Donald Trump isn’t the first president to fail on a grand scale, and he certainly isn’t the first to test the boundaries of the system to see what he can get away with. But he is unique in certain respects. The full panoply of grotesque personality defects and openly corrupt behaviors is something we’ve never seen before in someone who ascended to the most powerful office in the land. People will study this era for a very long time to try to figure out just what cultural conditions allowed such an advanced, wealthy nation to end up with such an ignorant, unqualified leader.
But that’s actually less interesting in some ways than how party officials came to support him so unquestioningly and why so few career bureaucrats and civil servants have publicly stood up to him. What kind of system produces that kind of loyalty for a man who never had the support of more than 45% of the country, and who won by virtue of an anachronistic electoral system that allowed him to take office with nearly 3 million fewer votes than his opponent?
Trump may be a uniquely unfit leader, but the party that has backed him without question is not unique. In fact, the last Republican administration showed many of the same characteristics. Robert Draper’s new book To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq reminds us that just 17 years ago, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration used propaganda and disinformation to persuade the American people to go along with a war that made no logical sense on its face.
As almost the entire world looked on in astonishment, the U.S. — with the shameful cooperation of the U.K. under Tony Blair — invaded a country that had no involvement in that attack. A certain faction within the administration had come into office with the intention of finding a reason to do that if they could. They seized the moment, cooked up some flimsy evidence, constructed a convoluted rationale and just went for it.
Draper goes into some detail about how the administration successfully brought the bureaucracy into line, illustrating the fact that it tends to serve any president, even when individuals may stand up or resist. In fact, he pretty much blows up the idea of an unaccountable “deep state,” showing instead that it’s pretty much impotent to stop a determined president from using the powerful levers of government when he wants to.
Trump hasn’t attacked another country, thank goodness, although I think that’s been a matter of luck more than anything else. We came extremely close last January when he decided to assassinate Iran’s top general right before his impeachment trial was about to start. Iran didn’t take the bait and we avoided that disaster.
As it turns out, the inevitable Trump catastrophe happened right here at home with his tragically inept management of the COVID-18 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis. But he has certainly done everything he can to stoke a war at home this summer as people took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd and show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. If Americans weren’t already overwhelmed from the other two crises and Trump was even slightly more skilled, he might have pulled it off as deftly as Bush and Cheney.
We know from his phone call with the governors back in June that he believes the government should “dominate” the streets and throw demonstrators in jail to show who’s boss. And this should be no surprise. As far back as 1989, Trump made his beliefs clear with the disgusting Central Park Five full-page ad. From the moment he took office he has embraced the most authoritarian dictators in the world, congratulating them for their violent crackdowns on their own citizens.
Over the past several weeks Trump and his top henchmen, Attorney General Bill Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, directed a disastrous paramilitary operation in Portland, Oregon, ostensibly to “protect” a federal building from protesters. This article in the Daily Beast by Asawin Suebsaeng and Erin Banco reveals chilling details of how Trump wanted to expand that operation into Chicago, and potentially other cities:
According to three people familiar with the president’s private remarks, Trump previously envisioned an ostentatious, camera-ready show of force. He wanted to go after what he saw as violent gang leaders, flush them out of hiding in ways that would have them “shaking in their boots” like they never had before, and have alleged perpetrators marched out in front of the news cameras. Violent crime has long plagued Chicago, and murders are spiking to highs not seen in decades. But Trump insisted that with the right leader, and the right muscle, crime there could be reduced “very quickly.”
The president said he wanted something similar to what his administration has done in Portland, an ongoing melee between protesters and rioters and unmarked federal authorities. Trump has been closely monitoring the conflict — largely on his favorite channel, Fox News — and trumpeting it as a sign of his own supposed strength.
Some senior members of the White House team reportedly realized that such an assault “would almost certainly result in extreme backlash and hellishly bad PR,” so they ended up scaling back the plan to “Operation Legend,” which is simply an expansion of earlier programs to lend federal investigative help to local jurisdictions.
This was described to the Daily Beast reporters as a pattern in which Trump demands “large-scale, draconian, and potentially disastrous action, with senior officials actively working to temper or inflame, those desires”:
“There was rarely a time I spoke to him about violent crime when two things didn’t come up: Number One, that it’s all happening in Democrat-run cities, with Chicago being shorthand for that kind of [blight],” said one former senior Trump administration official. “And Number Two, if it were up to him, we would return to the old days where it was eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth — or we would forget about proportionality altogether. He would talk about lining up drug dealers and gang members in front of a firing squad … If it were solely up to him, that is how the country would solve crime in Democrat-run cities [such as Chicago and Detroit].”
That’s his impulse and it’s been more or less kept in check, often by his own short attention span. Trump tweets something, and it makes him feel better for the moment. But what about the rank and file, the lower levels of officialdom? What do they do?
Judging from the Portland operation, they go along. Some go even further. Just this week the acting DHS undersecretary for intelligence and analysis, Brian Murphy, was removed from his job after he was found compiling “intelligence reports” about journalists and protesters in Portland. According to the Washington Post, “Murphy tried to broaden the definition of violent protesters in Portland, in a way that some officials felt was intended to curry favor with the White House,” calling them “violent antifa anarchists.”
If Trump wins the validation he craves by being elected to a second term, true believers like Murphy will be further empowered up and down the line. And we can expect that Trump’s own Deep State will be more than happy to implement his program. It wouldn’t be the first time.