Saturday Night Live just aired a rerun of the hilarious “It’s a Wonderful Trump” skit based on the 1946 Frank Capra movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In a reversal of the Capra movie, though, it depicts how much better off people around President Trump, and the country, would be if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election. Trump flew off the twitter handle, tweet-blasted the show, and suggested that the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Elections Commission “look into this,” which sounds like a presidential invitation to investigate satire in America. Some commentators expressed alarm that the First Amendment is at risk. Well, the First Amendment is doing just fine, SNL is doing its job, and it’s the president who is wilting. Trump’s seemingly autocrat impulses — such as demonizing the press as an “enemy of the people,” demanding personal fealty from the Department of Justice, and a craving for big military parades — so far, have largely been constrained by the American constitutional system. His attacks on SNL demonstrate that fear of mockery and ridicule is another characteristic that Trump shares with autocrats and dictators around the world.
Autocrats and dictators fear sarcasm because it destroys the mystique that is essential to maintaining their power. In 2014, Syrian artists created a YouTube lampoon of dictator Bashar al-Assad, “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator.” When the artists traveled to a town near Aleppo to perform live at an arts festival, Assad’s forces bombed the town. In 2014, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un launched a cyberattack on Sony Pictures when it was about to release a Seth Rogen movie, “The Interview,” in which the actor playing Kim revealed the Supreme Leader’s naked, flabby backside. The popular Russian television puppet satire, “Kukly,” is no longer on the air because it caricatured the machismo-minded President Vladimir Putin as an impotent king on his wedding night. SNL threatens Trump’s self-proclaimed image as a tough guy.
I’d add one more thing: Harmful rhetoric of this kind is, by itself, not really a justification for a legitimate impeachment and removal of a president. But it’s absolutely reasonable — indeed, necessary — for Congress to take it into account when assessing whether to move forward with an otherwise legitimate impeachment. The president has sworn an oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Giving comfort — and, even worse, encouragement — to political violence is a direct violation of that oath. After all, one of the core principles of the Constitution of the United States is that of the republican rule of law; one of the reasons a republic exists is to banish violence from domestic politics.
And this is true of another of Trump’s frequent themes: his attacks on the media. Some criticism of the press is perfectly normal, of course. But Trump’s rhetoric, from calling the media an “enemy of the people” to questioning whether government agencies should “look into” TV comedians attacking him, is not. It’s not necessarily an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment if Trump restricts himself to talk. It can, nevertheless, be an abuse of power and a violation of his oath to defend the Constitution. Impeachment is always going to be a political decision, and even more so when the evidence of presidential misconduct is in the gray area where removal would be legitimate but the evidence doesn’t absolutely demand it. Indeed, many criminal indictments are, in a sense, the political choices of prosecutors faced with that same gray area, and it’s only going to be more political when the prosecutors and the grand jury are the House of Representatives, and the jury is the Senate. We don’t know where the facts will come out on (other) abuses of power and of obstruction of justice. But it sure seems to me that Trump’s repeated and ongoing attacks on democratic norms and constitutional principles should, if it’s a close call at all, push Congress toward impeachment and removal.
Reports about Fox Fake News
But there’s a certain other network a few blocks away that really manufactured hate and fear in this country,” Jarvis replied. “To my mind, Fox News is the single cause — singular cause of this kind of hate and discourse.” “But is that because you don’t support what their views are,” Rule followed up. “No, because I watched my own family members be brainwashed by this. I watched the hate and fear coming out,” Jarvis explained. “I think probably what we need is not so much journalism, but mass psychology. The problem we talk about the base all the time. We all cover the base. What are we covering? We’re covering their anger. Their desire to see things like this, it just feeds into a desire that already exists. That’s the bigger problem.”
It sounds like a joke: President Trump got so carried away with rage-tweeting that he lashed out at Fox News. That’s not a joke, but an accurate description of a man determined to bite the hand that feeds him. On one level, one can see this as another bizarre test of his cult’s loyalty. It cannot just cheer him; it must loathe and slander a deceased war hero, John McCain. Kellyanne Conway cannot just lie for Trump 24/7; she also must go along with Trump’s trashing of her husband. So, too, with Fox News: It’s not enough for the network to run hours of propaganda, indulge conspiracy theorists and demonize immigrants; it also must banish all remotely independent voices.
