Donald J. Trump, America's 45th president, is an unflushed-toilet-of-a-man, a demonstrated liar and con man. He is emotionally, psychologically and intellectually unfit for the office he improbably holds. And he thus represents an enormous threat to our collective survival through his administration's actions on climate, empire, and war.
In a commentary for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank characterized The Donald as woefully deficient against the standards first envisioned by the republic's founders:
The founders did not anticipate this, a defect not just of private misconduct (which we’ve seen before) but of public character. “The process of election affords a moral certainty,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 68, “that the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single state; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of president of the United States. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters pre-eminent for ability and virtue.”
While there have been many instances in which the calibre of past presidents has justifiably been called into question, in the case of Orange Thing the presidency has indeed fallen to a man wholly lacking the requisite qualifications, who possesses a talent for low intrigue, and who is skilled in the little arts of popularity. Adding to the disaster, 45 has brought along for the ride appointees of dismal quality - those from the fourth rank who, under any other circumstance and any other president, would have no shot at an administration role - as in this partial list: Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Steve Miller, Kellyanne Conway, Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions, Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos, Sean Spicer, Ben Carson, Paul Manafort, Micheal Flynn, Hope Hicks, and the ten day wonder, Anthony Scaramucci.
Throughout the first year of his presidency - ending, in December, with record disapproval levels - Orange Thing has repeatedly demonstrated a complete absence of merit, so much so that the phrase "the worst week of Donald Trump's presidency" is already well worn - he simply can't refrain from making unforced errors. Hidden behind the public's fascination for the circus that plays out each day in the press, the machinery of his regime is busily engaged in crafting all manner of chaos. Two sub-pages speak directly to Trump's positions and actions on the twin perils at the centre of our site, but the examples immediately below demonstrate his total lack of "pre-eminent ability and virtue."
On April 6, Trump authorized a Tomahawk missile strike against a Syrian government air base in retaliation for what the administration claimed was a sarin gas attack against civilians two days earlier. The problem with this response is that there was no sarin gas attack by the Syrian government - the administration knew there was no gas attack, and Trump himself ignored the intelligence that proved this so. A widely-ignored report by Seymour Hersh describes how "Trump issued the order despite having been warned by the U.S. intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon." As Hersh reported in his piece, a U.S. intel officer said,
"We KNOW that there was no chemical attack ... the Russians are furious. Claiming we have the real intel and know the truth ... I guess it didn't matter whether we elected Clinton or Trump.“
As Hersh says in his piece,
To the dismay of many senior members of his national security team, Trump could not be swayed over the next 48 hours of intense briefings and decision-making. In a series of interviews, I learned of the total disconnect between the president and many of his military advisers and intelligence officials, as well as officers on the ground in the region who had an entirely different understanding of the nature of Syria’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun. I was provided with evidence of that disconnect, in the form of transcripts of real-time communications, immediately following the Syrian attack on April 4.
"Everyone close to him knows his proclivity for acting precipitously when he does not know the facts," the adviser said. "He doesn’t read anything and has no real historical knowledge. He wants verbal briefings and photographs. He’s a risk-taker. He can accept the consequences of a bad decision in the business world; he will just lose money. But in our world, lives will be lost and there will be long-term damage to our national security if he guesses wrong. He was told we did not have evidence of Syrian involvement and yet Trump says: 'Do it.”’
In the end, the much-hyped response caused no lasting damage to the Syrian air-base, but Trump was deemed by the mainstream media to have finally become "presidential" (see a sampling of the fawning commentaries, as well as some of the opposition to it, here, here, here, here and here). The problem for 45, going forward, will be his response the next time. Hersh concludes his piece with the comments of a senior advisor in the intelligence community,
“The Salafists and jihadists got everything they wanted out of their hyped-up Syrian nerve gas ploy. ... The issue is, what if there’s another false flag sarin attack credited to hated Syria? Trump has upped the ante and painted himself into a corner with his decision to bomb. And do not think these guys are not planning the next faked attack. Trump will have no choice but to bomb again, and harder. He’s incapable of saying he made a mistake.”
As a postscript to these sad events, in February of the following year Secretary of Defense Mattis finally admitted the United States could produce "no evidence" the Syrian government used Sarin against its own people.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, where he proudly and defiantly gave cover to America's white nationalists and neo-Nazis, Trump again showed the world who he really is - so its time we finally believe him. His history as a racist and bigot is well documented for those who cared to read about it, views that date from well before the dog-whistle themes of his presidential campaign. From settling with the Justice Department over accusations of housing discrimination to his demands for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, from Birtherism to the events of Charlottesville, Donald Trump is exactly who he has shown himself to be. And he continued the racial demagoguery in the weeks following Charlottesville. No one can be surprised. He is incapable of controlling his raging racism.
But the outrage over his August 15 equivocation - as editor Jeffrey St. Clair of Counterpunch explains below - is a "mock outrage." As St. Clair says, "Everyone felt very good about how bad they felt."
Trump is a familiar character to most of the world. He is the unvarnished embodiment of the American bully, who has stalked the planet for the last century, taking what it wants and leaving corpses and ruin in its wake. There is in Trump no pretense to the humane, no guise of benevolence or cloak of empathy. He is the threatening figure he appears to be, which is, of course, exactly how you want your adversary to appear.
Now middlebrow America is getting a glimpse of itself through the mirror of its own bombastic, vindictive and racist leader. He has fractured the rituals and conventions that desensitized most Americans from what our system is really all about. The elites fear Trump because he gives the game away. He personifies the reality they’ve been working for decades to conceal. The role of most presidents has been to comfort the nation when it recoils at a sudden view of its own depravity, from the My Lai massacre to Abu Ghraib, assuring the citizenry that the system isn’t as malign as it appears. Trump pours acid on the wounds, as when he impertinently reminded the country that its two most revered founders where big time slave-owners.
With his commentary, St. Clair provides a concise summary of America's history of white domination - at home and abroad - and he presents a glimpse into what realoutrage looks like.
And thus, after a year in office, it is now clear - just as it was during the election campaign - that Donald J. Trump is manifestly unfit to be president of the United States. He is unhinged in his rage, has demonstrated a passion for cruelty, and is a growing danger to the world through the unfolding disasters in the climate and nuclear files. The deep concern over the Trump Administration voiced by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the start of the year therefore takes on added urgency with each passing day.
On This Page This page continues with Jeffrey St. Clair's complete commentary on Trump and Charlottesville and "the sickness at the heart of the American project." St. Clair's thoughts offer a useful transition to Tom Engelhardt's essay on Donald Trump the "declinist" president - that is, how Trump's slogan "Make America Great Again" explicitly acknowledged an America that is no longer the exceptional, the indispensable, nation - though its a safe bet the country's elite and military have not yet internalized this bit of news. And that's a problem, as Engelhard notes, because Trump is likely to seek a solution to America's decline in hard military power, a default position clearly at odds with the reasoning found in Andrew Bacevich's excellent bookThe Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. The military theme continues in a conversation with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson on The Real News Network, "Trump Needs A Good War," and the page then concludes with the four-part editorial from the Los Angeles Times, "Donald Trump's Train-wreck Presidency."
