Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith…
Sympathy for The Devil, by the Rolling Stones
Former FBI Director James Comey explains the devolution of the Republican Party into a crypto-fascist personality cult of Donald Trump. How Trump Co-opts Leaders Like Bill Barr (excerpt):
What happened to these people?
I don’t know for sure. People are complicated, so the answer is most likely complicated. But I have some idea from four months of working close to Mr. Trump and many more months of watching him shape others.
Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them. Sometimes what they reveal is inspiring. For example, James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, resigned over principle, a concept so alien to Mr. Trump that it took days for the president to realize what had happened, before he could start lying about the man.
But more often, proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing. I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from. It takes character like Mr. Mattis’s to avoid the damage, because Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.
It starts with your sitting silent while he lies, both in public and private, making you complicit by your silence. In meetings with him, his assertions about what “everyone thinks” and what is “obviously true” wash over you, unchallenged, as they did at our private dinner on Jan. 27, 2017, because he’s the president and he rarely stops talking. As a result, Mr. Trump pulls all of those present into a silent circle of assent.
Speaking rapid-fire with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions. I have felt it — this president building with his words a web of alternative reality and busily wrapping it around all of us in the room.
I must have agreed that he had the largest inauguration crowd in history because I didn’t challenge that. Everyone must agree that he has been treated very unfairly. The web building never stops.
From the private circle of assent, it moves to public displays of personal fealty at places like cabinet meetings. While the entire world is watching, you do what everyone else around the table does — you talk about how amazing the leader is and what an honor it is to be associated with him.
* * *
Next comes Mr. Trump attacking institutions and values you hold dear — things you have always said must be protected and which you criticized past leaders for not supporting strongly enough. Yet you are silent. Because, after all, what are you supposed to say? He’s the president of the United States.
You feel this happening. It bothers you, at least to some extent. But his outrageous conduct convinces you that you simply must stay, to preserve and protect the people and institutions and values you hold dear. Along with Republican members of Congress, you tell yourself you are too important for this nation to lose, especially now.
You can’t say this out loud — maybe not even to your family — but in a time of emergency, with the nation led by a deeply unethical person, this will be your contribution, your personal sacrifice for America. You are smarter than Donald Trump, and you are playing a long game for your country, so you can pull it off where lesser leaders have failed and gotten fired by tweet.
Hmmm, that sounds an awful lot like the “Anonymous” op-ed in the New York Times. I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration (Sept. 5, 2018).
Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values.
And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.
Conservative columnist Max Boot at the Washington Post agrees. How conservatives rationalize their surrender to Trump:
Former FBI director James Comey has published in the New York Times the most insightful analysis I have read of how President Trump corrupts those who work for him — such as Attorney General William P. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
* * *
This reminded me of something I wrote in USA Today on Feb. 29, 2016, while Trump was still one of many candidates seeking the GOP nomination: “This is, in general, a moment of testing for Republicans. It is a character test. Do you believe in the open and inclusive party of Ronald Reagan? Or do you want a bigoted and extremist party in the image of Donald Trump?”
We know now that almost all Republicans have failed this character test. If any further proof were necessary, it could be found Wednesday in watching Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R.-S.C.) spout pro-Trump conspiracy theories from his perch as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and berate FBI agents for expressing opposition to Trump in 2016 — while conveniently forgetting that he himself called Trump a “kook,” a “bigot,” “crazy” and “unfit for office.”
A similar metamorphosis has occurred not only among other conservative politicians but also conservative commentators. National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Daily Wire editor in chief Ben Shapiro, RedState founder Erick Erickson, New Criterion editor Roger Kimball and too many others to cite have all gone from opposing to supporting Trump. As Gabriel Schoenfeld noted at the Bulwark, the lone remaining bastion of #NeverTrump conservatism, Kimball has transitioned from comparing Trump rallies to those of the Nazis (“he encouraged a whipped up crowd to extend their right arms in Nazi-like salute while pledging allegiance to the Great Leader”) to calling Trump “a salubrious and morally uplifting”president.
The surrender by conservatives outside the administration has proceeded through a gradual process of compromise and corruption similar to that on the inside. The most important factor driving this process, I believe, is fear of the professional consequences of opposing the vengeful occupant of the Oval Office.
Members of Congress have seen what happened to former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and former representative Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who had the temerity to occasionally criticize the great Trump. From the standpoint of a political careerist (someone like Graham, who has held elected office for the past 26 years), they have suffered a fate worse than losing their lives: They have lost office.
