“You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like, incredible.”
– Donald Trump
When Trump made the statement above, as a candidate on the campaign trail in January of 2016, it just seemed like the sort of braggadocio that is his stock and trade. But now, nearly three years into his term as President, it feels pretty close to the truth. Indeed last fall, one of Trump’s attorneys argued against a subpoena of his client’s tax returns by stating presidential immunity applies to virtually all criminal investigations while he is in office – including the scenario where Trump might shoot someone.
Think about that for just a moment. Think about what the President’s legal representation – presumably with his approval – was saying in a court of law…that he can do anything until he leaves office. That alone should have sent chills down the collective spine of the American public. That alone should have led to an overwhelming demand that a leader with the hubris to make such an argument be removed from office…and fast.
But “that alone should have” is a statement that applies to countless occurrences during this shameful and frightening time, when a cult of personality and the business and political interests promoting it have put every ideal our nation stands for at risk.
Here are just a few incidents that should have been more than enough to end Trump’s ascendancy as a candidate or his tenure as president, beginning with the most troubling:
- As a candidate and sitting President, he has encouraged violence against protesters, political rivals and the press. And while not his own actions, Trump’s rhetoric has inspired acts of domestic terrorism. Patrick Crusius, accused of killing 22 people and wounding 25 more in a mass shooting in El Paso last summer, had posted pro-Trump statements on his Twitter account. And while his white supremacist manifesto overtly claimed his beliefs pre-dated Trump, the language in the manifesto mirrored many Trump talking points. Even Crusius’ attempt to distance the President from his savagery echoed Trump’s words, calling attempts to cast blame on him “fake news.” And a 2018 incident where 16 pipe bombs were sent to Trump critics – though thankfully done with inoperative weapons – was, by the terrorist’s own admission, spurred by the President’s words. Sadly, these are just the most prominent of many violent acts or threats made where Trump’s messaging was a contributing factor.
- As a candidate, Trump appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ show, giving a long-form interview and praising the “amazing” reputation of a man who promoted the cruel lie that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax.
- While misinformation is a devious tactic employed by some on both sides of the political divide, no one has embraced it more fully and unapologetically than Trump. His organization may not have directly colluded with Russian interference in the 2016 elections, but it is a fact that they worked with disgraced consulting company Cambridge Analytica, whose misappropriation of the data of tens of millions of Facebook users was central to targeted, often misleading social media messaging that impacted the election. That Trump has not been held accountable for this is not surprising, as the interconnections between Cambridge Analytica, its wealthy conservative backers, WikiLeaks, Russian operatives and the Trump campaign are dizzying. It’s indicative of the brazen corruption behind the President, however, that former Cambridge Analytica staffers are working on his 2020 reelection. I mean, why change course from an effective tool just because it’s wrong? With the lightning-fast changes in technology and social media sharing becoming the most common way news (real and otherwise) is shared, our already dim level of media literacy is in jeopardy.
- Going hand-in-hand with the misinformation campaign is Trump’s non-stop and effective (within his base) efforts to undermine the free press. Any media source that does not support Trump is fair game, so he has called “the press” – as if it was one, monolithic entity – “the enemy of the people.” History has shown this is the tactic of a dictator in the making. In a healthy democracy, people can and should challenge the media and hold those who misuse their platforms or make harmful mistakes accountable. But Trump doesn’t cheerlead for truth, just loyalty. He cozies up to a wide range of powerful media outlets – Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Salem Media Group and others – that serve mainly to further right-leaning, corporate and religious agendas. The man who most frequently attacks “fake news” is, in reality, its greatest enabler.
- Just this month, Trump made a court-ordered payment of $2 million to eight charities after admitting he used his “charitable” Donald J. Trump Foundation for business and political purposes. The abuses of the foundation included mishandling of funds for veterans’ causes, violating rules related to charities being involved with political campaigns, and using foundation money as his personal piggy bank for things like a football helmet signed by Tim Tebow! The court decision included an order that his three eldest children (Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric), who were all foundation officials, undergo compulsory training on not misusing charitable funds.
These are just a handful of the most egregious offenses. Note that I did not include the Ukraine foreign aid scandal that resulted in Trump’s impeachment. I think only the most deluded follower would not believe the President violated his office and the Constitution in dealing with Ukraine, but frankly even that pales compared to the dangerous societal divides he has nurtured, a misinformation campaign that has made facts irrelevant, and confessed illegal activity related to charities.
Trump supporters’ fierce defense of statements, actions and personal behavior that would have destroyed the political career of any previous president are hypocritical to the core. I’ve never been overly fond of the Clintons, but how do people who couldn’t live with Bill Clinton’s sexual misadventures turn their heads when learning of Trump’s payments to silence women he slept with? Frankly, the extra-marital affairs of Clinton and Trump are pretty low in my scale of wrongdoing among public officials, but the double-standard is glaring.
Then again, the Trump Cult, who eagerly directed chants of “Lock her up!” at Hillary Clinton for purely speculative misdeeds related to her use of a private email server, apparently have no problem with the same practice when conducted by Trump and his administration. And they also have no issue with the man they elected to “drain the swamp” engaging in unparalleled levels of political insider corruption.
But let’s put aside scandals, corruption and even traditional ideological divides (as if that were possible). How can we, as a nation, simply live with this President’s public behavior? The childish demeaning of opponents, the near-illiterate statements on social media, the previously mentioned incitements of violence? One can argue there is always a mask of civility over the very wide divides in government and society. One can also argue that mask is essential to keep us from tearing each other apart. Trump has ripped the mask off and won’t even pretend he is governing for the betterment of all Americans – only his Americans.
For those with any sense of history, one of the most bitter ironies of the Trump era is that he constantly decries the investigations and impeachment proceedings against him as a “witch hunt.” The phrase is closely identified with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s slanderous campaign in the years that followed World War II to exploit fears of communist subversion of American institutions – a strategy that destroyed careers and lives. It wasn’t until he made accusations at the U.S. Army that McCarthy’s influence began to wane and he was finally disgraced.
McCarthy’s lawyer during the proceedings was Roy Cohn…who would later work as a lawyer and political mentor for Donald Trump. Yes, the lawyer who led the most famous political witch hunt of modern times helped shape the methods of the man who now tweets “WITCH HUNT” like a recording stuck on repeat.
McCarthy’s demise was epitomized during the Army-McCarthy hearings, when Joseph Welch, serving as Chief Counsel for the Army, responded to McCarthy when he tried to discredit one of his law office employees. Welch said the words the country desperately needed to hear directed to the corrupt Senator from Wisconsin: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” As McCarthy tried to press on, Welch was not having it, responding with words that changed history: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
It’s a question all Americans need to ask now – Trump supporters most of all, but also the public at large for allowing the sleazy tactics, proven corruption and rage-fueled rhetoric to take hold as our “new normal.”
We seem to be at a tipping point. Are we going to live with this new level of cruelty and recklessness? Have we, as a nation, lost our sense of decency? And is it too late to get it back?