Trump's Moral Blindspot is America's
by Jeffrey St. Clair...
We’ve have entered the time of mock outrage. The press was shocked that armed neo-Nazis were marching through the streets of Charlottesville shouting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us!” Republicans were aghast that many of these thugs were wearing Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” caps. Democrats were indignant that Republicans didn’t call for Trump’s head on a platter.
Everyone felt very good about how bad they felt.
In this national psychodrama, Trump plays the role of the Great Revealer. Trump has pulled back the curtains on the cesspool of American politics for the inspection of all but the most timid. Trump speaks the forbidden words that many other Americans secretly think. Trump utters these heresies self-righteously and without shame. Therefore he must be punished for putting the system at risk. He must be lashed for his shamelessness. He must be castigated for exposing the sickness at the heart of the American project.
Trump is Melville’s Confidence Man: he offers his minions the chance to indulge in political taboos. But unlike Bill Clinton or Barack Obama he is not a trickster or a quick-change artist. All of his lies and temptations are at the service of his own vanity and most are so transparent that even his most ardent devotees don’t swallow them whole. Yet he rarely lies about how he feels. Not for long anyway. His skin is too thin. Trump can’t escape who he really is. In another politician, Jimmy Carter perhaps, this might be an endearing quality. With Trump it is deeply unnerving. Trump’s rapacity and bigotry strike too close to home. He reminds us that we haven’t buried the worst of our past.
Trump is a familiar character to most of the world. He is the unvarnished embodiment of the American bully, who has stalked the planet for the last century taking what it wants and leaving corpses and ruin in its wake. There is in Trump no pretense to the humane, no guise of benevolence or cloak of empathy. He is the threatening figure he appears to be, which is, of course, exactly how you want your adversary to appear.
The poor recognize Trump for what he is: he’s the guy who collects the rent, who turns the water and electricity off, who spits at you when you ask for money for food, who sends your kid off to war while his goes big game hunting, who snitches your mom out to the cops for her Oxycontin habit. They don’t need any false words from Trump to heal their shock about the evil rampage in Charlottesville. They aren’t shocked by Charlottesville. They’ve lived that reality most of their lives. And they aren’t startled that the perpetrators have sympathizers in the government. That’s the way it’s always been on the mean streets of America.
Now middlebrow America is getting a glimpse of itself through the mirror of its own bombastic, vindictive and racist leader. He has fractured the rituals and conventions that desensitized most Americans from what our system is really all about. The elites fear Trump because he gives the game away. He personifies the reality they’ve been working for decades to conceal. The role of most presidents has been to comfort the nation when it recoils at a sudden view of its own depravity, from the My Lai massacre to Abu Ghraib, assuring the citizenry that the system isn’t as malign as it appears. Trump pours acid on the wounds, as when he impertinently reminded the country that its two most revered founders where big time slave-owners.
Trump’s initial response to the Charlottesville Nazifest was one of the most honest statements of his presidency. No false pieties, no hollow condolences to the dead and injured, no fake denunciation of the racists whose support he craves and whose views he shares. With a wink and nod, he swiftly condemned generic hate and violence, leaving the country to wonder how these sentiments squared with his remarks earlier in the week threatening to nuke North Korea and invade Venezuela. When he returned to the cameras two days later to read the words that the political and media elites put in his mouth, Trump looked like he was making a hostage tape. He seethed as he spit out sentences against his will. You could almost see the steam rising as he stormed out of the room. You just knew he was going to blow.
It took less than 24 hours. On Monday, Trump blew up Infrastructure Day 2 with an incandescent eruption of white rage, where he impetuously advanced a moral equivalency between Nazis, some of them armed with semi-automatic rifles, and the people amassed to confront them. During his rancid rant, Trump crassly used a Tweet by Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, as a prop to boost his own self-esteem and then a few hours later Tweeted out a cartoon of a Trump train running over a CNN reporter. The man has class. People were quick to say Trump’s presidency ended at that moment, as even squeamish CEOs started jumping ship. I’d argue that it’s just begun.
We are now confronted with the most openly racist president since Woodrow Wilson and he isn’t going anywhere for the next few years. How naïve did you have to be to think it was going to work out much different? What was the AFL-CIO doing on the president’s Manufacturing Council to begin with? If you hadn’t paid attention to his racist tactics as a landlord or his call to have the railroaded and innocent young black men known as the Central Park Five executed, there were hours of Trump tape from the Howard Stern Show to document the moral character of the man. Did anyone really think Trump was capable of denouncing white racists with any kind of authenticity? For Trump to condemn Nazis is to condemn Daddy. He’s frozen in a Freudian knot. It’s instructive to realize that 3 of the last 5 US presidents had fathers or grandfathers who were Nazi sympathizers. (See Prescott Bush.) And the sixth, Ronald Reagan, laid flowers on the graves of the Waffen SS.
The GOP damage control strategy has been obvious: you must publicly denounce KKK & Nazis if you want to continue implementing racist policies and laws. And all but the most loyal Trumpites have fallen into line. The problem is that Trump’s base isn’t going with them. Indeed, there’s little indication that Republican voters are bothered much by Trump’s fulminations. Trump remains the great white hope. They want to see him fight and don’t much care if he’s throwing punches at Nancy Pelosi, Wolf Blitzer or Mitch McConnell.
Trump has tried to rally his forces by talking about the sanctity of American history and the cultural value of statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. He even suggests that the Alt-Left might soon be coming with a wrecking ball for the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Let it be so!
But even Lee would have been a dissenter to Trump’s cause. In a 1869 letter to a friend, Lee resisted movement in the Southern states after the war to erect memorials to the Rebels. “I think it wise not to keep open the sores of war,” Lee wrote, “but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
Lee was lucky to have lived to have a say in the matter. President Andrew Johnson wanted the general tried and executed as a traitor. His neck was saved by Ulysses S. Grant. No good deed goes unpunished. Now Grant is known mostly for his Tomb, which he ended up in after drinking more than Nixon in the Final Days and Lee is mythologized as a reluctant warrior and honorable loser. (He was neither.) Grant was a helluva writer, by the way. His memoirs – written while he was broke and dying of throat cancer – are the best of any president’s (not saying all that much, admittedly.)
Lee’s request largely held sway until the turn of the century. The vast majority of Confederate memorials and statues went up after the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 and the subsequent rise of Jim Crow Laws across the South. The confederate monuments idolized by Trump and his retinue aren’t solemn idols to a lost cause, but imposing symbols of the reassertion of white power.
