Many see the G-7 disaster as the crossing a new line of awful for the occupant of the Oval Office. But it’s just another manifestation of Trump's continued corruption of the presidency.
This past weekend, at the G-7, we were treated to a U.S. president lying in front of the entire world, excoriating our allies for tariffs that literally do not exist and threatening to suspend all trade with them. In a shattering display of radical ignorance and mercurial stupidity, Trump dispensed with truth or reality and repudiated American values in a temperamental toddler-fit of anti-diplomacy and name-calling that was staggering to behold and which will inure to the lasting shame and detriment of the United States. It is hard to believe that Vladmir Putin watched this spectacle unfold—along with Trump’s demand that Russia be included in the G-7— with any emotion short of glee.
I’ve seen various theories floated about Trump’s conduct, many focused on his motivations. Some think he wants to satisfy his base by “looking strong” on trade; others think he simply doesn’t understand the numbers; others think he was posturing and attempting to show strength by flexing his “muscles” on the eve of his meeting with Kim Jong-un (which he claims he does not need to prepare for); still others suggested that because he met with so much resistance from our allies at the G-7, he lashed out afterward at Trudeau to try to save face.
I don’t think it ever makes sense to look below the surface for Trump’s “motivations” or “strategy.” Because there is none, other than Trump himself. As more nuanced observers than I have noted, Trump sees every interaction as one in which someone is dominated and someone isn’t. He sees relationships as transactional and instrumentalist; there are no motives other than what Trump believes redounds to his own benefit in a given moment. To the extent Trump’s selfishness ever coincides with U.S. interests, that coincidence is indeed coincidence.
That is because the wellspring of all of Trump’s actions is his fundamental, ineradicable personal corruption, which drives him, whether he is attacking our allies or embracing dictators, shredding our international commitments or the domestic social safety net, verbally abusing private citizens or public servants, or threatening NFL players or talk show hosts.
Corruption is defined as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It is also defined as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power”; “bribery of similar dishonest dealings”; “evil or wicked behavior; depravity”; “decay, putridity, rottenness”; the “departure from what is pure or correct.”
Domestically, Trump has made plain that he sees the office of the presidency as a vehicle for his personal whims and benefit. He views the presidency, not as a near-sacred responsibility to be held as a public trust with a fiduciary obligation to the nation and to serve the entire public rather than himself, but as an instrument for his self-aggrandizement, the apotheosis of power to be wielded for his own gain and glory.
Internationally, we see no difference. The G-7 debacle highlights squarely Trump’s shocking unpreparedness and ignorance and rejection of U.S. geopolitical interests—but it should also highlight, for all willing to see it, this man’s bottomless corruption. There is no circumstance in which he will not use of his office to further himself at all costs, first and foremost, all consequences be damned. While many see the G-7 situation as crossing some new line of awful for Trump, I see it as another step along the exact same trajectory he has been on since before he was inaugurated. I see it as a manifestation of his corruption.
For at the G-7, as he does within the White House, as he does with Congress, as he does with public servants who cross him and private citizens who challenge him, Trump used the meeting to promote himself and Vladimir Putin, and to attack, demean, and threaten to punish those who criticize him. His conduct was no different than how he engages at home, where he has come, through the appeasement of his supine party, to expect little push-back, and where he acts to immunize himself and his cronies from all accountability, and to praise and amplify the voices of toadies, kleptocrats, and bigots.
And so when I speak of Trump’s corruption, I am referring to something deeper and more fundamental than his disturbing, overt acts of self-enrichment (which exceeds anything that I have seen in my lifetime, which have driven his supposed foreign “policy”, and which make the Teapot Dome scandal look like child’s play). The corruption that defines and stains Trump and his administration is even more profound, and it is infecting our democracy like a virus and steadily undermining it in rapid slow-motion. I am referring to a corruption that says “the law is me” and “I am the law”; a corruption that rejects the separation of powers and international cooperation, a corruption that bends to his own ends the levers of power, i.e., a departure from our designed system of government (what is “pure and correct”) via “dishonest and fraudulent conduct” and “evil and wicked behavior” that stems from “decay, putridity, rottenness.” Trump’s bending of what is supposed to be a democratic state to his will is abuse of power.
