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After Mueller, Donald Trump’s “Political Warfare” Enters a Dangerous New Phase

Does a seven-page memo by a far-right Steve Bannon protégé explain Trump’s erratic policies?

In some ways, Trump and the right-wing movement's pugilistic attacks are a decades-old strategy.

Donald Trump is a political pugilist. He never apologizes for a mistake. He never admits that he is wrong. He constantly attacks. In many ways Donald Trump is a 72-year-old political version of the Terminator, a machine that “can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with…. it doesn’t feel pity of remorse or fear … and it absolutely will not stop. Ever.”

Two Fridays ago Donald Trump was told that his handpicked attorney general had received special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 election. Trump had two reasons to celebrate.

Mueller had concluded that the Trump campaign did not directly conspire with the Russian government to steal the 2016 presidential election from the American people and Hillary Clinton.

On the question of obstruction of justice, Robert Mueller did not make a decision. There is significant evidence that Donald Trump did in fact obstruct justice in his efforts to derail the Trump-Russia investigation. Mueller instead chose to allow his boss and Trump’s personal insurance policy, Attorney General William Barr, to make the final decision. It was a fait accompli: Barr has been publicly hostile to any investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia — and also believes that the president is more like a king than a democratically elected leader with limits on his power. He decided that Trump was innocent.

As reported by New York Magazine, Trump was exuberant. According to a White House aide, Trump said of Mueller’s report, “This is great. This is incredible. This is what I’ve been saying all along. There’s no collusion. I never talked to any Russians.”

Trump’s vindication is far from complete. The actual findings of the 400-page Mueller report have not been made public. His legal troubles have not ended either. The Southern District of New York investigation continues; his close adviser Roger Stone will face trial for lying to Congress; counterintelligence investigations into Trump and his inner circles’ contacts with Russian agents continue; House Democrats are conducting public hearings. Nonetheless, Trump and his allies are screaming exoneration.

Their campaign of revenge has many targets.

Trump has claimed that there was an attempted coup against his presidency and by extension the United States. His critics in the news media and Congress are to be silenced, blacklisted and sued for libel and slander. Trump has drawn up enemies’ lists. Trump and the right-wing media continue to engage in stochastic terrorism and scripted violence. The Democrats, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are enemies of the people. Clinton and Obama are in fact “traitors” who lead a “deep state” conspiracy against Donald Trump.

This is bad for America, but in many ways good politics for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Public opinion polls and other research show that Trump’s proverbial white working-class supporters and other Republican voters actually believe that they are “oppressed” by liberals, black people and other nonwhites, gays and lesbians, immigrants and Muslims.

For Trump’s political cultists the calculus is simple: They are Trump. Ergo, when Trump is attacked they are also attacked. The personal is political in this most crude and literal example of white identity politics, where Trumpism is not merely a set of political positions but a lifestyle and way of being in the world.

In some ways, Trump and the right-wing movement’s pugilistic attacks are a decades-old strategy.

The “paranoid style” and its belief in victimization and in enemies around every corner and under every bed has been a fixture of American conservatism since the 1950s .

Wrecking the machinery of democratic governance through show trial hearings and a blatant disregard for standing rules and procedure and precedent have been used by conservatives since the era of Joseph McCarthy, and then against the Clinton administration.

White racial resentment and overt racism allowed and encouraged Republicans to amplify their obstruction against Barack Obama.

Newt Gingrich helped to write the playbook for the right wing’s assault on the Democratic Party with his Contract with America and his 1996 GOPAC memo “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.”

But there is something relatively new and especially dangerous — even as judged relative to the above examples — in Trump’s strategy of endless attacks. In the tsunami of chaos and distraction that is a feature of Trump’s regime many stories and events that would in more normal times, be a focus of great attention by both the news media and the American people are overlooked.

In May 2017, Richard Higgins, who worked in the National Security Council’s strategic planning office wrote and circulated a seven-page memo called “POTUS & Political Warfare,” which reportedly reached Donald Trump’s desk. This document crystallized the racist, nativist, xenophobic and paranoid worldview and policy positions of the alt-right in the form of strategic advice for President Trump.

Higgins cautioned that those who saw Trump as “an existential threat to cultural Marxist memes that dominate the prevailing cultural narrative” would seek his destruction.

Far from politics as usual, this is a political warfare effort that seeks the destruction of a sitting president. Since Trump took office, the situation has intensified to crisis level proportions. For those engaged in the effort, especially those from within the “deep state” or permanent government apparatus, this raises clear Title 18 (legal) concerns.

Trump’s enemies, Higgins noted, were not necessarily “Marxists as conventionally understood,” but included “‘deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers, Islamists, and establishment Republicans.”