Trump himself has been somewhat less respectful of historical monuments when they’ve stood in his way. In 1979, Trump stunned the New York art world when he demolished two highly esteemed art deco friezes on the façade of the Bonwit Teller building to clear the way for the construction of Trump Tower. And even now he has ordered his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to develop plans to gut protections for as many as 27 national monuments, from the Siskiyous to the Bear Ears.
For their part, the Democrats, who almost universally backed the torch-bearing fascists in Ukraine, have been grousing about Trump’s use of the term Alt-Left. But the president swiped it from Democratic Party operatives such as Neera Tanden, Joan Walsh and Joy Reid, who have been using the expression to smear Bernie Sanders and his rag-tag gang of Sandernistas as left-wing zealots bent on taking over the Democratic Party.
These same liberal functionaries are now demanding that Trump fire Steve Bannon to prove he’s serious about confronting racists. By the same measure, shouldn’t the Democrats expel all of their own members who voted for the racist Clinton Crime Bill, which has arguably inflicted more damage on black America than any legislation since the Fugitive Slave Act? (This would, of course, include Bernie Sanders, who remains unrepentant about his vote.)
But if you had only one target to set your sights why waste it on Bannon? On foreign policy and economics Bannon tends to be the sanest voice in the padded cell known as the Oval Office. Check out his fascinating interview with Robert Kuttner in the crusty liberal rag American Prospect, where Bannon inveighs against the hawks in the White House, dismisses the “alt right” as losers and clowns who need to be crushed, and rules out military action against North Korea, going so far as to say that he’d support removing U.S. troops from South Korea in exchange for a verifiable freeze in the North’s nuclear weapons program. Surely, when it comes to racist policies the greatest villain in the Trump ecosystem is the Living Confederate Monument, J. Beauregard Sessions. But the Democrats have flocked to defend Sessions, first because they want him to stay on as AG to protect Mueller’s Russia probe from getting pink slipped by Trump, and second because he used the magic word “terrorism” when describing the killing of Heather Heyer. That was easy. Now watch how many blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans Sessions locks up over the next 3.5 years.
With Bannon out, the efficiency experts from the Pentagon and Goldman Sachs now running the Trump White House may actually be able to put their plans into action. Duck and cover…
Predictably, in the post-Charlottesville fever there’s been a rush to find a legislative fix to curtail future noxious gatherings of American Nazis. These knee-jerk maneuvers will almost certainly pose more of a threat to the Constitution than the white power movement.
If they criminalize “hate” what will happen to those of us who hate war-makers, bankers, oil companies, home foreclosers, killer cops & white supremacists? Any laws enacted in the name of Charlottesville will restrict the political activities of the left more than the far right, for the simple reason that the government has nothing to fear from the far right. [See the aftermath of Clinton’s Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (passed after the Oklahoma City bombing) and the Patriot Act.] Already the congress is moving to outlaw boycotts of Israel. How easy will it now be to apply the same censorious template to quash protests against clearcuts on national forests, nuclear plants, animal slaughterhouses, ICE raids, drone operations or police violence?
It’s a dead certainty that the biggest beneficiary of the horrors that took place in Master Jefferson’s city will be the most lethally racist institution in the country: the police, who will see their powers and budgets increase. In Charlottesville, it was hard to tell the cops from the neo-Nazis. Swaddled in their black storm-trooper gear, the police held back, watching passively as goons with shields and clubs flailed away at protesters. It wasn’t difficult to detect where their sympathies resided.
There are probably more white supremacists in the NYPD than the neo-Nazi Vanguard America, which claims only 200 members. On one day alone this month (August 4th, 2017) 9 Americans in 7 different states were killed by police. I didn’t read anything in the New York Times about that atrocity. Perhaps this kind of state-sanctioned racist violence is now much too familiar to even warrant a headline.
Written by Jeffrey St. Clair, first published in Counterpunch, August 18, 2017
Will Trump Set a Record for the History Books?
by Tom Engelhardt...
In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first. When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an -- but the -- “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort. He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability. He ran on the single word “again” -- as in “make America great again” -- because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore. And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.
In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington. The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of... well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)... couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.
Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish. He sensed that, too. He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.” And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.” And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.
In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had. The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the costof a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and... well, you know the story, really you do. In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.
Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.
And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery. He answered the $64,000 question. (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.) He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.
It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire. He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones -- the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists -- away, to wall them out or tossthem out or ban them from ever traveling here. He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory. It could prove to be a fall for the ages. Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage. Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers. It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.
When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.” It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it. It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.
Applying Hard Power to a Failing World As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power -- of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort -- by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon. Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.
Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable. Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory. Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today. They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way. (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.) To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices. In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.
Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades. If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal. While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.
Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster. This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East. They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same. More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikes... more.
After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends -- in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse. Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.
Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance. Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobeof the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”). Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Timesrecently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):
“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”
In other words, more!
Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”
The First American Laster? If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement. It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time. When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push. It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.
Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election. It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel. It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror. It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch. It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.
If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked. Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was. It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.
So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation? Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster? Will it truly be one for the record books?
Written by Tom Engelhardt, first published in TomDispatch, June 13, 2017
Trump Needs a Good War
A stable presidential administration, a "well-run" administration of the type generally associated with Barack Obama, is often inimical to the welfare of most Americans - and certainly to the welfare of the majority of people around the world. On the other hand, the gong show that is the Trump administration is increasingly becoming inimical to the interests of the masters of the American empire, and that could be a recipe for disaster for everyone. The recent firing of James Comey as head of the FBI by Donald Trump, in such spectacularly inept fashion, may ultimately be seen as the day his administration ended.
In this interview on The Real News Network, Paul Jay and Lawrence Wilkerson discuss the possible, most likely the probable, machinations of those who stand in the shadows, those who really control the operation of the American empire. The "deep state", as it most popularly known, is not simply the alphabet soup of U.S. intelligence and homeland agencies (and, yes, let's do include the mainstream media in this group) who monitor and control the American populace - these comprise the operational arm of the Deep State. The real power resides with the billionaire class whose interests drive the American empire. Trump is becoming a threat to those interests. Two recent articles by Robert Parry (here and here) offer some excellent commentary and background on the potential of a "soft coup" against 45.
Paul Jay and Larry Wilkerson ....
The permanent state represents the basic interests of the billionaire class as a whole, and its their job to maintain the empire.
Paul Jay: I’ve welcomed the chaos in the Trump White House and congress. I think we far more to fear from a functional Trump administration than one in disarray. But with the firing of FBI head James Comey the craziness has crossed a line. The American state and military institutions, the leaders of the political class and the billionaire elites, where real power resides, are okay with a certain amount of zealotry in the White House. After all, most went along with Dick Cheney. But the elites do want a certain amount of checks and balances; they don’t want a cabal to take the reigns of American power and wield it without limits. The firing threatens the system of power in Washington, where the permanent state – the “Deep State” as some like to call it – can directly assert systemic power, and no president can defy it.
