Racism, Religion, Punditry, Putin, and the Benefit of Trump to America
Many have noted how Trump is not the problem, but a symptom of just how far off the edge of the map America’s right wing has gone. It is true that Trump is such a symptom, the kind we were warned against not only by H.L. Mencken in the cartoon above, but also by the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato. In an article for the Washington Post after the 2016 election, Sam Goldman points out that in Plato’s Republic,
Socrates argues that tyrannical souls tend to arise in democracies. They are especially common among the sons of prominent men who do not enjoy as much prestige as they think they deserve. Tyrants gain power when they win the allegiance of the poor, often turning against their own elite class in the process. The parallels to 2016 are obvious.
According to Goldman, Plato also
…argued that tyranny was an evil form of government, but not primarily because tyrants took power in illegitimate ways. The problem was the tyrant’s distorted soul. Rather than loving what really matters — wisdom and justice — the tyrant seeks public approval and physical pleasure. But because these forms of gratification are ephemeral, the tyrant is never satisfied. He pursues more and more until he descends into madness.
“[T]he tyrant seeks public approval and physical pleasure”. Sound familiar? Given Trump’s predilection for political strongmen and dictators and his utter disdain for anyone by whom he does not feel threatened, it is obvious that Trump does not want to govern, but instead wants to rule. It is apparent that his deepest desire is to become what Putin already is: an all-powerful autocrat that is above the law. More than once, Trump has joked about becoming a dictator for life, and has been repeatedly shown outrage when told that he can’t fire people or that he can’t tell the Justice Department who they will or will not investigate.
Trump wants so badly to be a dictator, to rule America by personal fiat. But (as Clint Eastwood’s iconic line from Magnum Force puts it), “a man’s got to know his limitations.” Trump doesn’t know his own limitations…and it is his ignorance of what he can’t do that will hopefully break America’s right wing’s populist/racist/xenophobic fever dream in 2020, if not in 2018.
In early 2016 I began saying that part of me hoped that Trump would win the upcoming presidential election. I knew he’d be a disaster, but I also knew that the GOP has been going down this road to insanity ever since the 1960’s…and even then, there were those in the Republican party who could see where the party was going, perhaps no one more clearly than the 1964 GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater:
“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
In the intervening decades, compromise has become a dirty word to Republicans, most of whom now believe their politicians should stick to principles and refuse to compromise. To be sure, Goldwater didn’t do the GOP any favors when in 1964 he publicly opposed the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It does seem that he may have done so not out of racism, but out of adherence to his personal libertarian leanings:
Goldwater, his defenders effectively argue, was not a racist, only an ideologue. True enough. He had been a founding member of the Arizona NAACP. He helped integrate the Phoenix public schools. His problems with the Civil Rights Act were theoretical and libertarian — an objection to the extension of federal power over private enterprise.
But however well-meaning his intent, his “good intentions” certainly paved the road that led to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
Religious intolerance and the all-but-official acceptance of racism were the first two legs of the trifecta that led directly to today’s right-wing mania. The third was the rise of conservative media, from the pundits of talk radio to right-wing websites. Right-wing pundits became more influential than even the most powerful Republican politicians. Even in 2009:
By a wide margin, Americans consider Rush Limbaugh the nation’s most influential conservative voice. Those are the results of a poll conducted by “60 Minutes” and Vanity Fair magazine and issued Sunday. The radio host was picked by 26 percent of those who responded, followed by Fox News Channel’s Glenn Beck at 11 percent. Actual politicians — former Vice President Dick Cheney and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — were the choice of 10 percent each.
The most influential figures of America’s right wing were not politicians, but pundits who made a living by “riling up the base”. The most powerful of these was of course Rush Limbaugh:
Indeed, for 20 years, three hours a day, nothing in radio has so moved the audience to action as Rush: the Republican base both buys the pre-owned cars he suggests ought to be bought and champions the causes he’s hot on. Nothing in politics, or the news cycle, is as direct and powerful as this. In seconds, he can move an awesome tide, unleashing e-mail, telephone calls, and scary Web-site rage.
Thus the trifecta. The pundits and the preachers had become kingmakers. No one who fell afoul of a major conservative pundit or a right-wing televangelist could get elected. Even worse, it was the pundits and preachers (and not the politicians, much less the voting base) who were setting policy for the GOP.
