The Day Everything Became Nothing

Someone still loves America. Turin, August 2018.

The eminent jurist Learned Hand once wrote that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure it is right”. This particular shade, always a rather anaemic presence in American public life is now well and truly dead. The question that one is tempted to ask in our current circumstances is how long will it be until the republic joins it in the grave.

The conviction of one of the president’s former associates, and the guilty plea entered by his former lawyer are being trumpeted by the bearers of responsible and moderate opinion as a sort of turning point, and perhaps they are correct. As usual, the devil is in the details, and there he waits, uttering that question which should be on the mind of every thinking person. Toward what are we actually turning?

Few things incline our American politicians and associated literati to the invocation of nostrums as a high profile conviction. Political liberalism is predicated on the creation of spaces of contestation in which differing beliefs can compete both at the level of discourse and through the application of baser techniques. Occasionally (or frequently) the latter overstep the bounds of legitimate competition and become enmeshed in corruption of one sort or another. It has traditionally been seen as incumbent upon the side from which the accused did not come to resist the temptation to triumphalism unless the crimes in question include high crimes and misdemeanours (in which case all bets are off).

One sign of the changing in the times has been the intensity with which people associated with the Democratic Party have celebrated the legal difficulties of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. One can hardly find a liberal media outlet on which talk of the president’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day had not at least temporarily displaced warnings that liberals were mistaking his arcane brilliance for bumbling incompetence. Finally….FINALLY this was the moment at which the long-absent chickens returned, inexorably and with certainty, to their place of rest. The mighty would be brought low and the mendacity of the administration, somewhat weirdly already conceded even by the president’s supporters, would be illuminated for all to see.

Perhaps it is true that, as liberals fervently hope, this moment will prove to be a turning point. But if the turn in question is the long looked for redirection of the tides against Mr. Trump and his associates then, in all likelihood such hope will be disappointed. Something essential about the current system is indeed in the process of being disclosed by the outcomes of the Manafort and Cohen trials. Liberals hope that it is the underlying strength of the institutions of the republic. In fact, it is the utter bankruptcy of those institutions and the moral order that they feign to support.

The degree to which this is true can be gleaned from Republican responses to these events. In the wee hours of the morning after the results of the trials were announced, the president let his feelings on the matter be known. With his accustomed brevity, if not quite at his accustomed hour, Mr. Trump tweeted, “NO COLLUSION – RIGGED WITCH HUNT!” Putting aside for a moment that this statement seems to suggest the possibility that there might be witch hunts that were fair and balanced, we have here a leitmotiv for the entire Republican response. That the outcome of the proceeding was anything less than an image of Messrs. Trump and Putin snogging on a bed of thousand dollar bills shows the vanity of the entire enterprise.

The Republican National Committee issued talking points, the punchline from which (“This has nothing to do with collusion with Russia”) then echoed around the conservative media environment. Of course, this is like faulting your host at Thanksgiving for failing to include turkey breast in the appetiser course. Mueller is in the process of building links in the chain, knowing that an intemperate swipe at the brass ring could be disastrous.

Liberal elation at the packing off to jail of more of Mr. Trump’s associates reflects a signal failure of analysis. Mueller, canny as he may be as a prosecutor, is used to working under the normal conditions of a functional legal order. But Mr. Trump has already shown a willingness to employ the power of presidential pardon in the shameless pursuit of political gain. His pardon of Joe Arpaio, an unrepentant felon whose crimes caused tangible damage to the lives of other human beings, Mr. Trump signalled to his partisans that his supporters need not concern themselves with formalities like the rule of law.

There is a clear path from that to the mooting of pardons for the likes of Paul Manafort. According to reports plausible reports was only spared conviction on all 18 felony counts by the actions of one recalcitrant juror. Any pardon will probably not be forthcoming until after the 10 counts on which the jury hung are settled, but the very fact that the question of a pardon was made an issue even before the start of the trial is a sign of precisely how far the politicisation of the judiciary has advanced.

Still, the cases of Manafort and Cohen have clearly been alarming, both to the president and his many abettors in the Republican Party. The wagons were circled and it was not long before weapons of mass distraction were deployed. Fox News led the charge by trying to shift attention away from the misdeeds of presidential henchmen to the murder of an Iowa college student. The killing of Mollie Tibbetts was a crime and a terrible tragedy. The fact that the crime was committed by an undocumented farmworker does not make it any more tragic. It requires a particular degree of soullessness to turn the murder of a young woman into a vehicle for rehearsing the “brown people are coming for our white women” trope, long a favourite of the political right.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Trump took up the cudgels in defence of white South African farmers being slaughtered in droves so that blacks can take over the land. This baseless bit of fantasy, a well-known element of the delusional claims of white genocide that occasionally percolate from the lunatic fringe into the more “mainstream” right-wing media (i.e. Fox News), was apparently brought up in one of Tucker Carlson’s broadcasts. From there it was a short jump to Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed, thus showing that, at the very least, he still retains his much-vaunted talent for creating synergy.

With a very small number of exceptions, the Republican denizens of Congress gleefully jumped on the bandwagon. And, of course, why should one expect anything else. When John Cornyn was asked, in the course of L’Affaire Manigault whether he thought the president was a racist, his response was that he simply didn’t care. One cannot fault his honesty. It is clear at this point (and probably was at the outset) that most Republicans simply don’t view racism as a bad thing.

Nor, it should be said, do they consider the misappropriation of taxpayer funds a problem, as long as it’s one of their own doing it. California Representative Duncan Hunter has been plausibly accused of a wide range of infractions with taxpayer money. Among these was a plan concocted with his wife to charge off a pair of shorts bought at a golf shop by claiming they were buying golf balls for wounded veterans. This is the sort of thing that should really fill a sensible person with rage. It’s not just dishonest, it’s a kind of lowball escapade that is particularly insulting because of its lack of imagination as much as for its mendacity. Still, it’s likely that the good people of the California 52nd will return him to Congress in November (at least until he heads off to federal prison).

The problem that liberals now face is that their hopes for change were predicated on Mr. Trump’s actions being made the subject of court proceedings. It was probably inevitable that this would happen. The sorts of criminality and shady dealing now under investigation seem to be rife with Mr. Trump’s associates. In a certain sense, the election of Mr. Trump as president was a misfortune for them, since now the venue for the adjudication of the cases has moved from civil court to the federal judiciary. But, in a more important sense, it was a real windfall, since Mr. Trump has shown himself to be an absolutely shameless promoter of the bank balances and stock portfolios of the top .01% of the income distribution.

The real misfortune is that now facing the country and its legal institutions in particular. Mr. Trump has shown himself to be completely unconcerned with observing or maintaining the decent drapery of American political life. Why should he deal otherwise with the judiciary? If this moment does turn out to be a turning point, it will probably be because it was the beginning of Mr. Trump’s conversion of the judiciary into an appanage of his regime. The powers of the American presidency are considerable, especially when amalgamated with those of the two other branches of the federal government. Now begins the final process of colonisation, and if the federal judiciary proves powerless to stop the rot, it gets very difficult to imagine another agency by which the redemption of the republic is to be affected.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.