The permanent state represents the basic interests of the billionaire class as a whole, and its their job to maintain the empire. Of course, there are splits and fractures of many kinds within this deep state, agencies and individuals that vie for more authority and higher budgets, but together they will defend their institutional power. Even a president cannot be above it – he has to work within it. If Trump continues down this path, this chaos and megalomania, it will burn down his presidency, and rising from the ashes will be a phoenix, and the face of this dangerous creature will be Mike Pence, whether its by impeachment, resignation or simply defacto, Pence will be the real power in the White House. Maybe that was the plan all along, something we suggested months ago here on the Real News – the Pence White House will be Cheney redux, far more efficient and capable than the Trump clown show, and far more dangerous to peoples everywhere.
Now joining us is Larry Wilkerson. Larry is the former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, currently an adjunct Professor at the College of William and Mary, and a regular contributor to the Real News.
So, the disfunction, the clowniness, are within it the seeds of a lot of danger. What do you think?
What the elites want is a government that doesn't operate...against their interests. ... And the lunacy of the Trump administration...is inimical to their interests.
Larry Wilkerson. I think one of the things you just said in your lead in, most of which I agree with, that the elites don’t want a government that is unlimited in its power, is a little bit off. I think what they want is a government that doesn’t operate, either through chaos or design – and its looking more like chaos – against their interests. And what we have here, of course, I think, is a display, repeatedly a display, of the potential, if not the actual, already, actions against that interest. So, you’re right in the sense that this group is probably going to be the most formidable foe, ultimately, that Trump is going to face, and that it might, in some of its parts, be more comfortable with a Pence than a Trump, and that that might be even more dangerous than the chaos we’re seeing from Trump, is a worrisome point. And the Comey debacle, as it were, illustrates how profound that can be, even to the point of perpetrating a constitutional crisis, out of which one wonders what would come.
Paul Jay. What I’m saying by, why they don’t like this cabal-type of control, while I say there’s overall interest of the billionaire class, which means maintain the empire, maintain the military supremacy of the United States, maintain what’s essentially a one superpower world, there’s certain basic principles that have to be maintained. Within the billionaire class there’s all kinds of splits, and there’s a split right now between the section that wants this geo-political rivalry with Russia because it feeds the military-industrial-complex, and there’s a whole cabal of fossil-fuel types that Tillerson represents that want to play ball with the Russians because there’s enormous amounts of money to be made in the Russian energy sector. But they don’t want control in the White House that’s above the FBI, above the CIA, the basic state institutions – they’ll go with a Dick Cheney because on the whole it served the elites interests and everybody was cashing in from lower taxes to any regulation wanted gone was gone. But I don’t think the state institution and the elites like it if you can simply fire anyone who doesn’t agree with the president.
Larry Wilkerson. Well you’re right on that, I think. And the lunacy of the Trump administration, and the uncertainty and the unpredictability which it emanates is inimical to their interests, anyway you look at it. If you don’t know what your clown, your puppet, is going to do in day-to-day operations, with the enormous power at his fingertips, then it becomes of grave concern.
Paul Jay. So before we talk about the Pence idea, what do you make of the various players in all of this, and what does it tell us about what I would call systemic decay?
Larry Wilkerson. You have just that. You have institutional decay, and that’s systemic; you have decay of diplomacy in the state department; you have the decay of the government and its meritocracy, if you will in general; you have the decay of the very republic that we supposedly represent; and, ultimately, the decay of democracy and liberty. That’s all happening at the same time we have this clown, this lunacy, in the White House, and, as you pointed out, the prospect of something even more nefarious perhaps standing in the shadows behind it.
And you have 300 plus million Americans who are not aware of this disaster in any real way that they could do anything about it.
No matter who I was as a billionaire, if I were Charles and David Koch, or I were Robert Mercer, interested in the goose continuing to lay my golden eggs, I would have some grievous concern over this bunch. On the one hand you have the ideological component represented most prominently by Steve Bannon, which seems to be just short of insane, and reflective more of Adolph Hitler and his gang than anything else we can cite in recent history. On the other hand you have the lunacy and unpredictability of the clown at the centre. And on the other side you have two political parties, both I would argue, in complete disarray. You have the Republicans in possession of the White House and both Houses of the legislature and excited as hell about that, and yet beginning to realize they’re not going to get anything done because of the lunatic in the White House, and what they’ve done to themselves in dividing up into this suicidal arrangement of parties within a party. And you have the Democrats, who are still stunned by their electoral loss, and can’t seem to get their act together, and could never be as ruthless and as strategic as the Republicans are. So this is a disaster taking place in front of our eyes, and you have 300 plus million Americans who are not aware of this disaster in any real way that they could do anything about [it].
So you have the recipe here for a real problem in governance, a real problem in the continuation of this republic in any sort of significant and meaningful way, and what you have – what you have big time right now – is leaders all around the world, including those of our allies, who are thinking hard about the United States in the way of it being distrustful, mistrustful, even no longer reliable, questioning their commitments to things they’ve been committed to since World War II, thinking about what they might do to join forces and balance the hegemon gone amuck, and increasingly you’re going to see signs of that actually happening. You’re not going to just see Prime Minister Abe in Japan trying to grow Japan up as fast as it can to be its own security element. You’re going to see other leaders all across the globe, both friendly and opposed, doing things that are inimical to our interests, and increasingly going to be doing them together.
Paul Jay. The one moment of respite for Trump in terms of the onslaught from the media, from the Democratic Party, even from some elements within the Republican Party, over his Russia ties, was after he bombed the airbase in Syria. All of a sudden he was “presidential,” all of a sudden everyone was cheering him on. It seems to me the one way out for him – and again, I think there will be a problem people rallying around Trump, which is why again I think the Pence card will eventually be played – is a war.
Within his inaugural address he called for a global war against Islamic fascism, he’s called for a war without restraint, he wants to give $54 billion to the Pentagon; and it seems to me there’s elements within the Pentagon, some of which he has picked for his cabinet, who never thought the Iraq War was lost (it was lost because Obama pulled the troops out, not for other reasons) and want to go back in, whether its to Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan – they don’t think that business is done. So it seems to me this is a particularly dangerous moment, given the internal crisis this administration is in.
The one power that the president has, that is unlimited in this regard, is the war power. That this president would use that to ultimately resurrect what is increasingly a failed administration is something to be worried about.