In this regard, Trump’s refusal to divest his financial interests and his melding of foreign “policy” with his personal financial interests and characterological predilections—with little to no regard for U.S. interests and historical alliances—is an enduring and incurable symptom of the fundamental putrescence of Trump himself. His abuses of power have occurred in ways large and small. They started slowly, with his lies from day one about his crowd size, which was mocked, at the time, with incredulity, but we see now with hindsight that those first inaugural lies simply laid the foundation for his active assault on reality, our institutions, and the notion of truth itself. Trump’s lies have escalated but they have also metastasized; governmental workers are forced to scurry to make the lies true, and so we see the levers of government deployed to fabricate reality, whether in the form of airbrushing photos, or manufacturing statistics, or instigating “investigations” and “probes” by inspectors general into fabricated and self-serving accusations by a known serial liar—Trump—to deflect from the very real investigations into his very real potential misconduct.
His attacks on his predecessors and on his critics, his smearing of witnesses, his interference with the Justice Department, began early and were originally decried, but his attacks have escalated rather than abated, and they have been terrifyingly successful. These abuses will not stop. They will continue and grow worse; indeed, they have worsened over time as he is met with no GOP resistance. People need to understand that there will be no bottom; there is no bottom or limit unless we put it there. Appeasing him, as so many do, does not work. Appeasement of dictators and bullies never does; the 20th century is littered with the dead bodies as examples. Of course, Trump is not yet a dictator, but every day he tests those waters and every day he is permitted to go further. His lies have become increasingly unhinged and histrionic; his assertions of absolute power are growing; his attacks on the very concept of our Western alliances are increasing; his interference with the Justice Department has escalated and actively abetted by Devin Nunes and other House Republicans. It will only get worse because Trump will push and take and push and grab (“they let you do it”) unless and until the GOP joins in saying no. (Trump seemed shocked at the G-7 that our erstwhile allies, unlike the GOP, were saying “no.”)
This White House also rejects all criticism—apparently indifferent to the fact that a hallmark of a functioning democracy is the ability to absorb and credibly respond to valid criticism. If the triple casualties of his cynical attacks on the press are the truth itself, faith in the press as an institution, and the power of the press to hold government accountable, that’s a trifecta for Trump, even though the ultimate casualty in all of his abuse is democracy itself. He does not care, because democracy to him is irrelevant. (When he said “I’m the one that matters” and “I alone can fix it” he meant that the only thing in the world that matters to him is him. The phrase was not so much a reflection of his twisted narcissism as it was an admission of his abject corruption: his total inability to prioritize anyone or anything ahead of himself.) And in that same vein, Trump rejects facts, science, expertise, and advice. He rejects knowledge and trades it for what Josh Marshall has aptly characterized as “militant ignorance.”
And so Trump’s reflexive rejection and demonization of those who criticize him (often experts in their fields or other world leaders), while in the mold of a would-be dictator, is also, perhaps paradoxically, a sign of weakness: For the strong, and those who are willing to serve the entire public, rather than merely an ever-narrowing swath of collaborationist beneficiaries, are able to acknowledge, respond to, and adjust in the face of criticism. They are able to accept fact-based advice even when it conflicts with narrow self-interest. They do not fulminate and lash out in fear-based rage.
This administration substitutes abuse for strength, domination for success, cruelty for “winning,” and lies for reality. And thus it routinely demands punishment of those who criticize, particularly if they are private citizens vulnerable to retribution. Trump seeks and exacts retribution from his critics, and he abuses his power by deploying the government in service of those retributive urges and his personal vendettas. Some of these vendettas are simply grotesque—mistreatment of employees from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to former National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster and beyond. But other vendettas will have grave consequences—his unprecedented demand for investigation of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and his rival, Hillary Clinton, as“retribution” and his deliberately humiliating public firings and smear campaigns against James Comey, Andrew McCabe, and others who are witnesses to his obstruction. The former is the stuff of a banana republic, an attempted distraction from the Mueller investigation and per se an abuse of power; and the latter, equally abusive, have successfully contributed to loss of support for the Mueller investigation among both Republicans and independent voters—an extraordinarily dangerous development which may yet have the effect of extending his presidency.
Trump’s new thirst for humiliating our allies to the gain of our enemies/competitors like Russia and China? A vendetta like this, taken to its logical conclusion, could upend NATO and destroy other transatlantic alliances that have undergirded U.S. foreign policy for decades. And if Trump’s unprepared foray with the North Korean dictator blows up in his face, as is likely, do we have any reason to think Trump will be satisfied by lobbing puerile insults? To say that the prospective consequences of allowing this corrupted man’s personality to subsume U.S. international relations are grave is to understate the geopolitical threat this man poses to the world.
