Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Christopher Halloran
Wednesday’s headlines from Washington perfectly displayed the dysfunctional personalities and darkening politics that are turning America into a plutocracy ruled by sociopaths and authoritarians.
Whether or not it is coincidental, orchestrated or a bit of both, the latest reality-denying fantasy-embracing outbursts and provocations from President Trump gave Senate Republicans more cover to continue ramming through a tax bill in a manner that defies any pretense of representative government.
From a political perspective, Trump’s latest Twitter pile-on is a perfectly timed distraction from the dirty business unfolding in the Senate. First, he suggested the head of NBC be investigated for sexual misbehavior after the network fired morning show host Matt Lauer. That came after Trump said the infamous Access Hollywood video (in which he boasted of grabbing women) was not real. Then Trump retweeted some British anti-Muslim tweets, with the White House commenting that it didn't matter if they were true or not.
In much of 2016, the press became addicted to the daily outbursts from candidate Trump. It’s old news to recount his lies, distortions and vanities—everything that makes him anything but presidential. On Wednesday, however, this habit served Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell very well, by diverting attention from the GOP legislation plundering the middle-class and eviscerating safety nets so the rich can get richer.
But McConnell is a different breed of authoritarian than Trump. As Bernie Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee’s ranking member said in impassioned remarks on Tuesday, no Senate committee has held a hearing on the tax bill. The Budget Committee only had 15 minutes of “debate” before passing it on a party-line vote. The opposition party had no role in this process, which Wednesday moved to the Senate floor. This is not representative government, it’s mob rule, by and for the rich, mostly at blue states' expense.
“You know, how many hours have I sat here, and you’ve sat there, and we’ve seen all the charts and all the discussions, about how terrible the deficit is, and what it means leaving this burden to our kids and our grandchildren,” Sanders said, making a final appeal to the budget panel’s Republicans. “We’ve heard all of that rhetoric, year after year, and now we have a bill that raises the deficit by $1.4 trillion. And let me be very clear, I have not the slightest doubt, that if this bill, god forbid, is passed, the Republican leadership will come back and say, 'My god, we have to deal with the deficit, and that’s why we’re going to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and education.’”
Sanders’ plea went nowhere. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. McConnell has shown he will embrace any tactic necessary to win—unless stopped by a fellow Republican like Arizona’s ailing John McCain during the Obamacare repeal vote. McConnell’s sabotage of Obama’s final Supreme Court nomination is Exhibit A. Partisan principles vaporize before McConnell’s mob rule dictates. And Wednesday, McConnell was helped by Trump’s outbursts and craziness, planned or not, which is even more sinister.
Trump’s pro wrestler-like provocations are part of an ongoing barrage to erase the past (Access Hollywood), rewrite history (who voted for him), dismiss fact, and embrace fiction. Holocaust historians like Timothy Snyder and experts on George Orwell like author Tom Ricks have said these impulses were all tell-tale characteristics of totalitarian rulers. The risk is not just that Trump is a sociopath with unique dysfunctions, but that he is indulging in attacks and fantasies as president.
The Washington Post’s ‘Plum Line’ columnist, Greg Sargent, noted these sociopathic features on Wednesday, warning that Trump is accumulating and asserting power, much like McConnell is asserting his rule in the Senate.
“Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus,” Sargent wrote. “He’s asserting a species of power—the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible. The more brazen or shameless, the more potent is the assertion of power.”
Trump’s attacks on the press are no accident, Sargent adds, but are calculated to damage the one institution that stands between elected officials and the public. Trump has ceaselessly attacked the media, toyed with coverage by introducing absurdities that get repeated everywhere—as mainstream media sees covering statements of record as a core responsibility. However, Trump’s dumpster dives also sully the media, who reflectively follow him into the gutter, Sargent notes.
“Here again, the absurdity is the whole point: In both the volume and outsize defiance of his lies, Trump is asserting the power to declare the irrelevance of verifiable, contradictory facts, and with them, the legitimate institutional role of the free press, which at its best brings us within striking distance of the truth,” Sargent writes.
“I don’t claim to know whether this is merely instinctual on Trump’s part, or part of a strategy,” he continues. “As Trump biographer Tim O’Brien puts it, Trump constantly ‘tells fables to himself’ and ‘about himself,’ and has long self-consciously regarded this as ‘one of his great skills.’ Trump has been doing it for so long that the separation between instinct and conscious technique has probably disappeared. But one thing is clear: Terms like ‘lying’ or ‘delusional’ don’t do justice to what we’re seeing here, and we have not yet seriously reckoned with its true nature and what it really means.”
What it means Wednesday, to start, is that Trump is providing a handy distraction for what may end up being the GOP’s first legislative victory of his presidency—a $1.4 trillion tax bill that will cause, as Sanders noted, 87 million middle-class households to see their taxes go up in the next decade while 62 percent of the benefits go to the top 1 percent.
But as bad as that tax legislation is, the specter of two breeds of totalitarians working in tandem—the authoritarian Republican Senate Leader and the sociopath commander-in-chief—is unprecedented in modern times. And their reign has just begun.
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).