Larry Wilkerson. I think you’re right with respect to the war power that has devolved almost entirely to the executive branch. The cowardice of the congress, the incompetence of the congress, the fundamental interest of the congress in fueling those who contribute to their campaigns – from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing – that is very conducive to what you’ve just suggested. And the one power that the president has, that is unlimited in that regard, is the war power. That this president would use that to ultimately resurrect what is increasingly a failed administration is something to be worried about. And that the military, from H. R. McMaster to Jim Mattis, within his cabinet, would be supportive of that if he picked the right place – and believe me, they’ll help him pick the right place – is also worrisome. It could put us on the trajectory of even more war after seventeen years and two to three trillion dollars, which could be empire ending.
Paul Jay. The targets for war – I guess he’s got three – he’s said he’s going after ISIS, which means a bigger commitment in the Middle East, certainly as he ran his election and in the early days of this administration, and in terms of their strategic thinking of Trump and the people around him, the target is Iran. The shorter term target, I guess, is North Korea, though I’m not sure what they can actually do with North Korea other than lean more on China. But at some point they want to get back, I would say, into the Middle East, and that includes reinitiating this hyper rhetoric against Iran.
Larry Wilkerson. I think you’re right. I wouldn’t say they’re trying to get back in the Middle East – from what I’m hearing, we are there, and we’re getting there, incrementally, more so, every day, every week. Mostly special operating forces, and lots of logistics, that make me think that the plan is to get there with even more than just SOF. But Iran is the ultimate target. I have to think that, I have to feel that because I know that’s the strategic viewpoint of the military. And if Iran is the ultimate target, then we’re talking about doing something, precipitating something, making something happen, that either shows Iran is the culprit in violating the current nuclear agreement, or that sort of approximates that in a way that they can excuse themselves, as we did in 2003 when we invaded Iraq, and start something. And that’s very worrisome. Of all the things that are out there right now, form the South China Sea, Taiwan and China, to Russia and Ukraine, to North Korea, the Iran business concerns me the most because it offers probably the most satisfying, the most immediate, the most in-your-face area for them to do this.
Paul Jay. But what do you think is the balance of power within the Pentagon, because that’s a monolithic institution or view either? When Cheney wanted to go after Iran it seems to me a lot of the Pentagon actually stopped it. … [Trump] may have gathered people around him in the cabinet that would be on board with that, but what about the rest of the Pentagon? Will he get a push back or if he throws enough $billions will they go along with it anyway?
If you're gonna get that, you're gonna have to have a war, and its gonna have to be a first-class war.
Larry Wilkerson. He could, but you have to remember that time has elapsed, and when you’re on the money train, when you’ve got to have the money, and you need justification for that money, the tendency to search for a little conflict to make that money flow a little more abundantly is very strong. And its been some time since major troops were committed in Iraq. And we really don’t have - eight-nine hundred, nine thousand – that much committed in Afghanistan – we’re going to beef it up a bit, we’ve got some 24-30,000 contractors there, and as I’ve said before, I think we’re in Afghanistan to stay – that is not a real satisfying commitment schedule, if you will, for lots of more dollars, and when I say lots of more dollars,…I mean $100 or $200 billion plus. If you’re gonna get that, you’re gonna have to have a war, and its gonna have to be a first-class war.
Paul Jay. The opposition to this is certainly not going to come from the leadership of the Democratic Party. Chuck Schumer was beside himself with pleasure when Trump attacked the Syrian airbase. He’s as vitriolic about Iran as John McCain, in fact I don’t think there’s any space between McCain and Schumer on their aggressive stance towards Iran. This opposition – if there’s gonna be one – there’s gonna have to be some kind of massive movement out in the streets amongst people. Other than a very small number of people within the Democratic Party in Congress – and they’re a very small number – it ain’t gonna come from there.
What issue do you know of...that is more potent than Israel, in American domestic politics, and therefore, in affecting U.S. foreign and security policy?
Larry Wilkerson. You’re right, and this affection for war with Iran is all about Israel. It’s all about this strategic approach that Netanyahu and Lieberman and others like him have developed, that Schumer and others have bought into, and that is that destabilizing all of Israel’s enemies – and, mind you, this includes Lebenon, Jordan, and Egypt – destabilizing them and keeping them destabilized, and even breaking them up into statelets, or less, is a good strategy for Israel’s security. This has been bought into by much of the American sycophantic approach, in the congress and elsewhere, to Israel’s security, and it’s certainly been bought into, and even designed – the principal architect is Netanyahu. And as I said to my students recently, what issue do you know of, in your knowledge of what we’ve studies since World War II, what issue do you know of that is more potent, than Israel, in American domestic politics, and therefore, in affecting U.S. foreign and security policy? Israel is the number one issue.
Paul Jay. Given the disarray and the plunging in the polls of Trump, and the possibility of a real reverse in the 2018 congressional elections, and then, right now, I would say, a pretty unlikely second term for Trump in 2020 – except who knows what war would do in that scenario – they better do something fast, they’re gonna want to maybe up their schedule, move ahead their schedule on this and make sure they do something big before 2018.
Larry Wilkerson. And they need to do something big, I think, to deflect what’s going to continue to trouble them majorly, and that is – however it is conducted in the Senate, in the House, by the FBI, and elsewhere – into the Russian connections, not only with the 2016 election, but also with the entire Trump team to include possibly the president himself. There’s no question, in my mind anyway, that the reason Comey fired was because he looked like he might be a little bit too much of an independent agent in investigating these things, connections to Russia.
Paul Jay. This is the danger of people in the “resistance” against Trump, that if you let people like Schumer and Clinton into the "resistance", wait till this thing with Iran comes, because these people are gonna be for the war, and then where’s the resistance going to be.
Larry Wilkerson. I wouldn’t count on the Clinton camp – Bill or Hilary, or anyone around them – for anything fruitful. And I wouldn’t count on the Democrats in general for anything fruitful, other than perhaps enough pressure to eventually make it an independent investigation into these two possibilities – collusion, and influence on the election. I’m almost positive that’s what the outcome of the next six months or so is gonna be, is an independent investigation. What that will turn up is anyone’s guess. I would suggest its gonna turn up positive evidence in both instances, of Russian complicity in the election, and Trump’s team – and maybe even the president himself’s – complicity in that complicity, if you will.
Paul Jay. In many ways, to me, that’s the worst of all worlds – you get some kind of attack on Iran, and you get it with Pence, and that ain’t good.
Larry Wilkerson. And maybe you get the impeachment after the midterms in 2018, and you get the war, and you get Pence in the middle of all that, and let’s worry about where you go from there.
Interview on The Real News Network, first posted on May 12, 2017
Donald Trump's Train-wreck Presidency
Our Dishonest President It was no secret during the campaign that Donald Trump was a narcissist and a demagogue who used fear and dishonesty to appeal to the worst in American voters. The Times called him unprepared and unsuited for the job he was seeking, and said his election would be a “catastrophe.”