However, the outbursts also reveal Trump’s underlying weakness and fear. If truth trickles onto the screens of his low-information base, might he lose these voters’ unwavering loyalty? Might his lies not carry him through the next scandal? For him, that would be disastrous. The single most important factor in Trump’s war on truth is a compliant right-wing media that will cover for him, attack enemies, obscure truth, make excuses, throw softball questions and denounce the real media for covering his presidency accurately. He needs Fox News and the crew of sycophantic blogs, talk radio hosts and formerly respectable print publications more than they need him. Sure, they’d lose some audience if they deviated from the Trump party line, but Trump might lose his grip on power. The stakes are much higher for Trump than for the intellectually corrupt right-wing media chorus.
Just on a personal level, imagine if Trump could not turn on Fox News any time of day or night to hear his lies and nonsensical views played back to him. If he could not spend endless hours hearing praise and getting stroked by giddy lackeys, he might melt down completely. I find it unlikely that Trump will break with Fox News in any meaningful way. The question is whether Fox News executives, shareholders and employees decide that they are making money off the anguish of their country and the assault on democratic values and norms. Ultimately, they have to decide whether their business model — stirring up hatred and misleading mostly older, right-wing white audiences — is sustainable and whether they want their legacy to be: Helped make America a worse place.
The Post reports that Fox is “undergoing a generational change — one that produced another, perhaps more subtle sign of independence from the president.” With the sale of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets to Disney, Fox News becomes part of a new company headed by Lachlan Murdoch. The Post notes, “Among Fox Corp.’s first acts in business: appointing former House speaker Paul D. Ryan to its board of directors.” Now, as House speaker, Ryan wasn’t one to stand up to Trump. To the contrary, Ryan excused Trump’s behavior and enabled his presidency, only rarely speaking out of school. But maybe this is his chance at redemption. Along with Murdoch, Ryan might make up for the damage he did to the United States by refashioning Fox News from an RT clone into a real news operation. He might actually insist that journalistic standards be upheld by everyone who goes on air. A pipe dream? Probably. Ryan’s hardly a profile in courage. However, if Murdoch ever wants to escape from his father Rupert Murdoch’s shadow, he’ll have to do something more impressive than erecting a state TV operation to enable the most dishonest and authoritarian-minded president in American history. He’d have to do something truly patriotic for the country that made him a multimillionaire — put country above profits and decency over cynicism.
It doesn’t take a person with an advanced degree in psychology to see Trump’s narcissism and lack of empathy, his vindictiveness and pathological lying, his impulsivity and callousness, his inability to be guided by norms, or his shamelessness and dehumanization of those who do not abide his wishes. His condition is getting worse, not better—and there are now fewer people in the administration able to contain the president and act as a check on his worst impulses. This constellation of characteristics would be worrisome in a banker or a high-school teacher, in an aircraft machinist or a warehouse manager, in a gas-station attendant or a truck driver. To have them define the personality of an American president is downright alarming. Whether the worst scenarios come to pass or not is right now unknowable. But what we do know is that the president is a person who seems to draw energy and purpose from maliciousness and transgressive acts, from creating enmity among people of different races, religions, and backgrounds, and from attacking the weak, the honorable, and even the dead. Donald Trump is not well, and as long as he is president, our nation is not safe.
Donald Trump’s presidency has been described as a vacuum of leadership, a deficit and emptiness that is most apparent during times of tragedy and crisis. Such an observation is imprecise. It is true that Donald Trump is a nadir in the history of the American presidency and the country’s democracy. However, his regime is not an emptiness or a void but rather the embodiment of everything wrong with America’s political culture, society, collective values and psyche, as well as the personal and moral failings of too many millions of its citizens.
I am ferociously independent and passionately moderate voter. But in 2016 I voted a straight party ticket for the Democrats. It was the only way – however meek – to send a message to the Republican Party: You gave us Trump, shame on you, now get rid of him. But Republican legislators, who have much to lose in the long run, cave in to the Trump base fearing they might be “primaried” and lose their seats, and give the disaster that is the Trump presidency a free pass. They are wrong morally and politically to do so. What happened to the Republican Party? Where is it hiding? Wherever you are, come back, we need you badly. Part of the problem is that many Republicans confuse Donald Trump with a Republican. He is not a party president, and barely a party member. He is instead, the leader of a cult. This transformation was noted a few months back by then Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who openly asked if his party was “becoming a cultish thing”. Donald Trump does not represent traditional Republican values, policy positions, or core principles such as limited government, individual freedom, respect for democratic norms, freedom of expression and press, active and strong democratic alliances, a pro-democracy foreign policy, and the dignity of public service. No, this is not your daddy’s Republican Party, it is Trump’s personal cult.