And while mundane by comparison, still other vendettas nonetheless also have a broad, insidious, and deeply destabilizing scope. For example, earlier this month, after ABC fired Roseanne Barr—a vocal bigot and Trump supporter—for her tweet comparing former Obama White House aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape, Trump neither criticized her remarks, nor expressed agreement with ABC’s decision to fire her. Instead, he tweeted a whinging demand for an apology from ABC for having dared to criticize him in the past. But when Samantha Bee took White House aide/First Daughter Ivanka Trump to task for her role in advancing her father’s corrupt, hateful agenda using a gendered insult, the White House immediately condemned her and demanded that TBS cancel her show. What undergirds these disparate responses is Trump’s abuse of power and fundamentally anti-democratic and corrupt mindset.
That same mindset is behind Trump’s attacks on Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who protest racially motivated police brutality, which Trump has cynically and falsely turned into an attack on patriotism; and on Michelle Wolf, Kathy Griffin, Jemele Hill, Jeff Bezos, CNN, and now Justin Trudeau … pretty much anyone who publicly criticizes him or his administration. Across the board, the White House response to criticism is that his critics should be denigrated, punished. They should be vilified and they should lose their jobs. He has no compunction about denigrating companies and causing their stock prices to plunge.
The pattern is particularly troubling because of its intersection with Trump’s personal bigotry and cruelty, and his vocal support for the bigotry and cruelty of others. His campaign rallies were riddled with misogyny, with supporters wearing “bitch” and “cunt” T-shirts in reference to Hillary Clinton. He called for violence against peaceful black protesters during his campaign and defamed the Black Lives Matter movement. But when private citizens, or even public figures such as comedians, actors, sportscasters, or athletes use their platforms to try to push back on the hatred and the racism and the bigotry that he champions, Trump fumes. He has no beef with police brutality against people of color; it’s the fight for social justice against that brutality he takes issue with. The idea that Trump or his supporters were legitimately offended by Michelle Wolf’s eyeshadow joke or Samantha Bee’s use of the c-word strains credulity; these same people were mum when depictions of Obama being lynched were circulated throughout his presidency or when Trump slammed Rosie O’Donnell’s looks or when Trump supporter Ted Nugent, who called Clinton the c-word, was invited to the White House and specifically disrespected her there. Trump doesn’t give a damn about the use of a gendered term; the fact that Bee used it to refer to the corrupt Ivanka merely gave him and his supporters some welcome ammunition with which to strafe the left for “hypocrisy” as they engaged in ecstatic performative outrage.
Trump’s attacks on those who criticize his White House are a rejection of the norms and obligations of his office, a proclamation that he is not subject to the rules of a democracy or the norms of decency. And he demands that his administration and cronies amplify his insults and demands for retribution, thereby normalizing his conduct—and they do it. They carry his anti-democratic water; they lie and distort and shill for him. This is how we end up with Peter Navarro extending Trump’s G-7 idiocy and attacks on Trudeau; John Kelly’s racist insults and his lying about a sitting American congresswoman; Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling for Samantha Bee’s firing; Kellyanne Conway claiming Trump can live by “alternative facts”; and dead silence and zero investigation from the Republican-controlled Congress when Trump’s threats against Jeff Bezos affect Amazon stock, for example. But the more Trump is appeased, the worse he gets. For example, the NFL’s craven appeasement of his cynical and self-serving attacks on Kaepernick and others have achieved nothing; now Trump has gone full McCarthy in casting any player who protests police brutality in any fashion as a traitor. This is what I mean when I say his corruption is infecting and spreading through our democracy like a virus.
Trump’s boundary-pushing must be fought against constantly, at every turn. It must be called out and condemned. For every time Trump is appeased, our democracy is eroded. We already are at point where we are shaking our heads in resignation at—and thereby tolerating—his unrelenting assault on truth. He has succeeded in turning a needed social-justice movement about attacks on black lives into an expression of disrespect for America and its military. He is taking one of the greatest examples of patriotism and respect for our country—the exercise of the right to free speech—and twisting it into an expression of disloyalty to the state. Disagreement with Trump’s bigotry has been recast as contempt for America itself.
Trump’s is about as corrupted a version of “democracy” and love of country as one could imagine. And it’s deeply dangerous. For absent the right to criticize the government and hold it to account without fear of retribution and vilification, we truly will be a fascist state. We grow closer to this outcome with every day Trump is in office.
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