Trump is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or even a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Trump is a wolf in no clothing. His campaign, transition, and inaugural weekend lay naked the two driving forces of his presidency.
The first is an authoritarian disregard for the truth—what we used to call “lying” in the good old days when facts were facts. And though bold-faced lying makes for hilarious Saturday Night Live skits (which these days write themselves), it’s dangerous when it comes with attacks on the press and political opponents. What the Trump administration is doing is the first step towards authoritarianism–an assault on the truth and those who tell it to establish the authoritarian as the only source of fact. Trump and his propaganda minions have lied about facts that are on film. He and his team have denied Trump said things he said on film.
Trump’s thin-skinned whining about inauguration attendance is more than a case of crowd-size envy, though surely it was that. It shows that on matters related to his popularity, and implicitly his legitimacy, he and his administration will lie in the face of provable fact—pictures showing that hundreds of thousands more people went to the Obama inaugural. It also shows that the Trump administration will try to dictate on what is true and what is not regardless of the actual truth. This is the stuff of tin-horn dictatorships, lying reminiscent of the crap-tastic mendacity of “Baghdad Bob” who insisted Saddam Hussein was winning the Iraq war as he ran away from advancing U.S. forces.
Think about this for a minute-Trump lied about his inaugural attendance in a speech to the CIA staff, of all people—a roomful of professionals at sophisticated factual espionage. Does he not think the CIA can figure out how many people went to the inauguration, or surmise that they might be skeptical of the President who compared them to Nazis? He later sent out a spokesperson to repeat the lie and refuse to answer questions. Trump and his people have peddled other obvious lies to score political points—Obama “founded ISIS”, there were teams of people with evidence Obama was not born in the U.S. No lie is too false to be insisted on, with bullying conviction.
The lying took an insidious turn from crowd counts and popularity squabbling when Trump repeated his lie that the 2016 election was tainted by 3 million fraudulent votes he claims to have been cast by illegal immigrants. There is no evidence of this and indeed Trump’s legal representatives previously said there was no evidence of voter fraud. This lie has enormous implications because now the President has cast into doubt the legitimacy of the democratic system itself (though true to form it’s his opponents he accuses of benefiting from cheating and not him). Worse, he is clearly using this lie to set the foundation for a crackdown on immigration and to move for even more voter suppression of minorities.
Collectively these lies create a swamp of untruth that cannot be easily drained. And if Trump and his propagandists will lie with such insistence about things they know can be easily disproven, what does that tell us about their trustworthiness on matters that are promises rather than statements of fact? If they lie about the size of two crowds in a picture, or what they said in a TV interview, what does that say about their promises to provide a replacement to Obamacare, to protect Medicare and social security, to fight for the middle class against entitled elites, or, for that matter, to make America great?
This lying is so brazen that it would be courageous were it not so utterly bereft of moral conscience. Trump’s lying has balls, but it has no soul.
In addition to outright lies, central to the Trump campaign to annihilate the truth is its relentless assault on the press. Trump is trying to obliterate the media as a source of fact that would challenge his regime. This campaign is targeted to his audience of supporters. Trump censorship tactics include calling facts “fake news”, demonizing media sources that report truthful but negative information as “liberal media”, ostracizing critical organizations and individuals from access to administration officials, and implicit threats and tactics that turn the media into hate objects for Trump’s constituency.
This media-bashing stinks with hypocrisy—for his entire professional life Trump played the media like a virtuoso to blow his own horn, never more brilliantly than in his campaign. But now Trump won’t allow CNN to ask him questions because now CNN is “fake news”, even though CNN ran hours of Trump speeches live without commentary during the election, providing him exponentially more coverage than his opponents and allowing him to give his speeches unfiltered to millions of people. Characteristically, Trump has dumped the media that once served him because the media has outlived its use to him. He needs more control over information now that he’s President and his actions will have consequences that he wants to shelter from public view.
The Trump anti-press dog whistle has gotten through to Trump followers who send abusive and threatening emails and tweets to critical journalists. The sneering, humiliating tone Trump uses to diminish press disfavored in his halls of power is another part of the strategy of crushing media fact-finding. His message to journalists—it will be hard and risky to tell the truth and if you do you will pay a price. The message to Trump’s supporters—don’t believe anything we don’t tell you and don’t be afraid to go after journalists we don’t like. Trump borrows these authoritarian plays from an ugly historical playbook.
The reflexive Trumpian citation of the election victory as a shutdown of further debate is another authoritarian effort to suffocate democratic process. “He won, get over it, shut up” suggests that Trump and his team believe first amendment rights of freedom of speech and assembly apply only to election winners and that the defeated must be silent and passive. This might be nothing more the braying end zone dance of sore winners. But taken together with other Trump tactics that suppress truth, arguments that those defeated don’t get to speak or participate in policy discussion adds frost to Trump’s already chilling treatment of democratic expression.
