One of the greatest political advantages enjoyed by the modern Republican Party is the comprehensive lack of shame evinced by its leaders, elected officials and most devout supporters. This was axiomatic even before the administration of Richard Nixon. “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice!” bellowed Barry Goldwater at the ’64 GOP convention. The party, immediately debased by the sentiment and the violent cheers it inspired, has never recovered.
Tactical shamelessness became bog standard when Reagan and his band of trickle-down hucksters elevated the practice to a sort of gruesome art form, and the stain of it has only grown in the intervening years. Nixon and George W. Bush tussled over the title of Most Shameless until Donald Trump came along, ran the table, and broke the pool cue over the bartender’s head before howling off into the night. Because of Trump, all prior metrics for the phenomenon are now dust.
One can see it everywhere in government today, from a network broadcast out of the Oval Office to the meanest backwater congressional confab. On Tuesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing ostensibly on the topic of the Justice Department’s budget became a binary tussle over the Mueller report, because Attorney General William Barr was the star witness. The hearing started poorly and ended ugly.
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Committee Democrats pressed Barr to explain the thinking behind his infamous four-page “summary” of the 300+ page report, but Barr locked his jaw like a tetanus victim and refused to answer. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) specifically asked Barr if the White House had seen the report either before or after the release of his letter. “I’m not going to say anything more about it,” he replied.
Beyond confirming that his office is investigating the investigation at Trump’s behest, that was all Barr had to say on the matter. For their part, committee Republicans used their time to crow about the “exoneration” of Trump while praising the glories of a wall at the southern border.
“The attorney general just stonewalled us,” Rep. Lowey said after the hearing concluded. In other news, water remains wet.
Speaking of walls, the president’s status as the World Heavyweight Champion of Shamelessness remains undisputed despite stiff competition from the likes of Reps. Devin Nunes (R-California) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). At the first meeting of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council last Thursday, Trump belted out an operatic aria of deliberately deceptive nonsense so dense that it actually gained mass and sank into the Earth like an uncontrolled toxic spill. To wit:
Massive amounts of … a large … most of the drugs, much of the drugs coming into our country come through the southern border. In all different ways. Much of it where we don’t have walls — the wall is under construction by the way. Large sections. We’re going to be meeting, I think on Friday, at a piece of the wall that we’ve completed. A big piece. A lot of it’s being built right now. Lot of it’s being signed up right now by different contractors. It’s moving along very nicely.
I count no less than nine brazen lies in that lone paragraph, which is merely a filament of the larger rant Trump deployed during the meeting. His misrepresentations of the status of the border wall have been a constant presence for a while now, gruel for the indefatigable racists and hardcore white nationalists within his base. The reality of Trump as a serial fabricator is dangerous enough, but the ongoing normalization of his weaponized fictions and those of his allies has become a mortal threat to the nation.
“Can’t take you anymore,” Trump said on April 5, addressing migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border. “Can’t take you. Our country is full. Our area is full, the sector is full. Can’t take you anymore. I’m sorry. So, turn around. That’s the way it is.” The “Our country is full” canard was around long before Joseph Goebbels became a household name, but its resurgence today stands as a shouted warning: These people are not incompetent. Their lies are deployed with lethal purpose.
I’m so old, I remember when Republicans would demagogue all over everyone regarding the indispensable nature of the Bush-created Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Now? DHS — a vast agency employing nearly 230,000 people with purview over border security, cybersecurity, aviation security and counterterrorism — is headless. The same goes for several other powerful sectors of government like the Office of Management and Budget, Interior, and Defense, as well as the post of UN ambassador. Those people were summarily removed in favor of “acting” directors loyal to Trump, none of whom have been approved by the Senate. This is unconstitutional on its face.
Meanwhile, Trump is exacerbating a variety of crises by cutting vital aid to Central American countries — a move which promises to make the border situation even more chaotic — while openly agitating for war with Iran with no confirmed defense secretary in place. These would be inexcusable actions even if the departments involved were fully staffed with competent directors. They are not, by design, because Trump has no patience for process or rules and wants people in place who will break the law at his command.
The concept of consequences does not even enter the equation for the president of the United States. Trump is tired of hearing, “You can’t do that,” and is busily chewing through the tattered safeguards that sustain the last lingering vestiges of our democracy. This would be impossible to accomplish if he and his people were capable of shame. They are not, and therein lies the terrifying rub.
Shame is ballast to all fascist movements, one of the first things tossed overboard for the sake of speed. We are witnessing this in real time, on every television, and in the halls of our most vital government institutions. Donald Trump and his minions are not helpless buffoons stumbling around in the dark. They have a definite goal in mind, and the rule of law is an impediment they seek to sweep aside with dispatch.
“I have to get rid of judges,” Trump said on April 2. This wasn’t some quirky aside.
It was a mission statement.
This article has been updated.