This sociopolitical trifecta is what not only brought us Trump, but also opened up our political system to being hacked in a psyops campaign by Russian intelligence. The Russians figured (correctly) that all one had to do was to walk, talk, and quack like a Real Conservative, and one would be welcomed into the corridors of Republican power with open arms. Exhibit A would be Maria Butina, the Russian spy who infiltrated the NRA by posing as a Russian “gun rights advocate” and then used that position to influence the GOP (and perhaps even illegally funnel money to the Trump campaign). In a proposal to her Putin-connected boss:
She wrote that within the GOP, a gun rights organization (obviously the NRA) has a “central place and influence,” saying it funds campaigns and sponsors major conferences like the Conservative Political Action Conference. Butina wrote that she and Torshin had already been building ties to the NRA, and proposed that she wanted to go to “all upcoming major conferences” related to the Republican Party before the 2016 elections.
It apparently never occurred to the Republicans that a “Russian gun-rights advocate” is the very definition of an oxymoron; Putin would never agree to anything like our Second Amendment. But since she said what they wanted to hear, the Republicans welcomed her as one of their own. It was apparently an open secret in the Russian government, as one of their politicians in the Duma (the Russian “Congress”) made clear:
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the Duma — Russia’s parliament — made the snide comment during a Sunday appearance on a Russian news program, Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. “(To achieve world dominance) the U.S. overextended themselves,” Nikonov said, according to a translation from CNN. “Because the most recent tendencies, economical, military, even tendencies in the intelligence (services) which slept through while Russia elected a new U.S. president.”
But Putin made a mistake of grand scale. He apparently assumed that his intelligence agency could run this psyops campaign without America discovering what they had done. Perhaps he (autocrat-for-life that he seems to be) thought that once he got Trump installed in the White House, that he could keep Trump there and none would be the wiser. Problem is, Putin fell victim to the same short-term-profit mindset that has infected America’s right wing for generations. Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s efforts at regime change (e.g. Iran-Contra), Bush 43’s invasion of Iraq for oil, the GOP’s jubilation at SCOTUS’ gutting of the Voting Rights Act, all the tax cuts passed along way…all these are examples of short-term thinking, demanding profit or success in the near term with nary a thought for the long-term effects or damage. Putin’s installation of his puppet as our president worked wonders for his short-term gain…but to borrow an old phrase allegedly made by Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Putin has “awakened a sleeping giant”. Putin has discarded any hope of cooperation (much less friendship and trust) with the world’s two largest economies (the EU and the U.S.) for decades to come.
Racism, religion, punditry…and Putin is now added to the mix. How, then, could America possibly benefit from Trump’s presidency? In early 2016 I began saying that part of me hoped that Trump would get elected, not because I thought that his election would be anything but a tragedy and a travesty, but because we needed something to break our right-wing’s fever dream (note to self: be careful what you wish for). As great a president as I think Hillary could have been, her efforts (like President Obama’s before her) would have been effectively crippled by the Republicans. It would have been nonstop continuations of investigations into Benghazi and emails and pizzagate.
Sometimes a nation needs a reality check. Sometimes people need to be shown which is the molehill and which is the mountain, and to have their noses rubbed in what that mountain really is. The Republicans and conservatives have been living a fever dream of racism, religion, and punditry, and they need something to break that fever dream, to wake them up, to show them how far off the edge of the map they’ve gone. Hopefully (and the efforts of Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham notwithstanding), the exposure of Trump as the willing puppet of ex-KGB colonel Putin will be sufficient to the task.
Lastly, we should not yet dream that Trump will be removed from office via impeachment, for such takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate, and even if we had a perfectly pro-Dem midterm election this November, we cannot achieve that two-thirds majority in the Senate. In other words, Trump’s going to be our president until sometime in January 2021. We should therefore follow the (alleged) advice of Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We must paint each and every Republican politician and conservative pundit as diarrhetic Trumpy-orange as we can. We must rub the pundits and the right-wing evangelicals’ noses in their base hypocrisy until they began to lose not just their flocks of faithful, but also (and more importantly) their advertisers.
The GOP has lost the minority and young adult vote…and in a couple decades (perhaps less), America will be majority-minority. Thanks to Trump and Putin, America has a real opportunity to reform and reshape not just our government, but even our character as a nation by exposing and consigning to political wilderness the racists, the xenophobes, the religiously-intolerant, and the sheer right-wing nutcases that have taken over our current political asylum. That is, if we survive the next three years as a nation of laws.