Still, nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck. Like millions of other Americans, we clung to a slim hope that the new president would turn out to be all noise and bluster, or that the people around him in the White House would act as a check on his worst instincts, or that he would be sobered and transformed by the awesome responsibilities of office.
Instead, seventy-some days in — and with about 1,400 to go before his term is completed — it is increasingly clear that those hopes were misplaced.
In a matter of weeks, President Trump has taken dozens of real-life steps that, if they are not reversed, will rip families apart, foul rivers and pollute the air, intensify the calamitous effects of climate change and profoundly weaken the system of American public education for all.
His attempt to de-insure millions of people who had finally received healthcare coverage and, along the way, enact a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich has been put on hold for the moment. But he is proceeding with his efforts to defang the government’s regulatory agencies and bloat the Pentagon’s budget even as he supposedly retreats from the global stage.
It is impossible to know where his presidency will lead or how much damage he will do to our nation.
These are immensely dangerous developments which threaten to weaken this country’s moral standing in the world, imperil the planet and reverse years of slow but steady gains by marginalized or impoverished Americans. But, chilling as they are, these radically wrongheaded policy choices are not, in fact, the most frightening aspect of the Trump presidency.
What is most worrisome about Trump is Trump himself. He is a man so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that it is impossible to know where his presidency will lead or how much damage he will do to our nation. His obsession with his own fame, wealth and success, his determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, his craving for adulation - these traits were, of course, at the very heart of his scorched-earth outsider campaign; indeed, some of them helped get him elected. But in a real presidency in which he wields unimaginable power, they are nothing short of disastrous.
Although his policies are, for the most part, variations on classic Republican positions (many of which would have been undertaken by a President Ted Cruz or a President Marco Rubio), they become far more dangerous in the hands of this imprudent and erratic man. Many Republicans, for instance, support tighter border security and a tougher response to illegal immigration, but Trump’s cockamamie border wall, his impracticable campaign promise to deport all 11 million people living in the country illegally and his blithe disregard for the effect of such proposals on the U.S. relationship with Mexico turn a very bad policy into an appalling one.
In the days ahead, The Times editorial board will look more closely at the new president, with a special attention to three troubling traits:
Trump’s shocking lack of respect for those fundamental rules and institutions on which our government is based. Since Jan. 20, he has repeatedly disparaged and challenged those entities that have threatened his agenda, stoking public distrust of essential institutions in a way that undermines faith in American democracy. He has questioned the qualifications of judges and the integrity of their decisions, rather than acknowledging that even the president must submit to the rule of law. He has clashed with his own intelligence agencies, demeaned government workers and questioned the credibility of the electoral system and the Federal Reserve. He has lashed out at journalists, declaring them “enemies of the people,” rather than defending the importance of a critical, independent free press. His contempt for the rule of law and the norms of government are palpable.
His utter lack of regard for truth. Whether it is the easily disprovable boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd or his unsubstantiated assertion that Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, the new president regularly muddies the waters of fact and fiction. It’s difficult to know whether he actually can’t distinguish the real from the unreal - or whether he intentionally conflates the two to befuddle voters, deflect criticism and undermine the very idea of objective truth. Whatever the explanation, he is encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media - and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions. This is a recipe for a divided country in which differences grow deeper and rational compromise becomes impossible.
His scary willingness to repeat alt-right conspiracy theories, racist memes and crackpot, out-of-the-mainstream ideas. Again, it is not clear whether he believes them or merely uses them. But to cling to disproven “alternative” facts; to retweet racists; to make unverifiable or false statements about rigged elections and fraudulent voters; to buy into discredited conspiracy theories first floated on fringe websites and in supermarket tabloids - these are all of a piece with the Barack Obama birther claptrap that Trump was peddling years ago and which brought him to political prominence. It is deeply alarming that a president would lend the credibility of his office to ideas that have been rightly rejected by politicians from both major political parties.
Where will this end? Will Trump moderate his crazier campaign positions as time passes? Or will he provoke confrontation with Iran, North Korea or China, or disobey a judge’s order or order a soldier to violate the Constitution? Or, alternately, will the system itself - the Constitution, the courts, the permanent bureaucracy, the Congress, the Democrats, the marchers in the streets - protect us from him as he alienates more and more allies at home and abroad, steps on his own message and creates chaos at the expense of his ability to accomplish his goals? Already, Trump’s job approval rating has been hovering in the mid-30s, according to Gallup, a shockingly low level of support for a new president. And that was before his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, offered to cooperate last week with congressional investigators looking into the connection between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
Those who oppose the new president’s reckless and heartless agenda must make their voices heard.
On Inauguration Day, we wrote on this page that it was not yet time to declare a state of “wholesale panic” or to call for blanket “non-cooperation” with the Trump administration. Despite plenty of dispiriting signals, that is still our view. The role of the rational opposition is to stand up for the rule of law, the electoral process, the peaceful transfer of power and the role of institutions; we should not underestimate the resiliency of a system in which laws are greater than individuals and voters are as powerful as presidents. This nation survived Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon. It survived slavery. It survived devastating wars. Most likely, it will survive again. But if it is to do so, those who oppose the new president’s reckless and heartless agenda must make their voices heard. Protesters must raise their banners. Voters must turn out for elections. Members of Congress - including and especially Republicans - must find the political courage to stand up to Trump. Courts must safeguard the Constitution. State legislators must pass laws to protect their citizens and their policies from federal meddling. All of us who are in the business of holding leaders accountable must redouble our efforts to defend the truth from his cynical assaults.
The United States is not a perfect country, and it has a great distance to go before it fully achieves its goals of liberty and equality. But preserving what works and defending the rules and values on which democracy depends are a shared responsibility. Everybody has a role to play in this drama.
Why Trump Lies Donald Trump did not invent the lie and is not even its master. Lies have oozed out of the White House for more than two centuries and out of politicians’ mouths - out of all people’s mouths - likely as long as there has been human speech.
But amid all those lies, told to ourselves and to one another in order to amass power, woo lovers, hurt enemies and shield ourselves against the often glaring discomfort of reality, humanity has always had an abiding respect for truth.
In the United States, born and periodically reborn out of the repeated recognition and rejection of the age-old lie that some people are meant to take dominion over others, truth is as vital a part of the civic, social and intellectual culture as justice and liberty. Our civilization is premised on the conviction that such a thing as truth exists, that it is knowable, that it is verifiable, that it exists independently of authority or popularity and that at some point - and preferably sooner rather than later - it will prevail.
Even American leaders who lie generally know the difference between their statements and the truth. Richard Nixon said “I am not a crook” but by that point must have seen that he was. Bill Clinton said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” but knew that he did.
He targets the darkness, anger and insecurity that hide in each of us and harnesses them for his own purposes.
