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A Clear and Present Danger

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Heather Cox Richardson, a Professor of History at Boston College, is a busy public intellectual. She crafts thoughtful commentaries on American politics, writes often for The Guardian and has co-hosted a podcast series for National Public Radio, Freak Out and Carry On, in addition to producing excellent traditional scholarly work. She is, for example, the author of To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, whose insights she has plumbed in her recent daily essays addressing this nation’s impeachment process, Letters from An American.[1] Indeed, each day of the current congressional deliberation and the governance crisis that has precipitated this historic situation, may be said to be powerfully significant, if not momentous. I have found Richardson a consistently informed and thoughtful observer of the ongoing impeachment hearings and related events.

On December 9 she neatly captured GOP officials’ attempts to produce a story line for their partisans that bore no relationship to facts or to the questions or issues under discussion. Here is how Richardson framed the scene:

At today’s impeachment hearing … it was immediately clear that the Republicans were not even going to pretend to care about the process at hand. They were playing for sound bites and dramatic moments to construct an alternative reality for their base. … For the rest of the day, the Republicans made little effort to defend the president, and instead simply performed for the cameras, interrupting, yelling, trying to interrupt the proceedings. Their statements fed their alternative reality rather than dealing with the damning facts at hand.[2]

In many respects, the effort Richardson chronicled on this day was nothing new. The Republican Party strategy throughout the entire impeachment imbroglio has been to attack the messengers and the process, ignore the facts and lie with impunity. The new and deeply significant occurrence on this day in GOP tactics was not the congressional caucus theater designed to create a message for those willing to believe that the President’s corrupt actions linked to Ukraine and his repeated efforts to obstruct justice were “perfect.”[3] Rather, the occasion was the release of the Department of Justice Inspector General’s (IG) report of an inquiry into the FBI investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, an inquiry that Trump had previously demanded.[4] The IG analysis sharply criticized the Bureau’s handling of four applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, but otherwise confirmed all of the Bureau’s previous findings concerning Russia’s efforts to shape the past U.S. election. In response, both Trump and his Attorney General engaged in a new level of public lying and doublespeak that rivals that of infamous leaders of authoritarian states. Here is how Richardson reported this historic turn:

The president and Attorney General William Barr did not dispute the Inspector General’s report. Instead, they announced that it said the exact opposite of what it actually did. Here’s Trump: ‘It is incredible. Far worse than I ever would’ve thought possible. It’s an embarrassment to our country, it’s dishonest. It’s everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.’ ‘This was an overthrow of [the] government, this was an attempted overthrow—and a lot of people were in on it’ (Trump was a private citizen when the Russia investigation began in July 2016).

Attorney General Barr: ‘The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.’[5]

In short, the President and Attorney General deliberately framed the Report as finding the opposite of what it said, and each did so as public officials sworn to uphold the Constitution and our country’s system of laws. Again, not only did Trump and Barr lie, but both argued that the plain text of a formal Department of Justice account had offered a narrative that bore no resemblance whatsoever to that report. This was not merely an alternative interpretation of specific wording or a disagreement about nuance in one or another portion of the chronicle. It was instead an effort to propagandize to serve the broader aim of sowing confusion about otherwise unassailable and established facts.

In taking this step, Trump and Barr moved into new territory even for them: They used their official positions to promote an alternate vision of reality for public consumption. Trump went further to assert that the Report had embraced his wild fabricated claim that “this” (the investigation of now thoroughly documented Russian interference in the last American national election) was an attempt to overthrow the United States government—of which he was not then an official. This rhetoric was more than despicable. Both men set out to misrepresent and misinform, and in so doing they violated their roles and oaths of office in an attempt to prevent accountable and transparent governance. This spectacle represents a new low for a Presidency that already ranks with America’s most corrupt ever.[6] It also bespeaks, at best, a fundamental confusion among the party officials and citizens supporting this now frontal assault on democratic self-governance. At worst, it represents their rationalization and complicity in a descent into wholesale perfidy.  

