These are dark times in America and will grow darker still. James Comey’s chilling testimony to the Senate Committee Thursday paint a portrait of the president who operates not as a canny manipulator in the style of Richard Nixon, nor as a shifty, street-wise hustler, but as a thuggish fixer.
The former FBI director’s believably detailed account also made it clear that the administration and the country now confront months of multiple investigations of targets—the president, his aides, and family members—who will defend themselves without restraint, decency or consideration of the damage they have done and are doing to the national government and American democracy itself.
Donald Trump is hardly the first demagogue to politic as a populist, govern as a plutocrat and then turn toward authoritarianism when his willful assertion of power is restrained. Nor, as it appears increasingly likely, is he the first of his kind to gain power through a like-minded foreign strongman’s meddling in another country’s domestic politics.
Francisco Franco, who long outlived his dictatorial contemporaries, came out on top of the Spanish Civil War only because fellow Fascisti Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Portugal’s Antonio Salazar intervened on his behalf. Day by day, revelation by revelation, it’s clearer and clearer that Trump’s road to victory was paved with Vladimir Putin’s Machiavellian scheming, and the Obama Administration’s unforgivable reluctance to speak up about Russian hackers’ connection to the Republican campaign when it might have mattered at the polls.
Trump isn’t even the first in the cadre of illiberal nationalist thugs now running 21st-century governments. Putin, Turkey’s Recip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski all imposed their particular variants of populist misrule before him.
Trump, however, is something new under this country’s increasingly dark politic sky. We Americans always have foolishly comforted ourselves with the belief that, though circumstances sometimes have thrown men of scant qualification or slight ability into the White House, they somehow “grow into the office.” Harry S Truman is the example who most easily comes to mind. One of Trump’s several noxious novelties is that he’s actually the first chief executive to downsize the office to fit his own undersized intellect and stunted soul.
He is unable to conceive of his presidency as anything other than “his brand” and conducts his foreign and domestic policies like the sort of tawdry, sharp-elbowed transactions that pass for business on the sleazy end of the real estate hustle where he made his fortune. His weirdly combative hunger for acclaim—note, I do not say “approval”—is as insatiable as his greed, his crude libido and, most of all, his burning resentments. He retains the gnawing sense of inferiority he brought from Queens to Manhattan as a third-rate slum lord on the make and remains to this day what he was the day he arrived there, an absurdly self-aggrandizing braggart, a loud-mouthed bully, a goyishe goniff in an expensive but ill-cut suit.
Trump will play the populist card as the first line of his defense. It will not matter that, while he’s only too happy to tap white working class resentments, he has—rhetoric notwithstanding—no interest in that besieged group’s real interests. Take, for example, his fetishism of the wretched coal miners. It’s all optics and salesmanship.
Coal miners are the perfect cinematic exemplar of the industrial proletariat. Who hasn’t seen “How Green Was My Valley”? The problem is that coal mining as an American occupation has been in decline since 1948. Most of the industry’s jobs were lost to automation. Cheap natural gas, rather than Obama Administration environmental regulations or the Paris Climate Accord, have done for the rest.
No significant number of those jobs ever are coming back. In California alone, clean energy today employs three times as many workers as the entire American coal industry. Despite claims by Trump Administration spokesmen, coal mining today employs just 50,000 people and their number has increased by just 200 since his election. (By the way, California, which stands for everything Trump claims is wrong with the American economy and approach to climate change, accounted for 17% of America’s job growth over the past four years and fully 25% of the increase in gross domestic product. This state’s vibrant economy rests on what economists call the “three T’s”—tech, trade, and tourism. Trump’s economic, budgetary and national security initiatives threaten all three.)
The president’s vulgar fulminations over the German trade surplus with the United States is similarly illusionary. Take autos, for example. All those BMW’s you see on the road are manufactured at the company’s single largest factory—in South Carolina. BMW also manufactures there all the vehicles it sells to Asia and Latin America and is currently the single largest exporter of American made autos. The Mercedes you notice parked beside the Beamer’s all are made in Alabama at the firm’s second largest factory. It also turns out American-made vehicles for export. The truth is that Germany has generated more jobs for American workers than the Trump Administration ever will.
The chaotic budget proposal the Trump White House has floated similarly undermines any claim to populist legislation. It proposes cutting Medicaid benefits for 10 million Americans and essentially gutting The Children’s Health Insurance Program and Social Security Disability Insurance funds. It would reduce the Food Stamp program by more than 25%, effectively depriving 42 million people, many of them children who benefit from a program that has all but eliminated significant malnutrition in this country.
The president also essentially would end subsidized school lunches and aid to cities coping with a homelessness epidemic. All this atop a House health care bill, which is endorsed by the White House, and—according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office—would deprive as many as 28 million Americans of health care.
All of these proposals would do incalculable—perhaps deadly—harm to the very people who helped put Trump in office and in whose name he claims now to govern. His actual constituency is the cadre of billionaires and millionaires he has brought into his administration. His tax plans, even more inchoate than his budget sketch, propose massive tax cuts for the wealthy and even more onerous burdens for the working and middle classes. Plutocracy in action.
The only consistency Trump exhibits so far should alarm anyone paying attention to the snowballing inquiries into Russian interference in our last general election. Undermining NATO and European Union and as many of the multinational agreements on trade that have fueled Western prosperity has long been a goal of, first the old Soviet Union, and now Putin’s Russia. The only thing clear about Trump’s foreign policy is his effort to do all three of those things. When Russia intervened in our election on his behalf, they seem to have known exactly how they would benefit—and that ought to raise a host of chilling questions in American minds, whatever their party affiliation.
Trump the would-be authoritarian will try to flex his alleged populist mandate as the Congressional investigations and Special Counsel’s inquiries proceed. His chief strategist, the sinister Steve Bannon, has spoken of his admiration for the notorious French fascist and anti-Semitic political thinker Charles Maurras, who insisted there is a distinction between “the real people of the country” and the “legal country of the government.”
France-Amerique magazine reported that Bannon told a French diplomat “that Trump represents the flesh-and-blood, natural, real country pitted against the far-off legal country.” The “people in the legal country” Bannon said, “hate us, but we have the people. It is the legal country against the real country, and I am with the real country.”
The rest of us, of course, esteem that “legal country” as the one governed by the Constitution and the rule of law, which recognizes no exceptions for the rich, the willful or the powerful. The question we’re about to confront is: In which of those countries do the congressional Republicans believe they reside?
PHOTO CREDIT: AP/REX/Shutterstock