The insult that Donald Trump brings to the equation is an apparent disregard for fact so profound as to suggest that he may not see much practical distinction between lies, if he believes they serve him, and the truth. His approach succeeds because of his preternaturally deft grasp of his audience. Though he is neither terribly articulate nor a seasoned politician, he has a remarkable instinct for discerning which conspiracy theories in which quasi-news source, or which of his own inner musings, will turn into ratings gold. He targets the darkness, anger and insecurity that hide in each of us and harnesses them for his own purposes. If one of his lies doesn’t work - well, then he lies about that.
If we harbor latent racism or if we fear terror attacks by Muslim extremists, then he elevates a rumor into a public debate: Was Barack Obama born in Kenya, and is he therefore not really president?
If his own ego is threatened - if broadcast footage and photos show a smaller-sized crowd at his inauguration than he wanted - then he targets the news media, falsely charging outlets with disseminating “fake news” and insisting, against all evidence, that he has proved his case (“We caught them in a beauty,” he said).
If his attempt to limit the number of Muslim visitors to the U.S. degenerates into an absolute fiasco and a display of his administration’s incompetence, then he falsely asserts that terrorist attacks are underreported. (One case in point offered by the White House was the 2015 attack in San Bernardino, which in fact received intensive worldwide news coverage. The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the subject).
If he detects that his audience may be wearying of his act, or if he worries about a probe into Russian meddling into the election that put him in office, he tweets in the middle of the night the astonishingly absurd claim that President Obama tapped his phones. And when evidence fails to support him he dispatches his aides to explain that by “phone tapping” he obviously didn’t mean phone tapping. Instead of backing down when confronted with reality, he insists that his rebutted assertions will be vindicated as true at some point in the future. Trump’s easy embrace of untruth can sometimes be entertaining, in the vein of a Moammar Kadafi speech to the United Nations or the self-serving blathering of a 6-year-old.
He gives every indication that he is as much the gullible tool of liars as he is the liar-in-chief.
But he is not merely amusing. He is dangerous. His choice of falsehoods and his method of spewing them - often in tweets, as if he spent his days and nights glued to his bedside radio and was periodically set off by some drivel uttered by a talk show host who repeated something he’d read on some fringe blog - are a clue to Trump’s thought processes and perhaps his lack of agency. He gives every indication that he is as much the gullible tool of liars as he is the liar in chief.
He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy. He is a stranger to the concept of verification, the insistence on evidence and the standards of proof that apply in a courtroom or a medical lab - and that ought to prevail in the White House.
There have always been those who accept the intellectually bankrupt notion that people are entitled to invent their own facts - consider the “9/11 was an inside job” trope - but Trump’s ascent marks the first time that the culture of alternative reality has made its home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
If Americans are unsure which Trump they have - the Machiavellian negotiator who lies to manipulate simpler minds, or one of those simpler minds himself - does it really matter? In either case he puts the nation in danger by undermining the role of truth in public discourse and policymaking, as well as the notion of truth being verifiable and mutually intelligible.
In the months ahead, Trump will bring his embrace of alternative facts on the nation’s behalf into talks with China, North Korea or any number of powers with interests counter to ours and that constitute an existential threat. At home, Trump now becomes the embodiment of the populist notion (with roots planted at least as deeply in the Left as the Right) that verifiable truth is merely a concept invented by fusty intellectuals, and that popular leaders can provide some equally valid substitute. We’ve seen people like that before, and we have a name for them: demagogues.
Our civilization is defined in part by the disciplines - science, law, journalism - that have developed systematic methods to arrive at the truth. Citizenship brings with it the obligation to engage in a similar process. Good citizens test assumptions, question leaders, argue details, research claims. Investigate. Read. Write. Listen. Speak. Think. Be wary of those who disparage the investigators, the readers, the writers, the listeners, the speakers and the thinkers. Be suspicious of those who confuse reality with reality TV, and those who repeat falsehoods while insisting, against all evidence, that they are true. To defend freedom, demand fact.
Trump's Authoritarian Vision Standing before the cheering throngs at the Republican National Convention last summer, Donald Trump bemoaned how special interests had rigged the country’s politics and its economy, leaving Americans victimized by unfair trade deals, incompetent bureaucrats and spineless leaders.
He swooped into politics, he declared, to subvert the powerful and rescue those who cannot defend themselves. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
To Trump’s faithful, those words were a rallying cry. But his critics heard something far more menacing in them: a dangerously authoritarian vision of the presidency - one that would crop up time and again as he talked about overruling generals, disregarding international law, ordering soldiers to commit war crimes, jailing his opponent. Trump has no experience in politics; he’s never previously run for office or held a government position. So perhaps he was unaware that one of the hallmarks of the American system of government is that the president’s power to “fix” things unilaterally is constrained by an array of strong institutions - including the courts, the media, the permanent federal bureaucracy and Congress. Combined, they provide an essential defense against an imperial presidency.
Yet in his first weeks at the White House, President Trump has already sought to undermine many of those institutions. Those that have displayed the temerity to throw some hurdle in the way of a Trump objective have quickly felt the heat.
Consider Trump’s feud with the courts. He has repeatedly questioned the impartiality and the motives of judges. For example, he attacked the jurists who ruled against his order excluding travelers from seven majority Muslim nations, calling one a “so-called judge” and later tweeting:
Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad! Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 5, 2017
It’s nothing new for presidents to disagree with court decisions. But Trump’s direct, personal attacks on judges’ integrity and on the legitimacy of the judicial system itself - and his irresponsible suggestion that the judiciary should be blamed for future terrorist attacks - go farther. They aim to undermine public faith in the third branch of government.
The courts are the last line of defense for the Constitution and the rule of law; that’s what makes them such a powerful buffer against an authoritarian leader. The president of the United States should understand that and respect it.
Other institutions under attack include:
The electoral process. Faced with certified election results showing that Hillary Clinton outpolled him by nearly 3 million votes, Trump repeated the unsubstantiated — and likely crackpot — assertion that Clinton’s supporters had duped local polling places with millions of fraudulent votes. In a democracy, the right to vote is the one check that the people themselves hold against their leaders; sowing distrust in elections is the kind of thing leaders do when they don’t want their power checked.
The intelligence community. After reports emerged that the Central Intelligence Agency believed Russia had tried to help Trump win, the president-elect’s transition team responded: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” It was a snarky, dismissive, undermining response — and the administration has continued to belittle the intelligence community and question its motives since then, while also leaking stories about possibly paring and restructuring its ranks. It is bizarre to watch Trump continue to tussle publicly with this particular part of the government, whose leaders he himself has appointed, as if he were still an outsider candidate raging against the machine. It’s unnerving too, given the intelligence services’ crucial role in protecting the country against hidden risks, assisting the U.S. military and helping inform Trump’s decisions.