Members of the right-wing media and think tanks have seen what happened to radio host Michael Medved, a conservative who has been critical of Trump; he was replaced on the Salem Radio Network by Trump sycophant Sebastian Gorka. Or cartoonist Rob Rogers, who was fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for criticizing Trump. Or the staff of the Weekly Standard, which was shut down just before Christmas because its Republican owner wanted to put his money behind a more pro-Trump publication. Or pundits critical of Trump such as George F. Will and Stephen Hayes, whose contracts with Fox News were not renewed. Or television and radio personality Glenn Beck, who lost most of his audience in part because of his anti-Trump stance; he finally donned a “MAGA” hat and announced, in desperation, that he would support Trump in 2020.
The fear of economic extinction is a powerful inducement to see Trump in the best possible light — to focus on things you like (tax cuts, judges, Israel) while ignoring or excusing things that are hard to defend, like blatant xenophobia, attacks on the media as the “enemy of the people,” demands to lock up the opposition, declarations of “love” for Kim Jong Un, etc.
You begin by saying “I don’t like Trump but …” and then you explain why you have to support him to save America from Hillary Clinton. Now it’s to save America from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). There is always some villain on the horizon far worse than the one in the White House.
You excuse his outrageous utterances — “those are just tweets.”
When you can’t actually defend him, you instead attack his critics, claiming they are suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
The more that critics attack you for your support of Trump, the more you dig in. The more Trump misconduct you defend, the more you feel compelled to defend. In for a penny, in for a pound. No going back now.
You tell yourself that only by staying loyal to the president can you check his worst excesses and channel his instincts in a more constructive and conservative direction. You are convinced that you are too valuable to America in your current position to risk losing it — and that whoever replaces you will be far more of a Trump enabler than you are.
Eventually you end up excusing the most blatant assault on the rule of law since Watergate and saying that Trump is the best president ever.
“And then,” as Comey wrote, “you are lost. He has eaten your soul.”
Michael Tomasky explains the consequences of this crypto-fascist personality cult of Donald Trump at The Daily Beast. The GOP’s Just a Racket Now, and Trump Is Its Godfather, Barr Its Wartime Consigliere (excerpt):
[Republican] apologetics today are the natural consequences of their having marinated in these juices of resentment and rage for all the years they have. It’s what the party has become. And of course it’s the party that produced and elevated a gangster like Trump. It’s all of a piece.
It’s one of the greatest political quotes of all time, from philosopher Eric Hoffer; I’ve used it before and I’ll use it again: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Barr and Graham were around I suppose to just catch the tail end of the movement phase. But mostly, they matured in Washington during the business era.
But then, in late 2015, when it became apparent the party was actually probably going to nominate Trump, came the racket phase. And Barr and Graham have adapted to it with, we must confess, a kind of evolutionary impressiveness, like bedbugs that have developed an ability to repel pesticides. And not just them, of course—every single one of them.
And all of it along the way—every racist dog whistle, every Rush Limbaugh rant, every false, out-of-thin-air accusation against Bill and Hillary Clinton, every lie about easily liberating the people of Iraq, every accusation that the rest of us hated freedom, every “joke” about Obama serving fried chicken, every disgusting attack on immigrants and gay people and you name it—has brought us to this point. Brought us to today, when a sitting attorney general said in effect to the American people whose interests he is supposed to be defending, “No, I truly do not give a fuck. I’m up here for the president, and that’s that.” And naturally, we learned three hours after he left the Senate chamber that he will not deign to appear at the House, where the questioning would likely be tougher.
Trump is a uniquely diseased man, it’s true. But what kind of political party nominates, celebrates, venerates, and takes political bullets for a uniquely diseased man?
So after today, if we didn’t before, we see now with a new and oddly liberating clarity where this is headed. It’s 18 months until Election Day. They may well be the most consequential and frightening stretch in the history of the country, or at least since Reconstruction.
This racket known as a political party will try to pervert the law in ways we’ve never seen. Reverse the meaning of every word we know. Trump is screaming that he’s the victim of a “coup.” What he is doing, of course, is perpetrating a coup, against the Constitution, with the eager help of Barr and Graham and all the rest of them. Trump is an idiot, but on some intuitive level, he’s a smart man, smart enough to know that to get away with staging a coup, the very first thing you have to do is to accuse your opponents of trying to stage one.
Barr and Graham and Mitch McConnell and everyone else around knows that they’ve thrown in, and having thrown in, they can’t throw out. Survival will require every kind of lie you can imagine, especially and exactly the lie of accusing their foes of that which they are doing themselves. And before this is over, they’re all going to be in on it.
As I said the other day, what we have right now is the entire Republican Party in lock-step with the Trump crime family. It is acting as a criminal enterprise, using the control of government to undermine the Department of Justice and the rule of law to prevent the fair administration of justice and to prevent holding anyone accountable.
This is the “collusion” that Americans should be most outraged about and taking to the streets to protest in the nation’s Capitol … and at the ballot box.
We are in a battle for the soul of America.