that he is the victim of election fraud.