The media. Trump has blistered the mainstream media for reporting that has cast him in a poor light, saying outlets concocted narratives based on nonexistent anonymous sources. In February he saidthat the “fake news” media will “never represent the people,” adding ominously: “And we’re going to do something about it.” His goal seems to be to defang the media watchdog by making the public doubt any coverage that accuses Trump of blundering or abusing his power.
Federal agencies. In addition to calling for agency budgets to be chopped by up to 30%, Trump appointed a string of Cabinet secretaries who were hostile to much of their agencies’ missions and the laws they’re responsible for enforcing. He has also proposed deep cuts in federal research programs, particularly in those related to climate change. It’s easier to argue that climate change isn’t real when you’re no longer collecting the data that documents it.
In a way, Trump represents a culmination of trends that have been years in the making. Conservative talk radio hosts have long blasted federal judges as “activists” and regulators as meddlers in the economy, while advancing the myth of rampant election fraud. And gridlock in Washington has led previous presidents to try new ways to circumvent the checks on their power - witness President George W. Bush’s use of signing statements to invalidate parts of bills Congress passed, and President Obama’s aggressive use of executive orders when lawmakers balked at his proposals.
What’s uniquely threatening about Trump’s approach, though, is how many fronts he’s opened in this struggle for power and the vehemence with which he seeks to undermine the institutions that don’t go along. It’s one thing to complain about a judicial decision or to argue for less regulation, but to the extent that Trump weakens public trust in essential institutions like the courts and the media, he undermines faith in democracy and in the system and processes that make it work.
He sees himself as not merely a force for change, but as a wrecking ball.
Trump betrays no sense for the president’s place among the myriad of institutions in the continuum of governance. He seems willing to violate long-established political norms without a second thought, and he cavalierly rejects the civility and deference that allow the system to run smoothly. He sees himself as not merely a force for change, but as a wrecking ball.
Will Congress act as a check on Trump’s worst impulses as he moves forward? One test is the House and Senate intelligence committees’ investigation into Russia’s meddling in the presidential election; lawmakers need to muster the courage to follow the trail wherever it leads. Can the courts stand up to Trump? Already, several federal judges have issued rulings against the president’s travel ban. And although Trump has railed against the decisions, he has obeyed them. None of these institutions are eager to cede authority to the White House and they won’t do so without a fight. It would be unrealistic to suggest that America’s most basic democratic institutions are in imminent jeopardy. But we should not view them as invulnerable either. Remember that Trump’s verbal assaults are directed at the public, and are designed to chip away at people’s confidence in these institutions and deprive them of their validity. When a dispute arises, whose actions are you going to consider legitimate? Whom are you going to trust? That’s why the public has to be wary of Trump’s attacks on the courts, the “deep state,” the “swamp.” We can’t afford to be talked into losing our faith in the forces that protect us from an imperial presidency.
Trump's War on Journalism In Donald Trump’s America, the mere act of reporting news unflattering to the president is held up as evidence of bias. Journalists are slandered as “enemies of the people.”
Facts that contradict Trump’s version of reality are dismissed as “fake news.” Reporters and their news organizations are “pathetic,” “very dishonest,” “failing,” and even, in one memorable turn of phrase, "a pile of garbage.”
Trump is, of course, not the first American president to whine about the news media or try to influence coverage. President George W. Bush saw the press as elitist and “slick.” President Obama’s press operationtried to exclude Fox News reporters from interviews, blocked many officials from talking to journalists and, most troubling, prosecuted more national security whistle-blowers and leakers than all previous presidents combined. But Trump being Trump, he has escalated the traditionally adversarial relationship in demagogic and potentially dangerous ways.
Most presidents, irritated as they may have been, have continued to acknowledge - at least publicly - that an independent press plays an essential role in American democracy. They’ve recognized that while no news organization is perfect, honest reporting holds leaders and institutions accountable; that’s why a free press was singled out for protection in the 1st Amendment and why outspoken, unfettered journalism is considered a hallmark of a free country.
Trump doesn’t seem to buy it. On his very first day in office, he called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
Since then he has regularly condemned legitimate reporting as “fake news.” His administration has blocked mainstream news organizations, including The Times, from briefings and his secretary of State chose to travel to Asia without taking the press corps, breaking a longtime tradition.
He apparently hopes to discredit, disrupt or bully into silence anyone who challenges his version of reality.
This may seem like bizarre behavior from a man who consumes the news in print and on television so voraciously and who is in many ways a product of the media. He comes from reality TV, from talk radio with Howard Stern, from the gossip pages of the New York City tabloids, for whose columnists he was both a regular subject and a regular source.
But Trump’s strategy is pretty clear: By branding reporters as liars, he apparently hopes to discredit, disrupt or bully into silence anyone who challenges his version of reality. By undermining trust in news organizations and delegitimizing journalism and muddling the facts so that Americans no longer know who to believe, he can deny and distract and help push his administration’s far-fetched storyline.
It’s a cynical strategy, with some creepy overtones. For instance, when he calls journalists “enemies of the people,” Trump (whether he knows it or not) echoes Josef Stalin and other despots.
But it’s an effective strategy. Such attacks are politically expedient at a moment when trust in the news media is as low as it’s ever been, according to Gallup. And they’re especially resonant with Trump’s supporters, many of whom see journalists as part of the swamp that needs to be drained.
Of course, we’re not perfect. Some readers find news organizations too cynical; others say we’re too elitist. Some say we downplay important stories, or miss them altogether. Conservatives often perceive an unshakable liberal bias in the media (while critics on the left see big, corporate-owned media institutions like The Times as hopelessly centrist).
The news media remain an essential component in the democratic process and should not be undermined by the president.
To do the best possible job, and to hold the confidence of the public in turbulent times, requires constant self-examination and evolution. Soul-searching moments - such as those that occurred after the New York Times was criticized for its coverage of the Bush administration and the Iraq war or, more recently, when the media failed to take Trump’s candidacy seriously enough in the early days of his campaign - can help us do a better job for readers. Even if we are not faultless, the news media remain an essential component in the democratic process and should not be undermined by the president.
Some critics have argued that if Trump is going to treat the news media like the “opposition party” (a phrase his senior aide Steve Bannon has used), then journalists should start acting like opponents too. But that would be a mistake. The role of an institution like the Los Angeles Times (or the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or CNN) is to be independent and aggressive in pursuit of the truth - not to take sides. The editorial pages are the exception: Here we can and should express our opinions about Trump. But the news pages, which operate separately, should report intensively without prejudice, partiality or partisanship.
Given the very real dangers posed by this administration, we should be indefatigable in covering Trump, but shouldn’t let his bullying attitude persuade us to be anything other than objective, fair, open-minded and dogged.
The fundamentals of journalism are more important than ever. With the president of the United States launching a direct assault on the integrity of the mainstream media, news organizations, including The Times, must be courageous in our reporting and resolute in our pursuit of the truth.