Higgins concluded with what he clearly meant as stirring prose, claiming that “the defense of President Trump is the defense of America,” and explaining that racial diversity and efforts to ensure the equal rights of nonwhites, women and other groups are a threat to American security:

Globalists and lslamists recognize that for their visions to succeed, America, both as an ideal and as a national and political identity, must be destroyed. Atomization of society must also occur at the individual level; with attacks directed against all levels of group and personal identity. Hence the sexism, racism and xenophobia memes. As a Judeo-Christian culture, forced inclusion of post-modern notions of tolerance is designed to induce nihilistic contradictions that reduce all thought, all faith, all loyalties to meaninglessness. Group rights based on sex or ethnicity are a direct assault on the very idea of individual human rights and natural law around which the Constitution was framed.

I reached out by email to sociologist James Scaminaci III, an expert on the strategy and tactics of far-right extremists, asking him to explain the overarching themes of the “POTUS & Political Warfare” memo:

First, white supremacy, or the narrative that white men built America for white men to exploit and enjoy. Thus, all non-whites and non-men, occupy at best a secondary status in terms of rights and material goods.

Second, the narrative of the John Birch Society. Specifically, the JBS stated that the political elites of both parties were American traitors operating to the benefit of the Soviet Union. The USSR has been replaced by the “Muslim Brotherhood” or “Islamists.”

Third, the Christian Right’s narrative provided a religious version of the JBS’s secular version of “the Insiders” or “globalists” betraying America.

All sources of information that did not conform to their “biblical worldview” [are] illegitimate. Thus, it is no surprise that white fundagelicals (to borrow a term) trust Fox News, distrust all other sources of information, and are opposed to the scientific theories of evolution and climate change.

The fourth strand combines the first three into a comprehensive narrative of “cultural Marxism” or “Political Correctness.” The “cultural Marxist” narrative was that the political elites of both parties were under the sway of explicitly or implicitly Jewish intellectuals who moved the “Frankfurt School” from Nazi Germany in the 1930s to America with the express objective of destroying Western civilization and Christianity.

The fifth and final strand is added by Stephen Bannon and his billionaire backers the Mercer family. Operating through Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart News, Bannon combined the “cultural Marxism” narrative, the white nationalist and Christian nationalist narratives with a right-wing populism narrative.

This narrative would become the lingua franca of the entire conservative movement and envelop the Republican Party, thus enabling Donald Trump to use its narrative and code words to a knowing audience…. The Higgins memo’s unique contribution was to weave all these narratives and themes together for a sitting president as a National Security Council memo.

The Higgins memo does more than articulate an ideology that frames America’s multiracial democracy as a threat. “POTUS & Political Warfare” advises the president of the United States, to engage in a battle against his “enemies” — which includes large segments of the American public.

Through this logic Trump is not responsible for the general welfare, prosperity, safety and security of the American people, or for protecting and nurturing the country’s democracy. Reasonable consensus and coalition-building are eschewed. In practice, social fissures within American society are to be exploded for the political and personal gain of Trump, his allies and the global kleptocrats. Only “real Americans” matter, defined by today’s conservative movement as white, right-wing, male Christians.

The political principles to which Donald Trump and his movement are committed rest upon cruelty in the service of avarice. Destroying American government and any public sense of social democracy and collective responsibility in the service of the common good is a means of achieving that goal. Before Trump’s election, Steve Bannon famously described himself as a “Leninist,” defining that concept this way:

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

This philosophy has been applied by the Trump administration across a range of policies, including building the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, putting immigrants and refugees in concentration camps, punishing the people of Puerto Rico because of the Hurricane Maria disaster, attacking the legitimacy of the free press, rolling back civil rights protections, overturning environmental regulations, encouraging political violence against those who oppose Trumpism, empowering right-wing hate groups and domestic terrorists, gutting the social safety net to give even more money to the richest Americans, and destroying the Affordable Care Act, which has the practical effect of making more people sick and therefore shortening their lives.

Scaminaci told me, “Trump’s main view of America, the Constitution, and the American people has always been contempt. It is only Trump who can understand the problems better than any expert or flag-officer; it is only Trump who can voice the subconscious thoughts and yearnings of the people; and, it is only Trump who ‘can fix’ all the problems. Trump as the right-wing authoritarian leader appeals to authoritarian white and Christian nationalists who hold that the elites of both political parties, the Constitution, and mainstream media are illegitimate. Trump and his right-wing media allies amplify fear and anger at a moving set of targets depending upon which person or institution needs to be attacked that day or week.”

“Trump’s objective, as it has been from the start of his political campaign back in the 1980s, has been to delegitimize whichever target would advance his personal cause,” Scaminaci continued But his personal cause is now fused with a white Christian nationalist agenda that seeks to reconstruct … a white, Christian America in which rich, white, heterosexual Christian men hold political, economic, and cultural superiority and dominance.”

Chaos, cruelty, sexism, violence, bigotry, racism and a belief that power is best used to destroy and not create are the hallmarks of Trumpism and today’s conservative movement. These are features, not bugs. This is the new normal. Those Americans — especially pundits and journalists — who still naively believe that the old order will return once Trump is gone from office are making a dangerous error of inference and conclusion.

America is changed. And the American people have been changed as well by Trump and his allies’ blitzkrieg against the country’s democratic institutions, norms and values.

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