A collage of newspapers in the back, Donald Trump, and the logo of the "The Washington Post" covering Donald Trump's mouth.

State of Disunion

The GOP’s Response to Khashoggi’s Murder Shows There Is No Bottom

There is no position too unspeakable, too egregious, too grotesque for this president and his party to take.

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Last week, the Washington Post reported that “hard-line Republicans and conservative commentators” are orchestrating a smear campaign against murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi to justify his torture and savage murder. (See also this.)

If you have not read the article, please do so — in part to bear witness to the GOP propaganda faction’s casual adoption of armchair depravity in defense of Trump, and in part to absorb that these people are defending the Saudis’ luring a journalist into a consulate for the alleged purpose of torturing him, and sawing through his bones while he was still alive. They are doing so by falsely suggesting he was a terrorist, for the specific purpose of insulating Donald Trump from criticism or accountability for his response (or for the business interests driving that response).

To say this is reprehensible is an understatement.

But note what is happening here: By falsely linking Khashoggi to “terrorism,” the whisper campaign suggests that his murder should not concern us. The tactic serves to minimize the atrocity’s implications: the plot to kill, its savagery, the Saudis’ risible denials and cover-up, the fact that a U.S. resident and Washington Post writer critical of a dictatorial government was targeted, the question of whether anyone in the Trump administration knew about it in advance or in any way enabled the execution, the Trump family’s business conflicts with Saudi Arabia, the fact that Trump’s own linguistic assaults on journalists and fondness for authoritarianism likely influenced the Saudis’ decision-making—all these can be disregarded if the victim is transformed from a martyr worthy of sympathy into a terrorist caricature, just another misplaced darling of the “left.”

The willingness to adopt Trump’s tactics of otherizing to justify murder is deeply, darkly chilling.

This is an escalation up of the already-existing extremist, right-wing Trumpist tactic of dehumanization and otherization as justification for cruelty, human and civil rights violations, and orchestrated governmental policy surgically targeted to inflict harm. Dehumanization has been the go-to and instinctive tactic of Trump; his language is the precursor for policy (as I have written about here). Trump’s weaponization of abusive language is straight out of the fascist playbook—but it used to be the nearly exclusive province of Trump himself. Increasingly, his supporters and enablers also embrace it. Here, those behind the smear campaign have surpassed Trump himself, taking us to an appalling low. And in the embrace of that low, they betray essential American values enshrined in the Bill of Rights—the right to protest and freedom of speech—as well as the basic human prohibition against taking the life of another.

It is appears there is no lie they will not tell, no person they will not defame, no principle they will not violate in service of their reflexive support for Trump. Consider their defense of his refusal to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville, their quick embrace of his gaslighting tactic of calling Democrats an angry mob unfit to govern in the same breath as as he whips his supporters into frenzied “lock her up” chants, their wholesale adoption of the linguistic inversion of “fake news.”

With the aid of right-wing media and conservative apparatchiks, Trump has succeeded in constructing an alternative reality among his supporters, in which the truth is false, oppressors are victims, ignorance is strength, monstrous words and policies are justified, and only Trump can be trusted. “I am the only one that matters,” Trump said last year. We rolled our eyes at his hubris, narcissism, and self-delusion. But as it turns out, Republicans agree. That sort of mindless loyalty is exactly what Trump craves—and what fascism requires.

The right-wing response to Khashoggi is a disturbing example of what slavish fealty to Trump produces: lies about a political dissident to attempt to justify his torture and murder. Because Trump, apparently, is indeed all that matters. And so the whisper campaign is designed to render irrelevant both Trump’s indirect role in Khashoggi’s murder and the White House’s inadequate response to it. That response—peppered with contradictions, lies, faux-credulousness, and incoherence—is a debacle crying out for Congressional investigation and oversight; the whisper campaign is designed to prevent that. Who cares what happens to a “terrorist”? Truth is irrelevant. Human rights are irrelevant. The effect on journalists and political dissidents is irrelevant. The emboldening of dictators, the U.S.’s joining spiritual forces with the world’s worst tyrants in wholesale abandonment of American values — irrelevant. All principles are sacrificed to protect Trump, whose power has become the GOP’s single “principle.”

The actions of Trumpists who hold sway through their positions in government, media, and business illustrate the underlying problem cleaving our country: a disconcerting percentage of this nation is pro-authoritarian, as long as those authoritarian impulses are deployed in their personal favor and against “the other.”  In rejecting the basic principles of equality and process that are the backbone of our society, Trump has exploited a mindset that already existed but which our norms and systems have largely previously constrained (in part because such a person has not before occupied the presidency). What have we learned since November 2016?  That millions of Americans think they don’t actually like democracy very much.

We see this in Trump supporters’ indifference to Russian interference in the U.S. election  because it helped him win. We see it in the fevered Trump rallies where his supporters froth at the idea of imprisoning Trump’s critics, especially women, and injuring journalists. We see it in a rising tide of racist statements across the country by emboldened bigots running for office. We see it in the polls indicating that Republicans think Trump should be allowed to shut down news outlets that criticize him. We see it in Jim Crow–esque Republican voter-ID laws designed to prevent Democrats, especially minorities, from voting.