The second driving force of Trump’s presidency is this—Trump doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about laws and rules that require the president to devote himself fully to the enormous demands of the office and to avoid conflicts that might undermine his attention to service for the good of the nation. Instead he’s going to keep his business and use the presidency as a branding tool. Trump doesn’t care that these proscriptions against Presidential profiteering are enshrined in the Constitution, because he doesn’t care about the Constitution and he doesn’t care about who the Constitution protects—us. Trump doesn’t care about telling the truth, and he doesn’t care about laws and norms that protect a free and vibrant press and allow the media to inform debate. Trump doesn’t care about honoring the tradition of disclosing tax returns to prove to the American people that he is conflict-free and accountable.
Trump doesn’t care about people who won’t have health insurance if he repeals Obamacare. He doesn’t care if they lose their savings and go bankrupt paying for healthcare if they’re uninsured. Trump doesn’t care if some of these uninsured people die because they lose their coverage. He doesn’t care that many of the people most vulnerable to catastrophe if Obamacare is repealed are the very people he convinced to believe in him as the only candidate who would protect them.
Trump doesn’t care about the innocent people who will suffer and die if he follows through on his promise to torture detainees and kill civilians in counter-terror operations. Trump doesn’t care that his promise to take oil from Middle Eastern countries we’re at war in is illegal, immoral, and plays directly into the lie that terrorists tell recruits about America—that we’re fighting a war against Islam to confiscate oil.
Trump doesn’t care about the American Muslims who are rightfully afraid they will be forced to register their religion as a precursor to being held in detention, and he does not care that his reckless stigmatizing of Muslims to score political points encouraged criminals to attack them and that Muslims rightly worry that these hate crimes will increase. Instead, he wants to round’m up. Trump does not care about the humanity of the undocumented, many of whom do grueling work to build our homes, provide us our food and drink, and service our restaurants. He does not care that these undocumented human beings in our country pay more taxes than he does, and he does not care that they live in the dark shadow of terror that they will be deported, separated from their families, and sent to awful fates. Instead, he wants to round’m up.
Trump doesn’t care about experts who tell him that his policies on Muslims and war tactics in the Middle East will harden anti-American feelings and could easily deepen our wars in that volatile region. Trump doesn’t care that his twitter blusters about China and North Korea could get us into wars with countries that have nuclear weapons. Trump doesn’t care that his reckless twitter endorsement of an arms race might come true, lead to a destabilizing arms race, make war more likely, and take money away from things Americans need more than weapons.
Trump doesn’t care that all this recklessness on national security could get civilians and American service members maimed and killed.
Trump doesn’t care about alliances that have protected and promoted peace, stability and economic prosperity. Trump doesn’t care about the savage violence of Russia and that nation’s clear intent to destabilize democracies and replace them with autocracies.
Trump doesn’t care about the human dignity of disabled people in this country, who now have a president who mocked a disabled man at a campaign rally and who must know from this that the President of the United States considers them a fair target for scorn. Trump doesn’t care about African Americans, to whom he appealed with clumsy stereotypes that dishonor the diversity of black lives and disrespect the enormous achievements of black Americans. Trump doesn’t care about the courage of military heroes like John McCain and civil rights heroes like John Lewis, whose suffering for others he insulted.
Trump doesn’t care about women, and he does not care that his shocking celebration of sexual violence encourages still more assaults on women and traumatizes those who have been assaulted. Trump doesn’t care that his vulgar objectification of women denigrates their humanity and the full beauty of their person-hood, and he does not care that on this he provides men with leadership by bad example. Trump doesn’t care about reaching out to his opponents to invite finding common ground either in substance or conciliatory tone.
None of this is surprising. Trump’s mean-spirited lack of empathy, his misogyny, and his bullying, predatory treatment of the vulnerable, have been signature vices for his entire public life.
The bad news is that this could get worse. A lot worse. Authoritarians crack down on civil liberties and rights when they get the chance. They’ll frame minorities and political opponents as enemies of the state. They’ll use wars to limit and suspend freedom and to distract citizens from domestic failure. Trump praised totalitarian leaders who have done these things, and we need to be prepared for a Trump White House to follow suit. An administration that already won’t tell the truth, won’t protect minorities, and wants to intimidate critics and the press might well be willing to use a war, a terrorist attack, or even widespread protests as an excuse to further consolidate power over information, stifle dissent, and violate the fundamental rights of minorities and political opponents.
The good news is that, the day after Trump took office, three and a half million Americans took to the streets in peaceful community to emphatically reject every single thing about Trump I’ve just written about. These protests were organic, grassroots demonstrations, and those who marched have a profoundly different vision of America. That these demonstrations happened one day after Trump was inaugurated gives powerful witness that millions of Americans understand exactly what Trump wants to do, and that they will contest him at every step to preserve American rights, protect American people, and promote a humanitarian agenda that honors human dignity, provides human sanctuary, and promotes human aspiration. A President who is not truthful and who does not care is not acceptable.
Our choice is clear—do we want to live in America or in Trumpistan? I pick America, in part because America has no emperor. This week’s attendance told the truth about where most Americans stand and where they will march—with the protestors. This week, the emperor has no crowds.