As the Republicans morph from national party to cult of personality, it might be useful to reflect on the role cults have played in American politics. Ordinarily, when we think of cults we think of religious cults, but there have been political cults in America as well (see: Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth’s ON THE EDGE: POLITICAL CULTS RIGHT AND LEFT, 2000). Not surprisingly, cults have had a very short shelf-life in the United States. A largely pragmatic, non-ideological nation, Americans have been suspicious of extremism and narrow politics. Part of the reason for the failure of cults to catch on in the U.S. can be seen in Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 reminder in DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA that “the spirit of association” exerts a powerful influence in the United States, and that such associations, often cross-cutting ideologically and politically, help produce a more moderate and perhaps even a more tolerant political atmosphere. Parties in the U.S. have succeeded by being “big tents” that are somewhat inclusive, large, and centrist (center –right for the Republicans, center-left for the Democrats). By contrast, cults are narrow, extreme, and exclusive. Traditionally, parties served as gatekeepers keeping radical extremists at the fringes and not allowing them to capture the party. In Europe, the rise of fascism in the 20th Century was seen by many as a cult movement, and in North Korea today, some see the 60 year rule of the Kim family as a three-generation “cult of personality.” But in the United States, such takeovers by cults have been largely unknown.
What are the key characteristics of a cult, and how closely does Trump fit the bill? Cults blindly and mindlessly follow a charismatic leader. Donald Trump recognizes this element in his base with such sayings as “I could stand In the middle Of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Indeed, such is the blind loyalty to Trump that he is probably right. Cults worship their leader. Even if the leader says things like “John McCain isn’t a hero,” or trashes Gold Star families, his base applauds and follows their Pied Piper wherever he wants to take them. The cult leader’s word is gold to his followers. And so, his base turns a blind eye in the face of thousands (yes, thousands) of lies he tells. Cults have their ritualistic chants. “Lock her Up, Lock her Up” and “build the Wall” are shouted at Trump rallies from coast to coast. Cult leaders claim to be on a “special mission” and as Trump says “Only I can do it.” Cults have insiders and the rest of the world is an outsider to be berated and hated. Cult leaders are not accountable, and thus Trump says he will not release his tax returns as previous presidents have routinely done. Cults believe the ends justify the means, and thus the President bullies, demeans, and calls others ugly names which seems to the rest of us undignified and unpresidential, but to the Trump cult is fully justified (my mother would have washed my mouth out with soap if I had said such things).
Former cult members write scathing exposes of their terrible lives within the cult. After only 2 years in office, a spate of Trump administration tell-all books are coming out describing the horrors of working for such a monstrous boss. Cults have a persecution complex. How many times does Trump tweet out messages condemning Saturday Night Live for its impersonations of the President? How many times does Trump blame the press for his failings? Cults engage in group-think. Cults kowtow to the leader’s every whim. They show disdain for non-members. Cults are paranoid. How many tweets does one have to read to see that our President thinks the media, our allies, college professors, and authors are out to get him? Cults control the information members receive. And of course, President Trump calls the media “the enemy of the people,” not to be believed, and that his base should “not believe what you see and hear, believe me.” Cults tolerate even celebrate the inappropriate and egregious behavior of their leader. And so, Trump is not to blame for the strippers, and Playboy models with whom he may have had relationships while still married. Boys will be boys, or demeaning references to women is just “locker room talk.” I could go on.
What to do? The Republicans gave us Trump, they should now clean up their mess. Someone must take him on in the primaries. Republicans need to return to their core values and principles and not be pet poodles for Donald Trump’s excesses. Our system works best when we have two strong parties that vie for power but can come together at times for the good of the nation. Caving in to the cult leader is not politics, it is party suicide. If the Republican Party is to survive into and beyond the next decade, it must wrestle from the Trump cult, control of the party. If not, it deserves to be electorally defeated and to collapse into the dust bin of history. Donald Trump did not create the conditions that allowed for his rise. Global events, easily witnessed in the increasingly fractious politics of Europe, are challenging liberal democracies with a brand of illiberal democracy that threatens rule of law systems across the globe. Donald Trump is the American manifestations of this dangerous drift. He is riding a wave he did not create but has been masterful at exploiting. But just as the United States resisted the temptations of Communism and Fascism in the 1930s and 40s, and instead, committed to a rule of law system for our country, we need now to recommit to liberal democracy and the rule of law in our age. Where will we be when this long national nightmare is over? Will our democracy be stronger? Our society more just and equal? Our politics more civil and our language more compassionate? Will we move towards what our better angels would have us do, or will we follow the cult of leadership towards a politics of fear and division. Come home Republicans. We need you.