While much more might be said on this topic, I want here to turn to Richardson once more for her insights into why the GOP has elected to attack self-governance and risk the collapse of our regime in so doing. She treated this question in another recent essay in which she noted that the current GOP stance toward United States governance is not new. Indeed, it has its origins in the post-Civil War South in which landowners and elites in that region confronted the fact of many African-American men voting and entering the workforce for the first time:

Former Confederates loathed the idea of black men voting almost as much as they hated the idea of equal rights. They insisted that such programs were simply a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white people to blacks who wanted a handout, since they would cost tax dollars and white people were the only ones with property in the Reconstruction South. This idea that it was dangerous for working men to participate in government caught on in the North as immigrants moved into growing cities to work in the burgeoning factories. Like their counterparts in the South, they voted for roads and schools, and men of wealth insisted these programs meant a redistribution of wealth through tax dollars. They got more concerned still when a majority of Americans began to call for regulation to keep businessmen from gouging consumers, polluting the environment, and poisoning the food supply (the reason you needed to worry about strangers and candy in this era was that candy was often painted with lead paint). Any attempt to regulate business would impinge on a man's liberty, wealthy men argued, and would cost tax dollars and thus was a redistribution of wealth.[7]

Richardson concluded, “The powerful formula linking racism to the idea of an active government and arguing that a government that promotes infrastructure, provides a basic social safety net and regulates business is socialism has shaped American history since Reconstruction.”[8] This conflation of racism and a hatred of supposed redistribution to those “less worthy” via government has proven to be an especially powerful political tool for Republicans since at least Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign, when he argued that public assistance had supported a mythical scheming “Welfare Queen” “who used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”[9]

This completely contrived assertion should sound familiar to readers today, as Trump and the Republican Party adherents who have embraced him have traded on exactly the same brand of racist demagoguery and claims that services for immigrants or poor citizens, or a broader range of public services constitute undue claims on market elites and other Americans by racialized and undeserving, grasping masses. Trump and Barr have added their willingness to lie brazenly and repeatedly to their embrace of this already historically toxic mix. The result is a vicious grotesquerie created to inflame, deceive and breed hatred.     

These recent episodes reveal three signal truths about Trump, his administration and his political party. First, the President and his congressional and appointed supporters have now made it clear that they will stop at nothing in their assault on democratic accountability and the rule of law. Second, other GOP leaders have cheerfully violated their oaths of office not only via their willingness to countenance obvious and undeniable corruption, but now also by attempts to obstruct justice and attack the rule of law to deflect attention from their debasement of U.S. governance institutions. Finally, Trump particularly, but also those in his party enabling him, has continually demonstrated his disdain for the people who have placed their trust in him by treating them with contempt as he has sought willfully to mislead and manipulate them. These facts suggest the current impeachment process is more than merited. It is sadly essential for the survival of the Republic as a nation of laws governed by its people.

Notes

[1] Richardson, Heather Cox. To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

[2] Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters from An American, December 9, 2019, https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/. Accessed December 9, 2019.

[3] Demirjian, Karoun, Mike DeBonis and Matt Zapotsky. “Trump said his Ukraine Call was ‘Perfect.’ Impeachment Witnesses Testified Otherwise.” The Washington Post, November 19, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/lt-col-alexander-vindman-reveals-in-testimony-that-he-told-an-intelligence-official-about-trumps-call-with-ukrainian-leader/2019/11/19/61c46b16-0ae4-11ea-8397-a955cd542d00_story.html. Accessed December 10, 2019.

[4] Shortell, David, Evan Perez, Marshall Cohen and Katelyn Polantz. “Inspector General: Start of FBI Russia Probe was justified and unbiased but investigation has significant errors,” CNN News, December 9, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/09/politics/ig-horowitz-report-russia-trump/index.html, Accessed December 9, 2019.

[5] Richardson, Heather Cox. “Letters from an American,” December 9, 2019.

[6] Leonhardt, David and Ian Prasad Philbrick. “Trump’s Corruption: The Definitive List,” The New York Times, October 28, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/opinion/trump-administration-corruption-conflicts.html. Accessed December 7, 2019.

[7] Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters from an American, November 9, 2019, https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/november-9-2019.  Accessed December 7, 2019.

[8] Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters from an American, November 9, 2019.

[9] Black, Rachel and Aleta Sprague. “The Rise and Reign of the Welfare Queen,” New America, September 22, 2016. https://www.newamerica.org/weekly/edition-135/rise-and-reign-welfare-queen/. Accessed December 10, 2019.

Publication Date

December 16, 2019

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