We also see it in Trump’s symbiotic relationship with his base: his supporters feed on his debased, and dehumanizing language, and he feeds on their support. That language is in turn picked up in lockstep talking points repeated in conservative media outlets across the country, as well as in the liberal ones reporting on them, so that Trump’s lies and linguistic tics have overtaken all discourse and reshaped the entirety of our lexicon, and thereby contributed to the erosion of norms and decency, and the normalization of that erosion. His abuse of language and his use of language to abuse, work interchangeably to undermine truth, democratic principle, and common decency. (“Fake news!”) And the GOP increasingly both defends and adopts these same tactics.

Trump’s reaction to Khashoggi’s murder is also a striking example of him twisting a fundamental precept of our society — innocent until proven guilty in the context of a criminal trial — to justify and/or ignore shocking accusations outside of a court of law and that require a response other than a U.S. trial. By cynically invoking U.S. criminal due process language in defense of Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), who almost certainly ordered or at least authorized Khashoggi’s murder, Trump adopted the absurd premise that the U.S. should not believe, much less act upon, the transparent reality and evidence of Khashoggi’s brutal murder — when we all know that our dealings with foreign governments are not and cannot be based on the legal standard afforded to defendants in U.S. criminal trials. In so doing, Trump expanded upon the tacit license to kill journalists and dissidents that his words and conduct have given to dictators and vigilantes since he took office. (His praise of Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter, even after Khashoggi’s murder, though disguised as a joke, was an endorsement; bumper stickers in even liberal enclaves urging people to “fight for the truth/punch a journalist” likewise barely hide their malice behind “humor.”) And in cynically suggesting that MBS has been denied due process, Trump erased and greenlighted the murder of a writer and dissident—further cementing his contempt for the press, democracy, and the rule of law.

Trump himself tacitly admitted the cynicism of his ploy when he explicitly compared MBS to Brett Kavanaugh, in whose defense Trump had disingenuously invoked the same inapposite due process argument not two weeks earlier. Just as Trump seeks to avoid consequences to the Saudis for Khashoggi’s murder, Trump sought to avoid the derailment of Kavanaugh’s nomination by pretending that the legal standard for due process necessary in a prosecution should apply outside a criminal proceeding. Republicans eagerly obliged him in promoting that fiction.

Trump’s use of the same tactics to defend both the Saudis and Kavanaugh also exemplifies a central feature of Trumpism: Whenever he or someone useful to him is criticized, his response is to attack and seek to destroy his critics, bringing to bear the disproportionate power of the presidency along with the right-wing media apparatus and his followers to amplify, intensify, and normalize those attacks. And because the criticism of Trump and his cronies is rooted nearly entirely in his violations of bedrock institutional, democratic, religious, and human rights norms and principles (not to mention common decency), Trump’s assaults on his critics are necessarily also assaults on those institutional, democratic, religious, and human rights norms and principles. Further, the nature of Trump’s response to criticism—the  deployment of the federal government in pursuit of personal vendettas and self-entrenchment—is itself a corrupt abuse of power in violation of democratic principle.

This pattern has been clear throughout the interminable nearly two years since his “election” — from his firing of James Comey to his destruction of the careers of all of Comey’s colleagues who were corroborating witnesses to Comey’s struggle with Trump’s abusive demands for loyalty. We have seen the lies and conspiracies Trump has invented to derail and undermine the Mueller investigation and all associated with it . We have seen his attacks on the female Democratic politicians and politicians of color and ordinary citizens who have criticized him or his cronies —from Colin Kaepernick to Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi to Christine Blasey Ford.

The central story of this pattern, however, is not Trump.  It is Republicans who have refused to hold him to account and who have eagerly participated in his dismantling of democratic norms, from Mitch McConnell to Mike Pence to Lindsey Graham to Susan Collins to Trump’s cabinet to Fox News and every politician/supporter who cheers at the thought of punching a reporter or jeers at “fake news” or thinks “both sides” were at fault in Charlottesville or says the Democratic Party is a “mob.” Republicans aid and abet Trump’s assault on truth, language, and decency; they help him subvert the government to corrupt ends. They are there to protect him; and in abdicating and even thwarting oversight of his corruption and abuse, they betray our system of government.

And this brings me back to the whisper campaign — and what the willingness to engage in that cynical campaign means for this country.  Obviously, it legitimizes Trump’s own normalization and stoking of of violence against journalists, as well as of the othering and demonization of dissent. (Note that for “terrorists” and those otherized by Trump and his allies, “innocent until proven guilty” simply does not apply — for them, summary execution and even torture are apparently acceptable.)  More broadly, this whisper campaign confirms that it is no longer only Trump who will drive the attacks on critics and the savaging of their characters—his supporters will now do it for him without even waiting for his cue. The Republican delegation and the right-wing media apparatus are arrayed in permanent support of Trump’s actions no matter how corrupt or debased; no matter whether those actions are illegal or illicit, evil or inhumane. No matter if they lead to murder and dismemberment while alive, or to children being kidnapped from their parents and held in cages.  There is no principle, precept, or norm safe from violation.

And there is no obvious solution, because millions believe lies and reject the common ideals that are supposed to bind us as a country. Right now, the only path forward is to put Democrats in office to provide a check and exercise oversight. We will only sink further into the abyss if do not vote Republicans out. But that is only a necessary first step in what looks to be a long and painful journey toward recovery, a recovery that is by no means guaranteed, even if we do win in November.

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