Do you remember the first year of the Trump administration? A daunting question; among Trump’s many grim accomplishments was the way he made time elastic. So much has happened since, so it’s a bit like asking if you remember the first year of the Boxer Rebellion.
The mind deals with trauma in part by deleting or obscuring traumatic memories — the oft-maligned “memory hole,” which may help us more than we appreciate — and there have been so many shocks to our mental and spiritual underpinnings that it becomes impossible to keep track. Your mileage may vary, but for me, trying to recall the eon that was 2017 to 2018 is akin to peering into deep space with a dollar store flashlight.
It’s all there, though, if I concentrate. The Muslim ban, the mocking of sexual assault survivors, the public embrace of white supremacists, the separation of children from their parents at the southern border, the disdain shown to Puerto Rico after it was flattened by a hurricane, the scorn for the rule of law, the constant inescapable media presence like a cultural migraine that won’t abate, the attacks on students who survived school shootings, a trillion-dollar tax giveaway to corporations and the wealthy, the singling out of individuals and groups as “enemies of the people,” the vivid racism expressed toward nations described by Trump as “shithole countries,” the coddling of violence at the rallies, the brazen broad-daylight corruption, the daily drumbeat of malicious and petty acts whose only purpose was to “own the libs”… an abridged accounting, and that was just the first year.
Donald Trump is out of office and deplatformed from social media, so he is a bit like the Deepwater Horizon of former presidents. The blowout has been capped, but the enormous mass of poison he spewed will be in our collective Gulf of Mexico forever.
Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic, captured the essence of what we were all trying to figure out back then: “What the hell is all this? Why?” Serwer’s masterpiece October 2018 article, “The Cruelty Is the Point,” crystallized the raw truth of the moment better than anyone has before or since, as far as I’m concerned:
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright.
The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
I’d wager most who read the article when it came out said, “Oh, OK, right” afterward, and moved into the following years with something of a framework to operate from, a baseline context that made it all ever so slightly more manageable. It certainly had this effect on me. Why did Trump do that? Because it was cruel. Box checked.
Of course, there was also the money.
The dazzling graft of the Inaugural Committee, the rampant nepotism, the self-dealing that led to millions of tax dollars arriving in Trump’s bank accounts because he and his entire entourage stayed at his hotels wherever they went, and the endless frenzy of doom-swaddled fundraising aimed at a deliberately provoked and near-frantic base, all served a simple purpose: He was looting the Treasury, and his own supporters, to hose money onto the bonfire of his massive debt.
The havoc Trump promoted and the two-fisted cash grab that defined his administration were entirely symbiotic, and he hasn’t stopped just because he moved to New Jersey. The fundraising pattern in particular is altogether clear by now: Make an extravagant and entirely impossible promise or prediction (“Stop the steal,” “overthrow the election,” “Trump will be inaugurated on March 4,” etc.) and fundraise off it, and when it fails to come to pass, fundraise off that, too.
Trump has made millions playing the martyr to his base since November, and recently deployed a new version of the old trick. Several reports had him speaking recently with deep confidence about being “reinstated” as president come August. It does not matter that no mechanism exists to make this happen, absent a national conflagration that would make January 6 look like an episode of Barney the Dinosaur. A large portion of his base believe it, because he said it.
Make the claim and fundraise off it. When it fails to come to pass, fundraise off that (“See? See?! The deep state did it to us again! Trump needs your help to defeat this evil! We’re all in this together!!!”). In the immortal words of hippie Homer Simpson, “Lather, rinse and repeat. Always repeat.”
The seamless success of this pattern has not been lost on the wobbling Jell-O mold of Republican officeholders whose political existence has been digested by the Trump phenomenon they helped create.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene may seem like some wild-eyed flake with an obnoxious face mask and too much time on her hands, but don’t be fooled: Every one of her bizarre proclamations about Jewish-controlled space lasers or “false flag” school shootings, all her seemingly erratic behavior, is not merely the byproduct of a racist QAnon devotee from Georgia.
I’m confident Greene believes at least some of the stuff she spews, but by fundraising relentlessly off of it, she cleared more than $3 million in three months. By comparison, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez banked less than $800,000 in the same time frame. Batshit sells in the right marketplace, and the GOP base is buying hand over fist, because they know she is a devoted pilot fish to Trump’s Great White shark.
Perhaps a more egregious example is another to-the-knife Trump supporter, Rep. Matt Gaetz. In the throes of allegations that he raped teenage girls, Gaetz proclaimed he would run for president in 2024 if Trump does not. This elicited a mighty “Huh?!” from many, but Gaetz knows exactly what he was about: He pulled down about $1.8 million over the same three months as Greene by fundraising on his own self-proclaimed martyrdom and devotion to Trump. When the fundraising reports for quarter two come in next month, we’ll see how handsomely Trump’s base rewarded him for trolling the ’24 presidential race.
Some days ago, the wife of Trump champion Rep. Mo Brooks was served a subpoena for her husband as part of Rep. Eric Swalwell’s allegation that he helped foment the 1/6 Capitol breach. Brooks’s wife got it because Brooks himself has been hiding from Swalwell’s process servers for weeks. Yesterday, Brooks transitioned the event into a fundraising email to the base titled, “They Came After My Wife.”
Lather, rinse and repeat. Always repeat.
The mystery of why so many Republicans have stapled themselves to Trump, even as they fear his antics may cost them a recapture of the senate in 2022, isn’t a mystery at all. Sure, they fear getting on the wrong side of Trump’s base, but they have also learned that playing to that base is the equivalent of having a bottomless ATM in the office closet.
Trump has created a near-frictionless fascist fundraising juggernaut that relies entirely on the greed of the Republican politicians he has captured, and the evangelical credulity of his closest supporters. Feed the base and the base will feed you, and you get to keep your job, too. Step out of line and you’re not only a political fistful of Thanos infinity dust, but the plug on the ATM is pulled forever. Rep. Liz Cheney is the rare exception; most of the rest got the gilded memo in triplicate, and will play along until the music stops. If having their offices sacked by Trump supporters did not dissuade them from this course, I imagine nothing can.
Remember this whenever you see a Republican rolling in the slime of conspiracy theory and abject racism with more alacrity than has been the norm. The GOP has found a new platform, the only plank Trump left them: Cruelty pays. It will all end badly, but for the foreseeable future, the madness is the method. “It’s a hustle,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said on Wednesday. Indeed, and a damned effective one. “Owning the libs” and fleecing the base is the new Republican gold rush. It will be a wonder if the nation survives it.