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To believe that the president of the United States has done nothing wrong in asking the government of Ukraine — and now, more openly, China — to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and/or a California company called CrowdStrike, which investigated Russia’s hack of Democratic National Committee’s servers for the DNC in 2016, you have to believe the following.
Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has stumbled onto a Deep State conspiracy worthy of a shitty Dan Brown novel involving the State Department, intelligence officials and other world governments to — bear with me — cover-up Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election so that Democrats could blame Russia; and cover up a multimillion-dollar scheme in which Biden’s son took a do-nothing job as an adviser to a sleazy oligarch’s natural gas firm, then Biden — at the urging of President Obama and the International Monetary Fund, which is naturally very concerned with Biden family interests — pushed Ukraine to dump a corrupt prosecutor who had a year earlier dropped an investigation into that firm.
Got all that?
Occam’s Razor, of course, would dictate that Donald Trump did exactly what the facts suggest he did: He and Giuliani, along with his attorney general, secretary of state and possibly vice president, have been involved in a months-long effort to convince a foreign government to dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponent, holding over its head much-needed military aid. And now, out in the open, he’s asking China to do the same, all while negotiating a stop-hitting-yourself trade war.
Subtle, he’s not.
These are impeachable offenses, of course. Throw them on the stack, atop all of the other ones: the multiple incidents of obstruction of justice noted in Robert Mueller’s probe, the ongoing efforts to block congressional investigations, the president’s twittery insinuations that his political opponents should be executed for treason. At its core, the impeachment standard — “high crimes and misdemeanors” — is a breach of trust between the president and the public he’s supposed to serve. And Trump’s entire administration, at its core, is a walking, talking, lurching, hulking, prevaricating, mouth-breathing breach of trust.
The fish rots from the head. But make no mistake: The fish has rotted, thoroughly and unequivocally, and everyone who comes in contact with it can’t shake the stink.
Mike Pence is simultaneously trying to convince the right wing that he’s Trump’s righthand man and everyone else that he’s a major player and he had no idea what Trump was up to in Ukraine. Bill Barr is gallivanting around the globe, indulging Trump’s conspiracy theory du jour. Mike Pompeo is trying to block State Department officials from responding to congressional subpoenas. Trump is trying to throw Secretary of Energy Rick Perry — reportedly on his way out — under the bus, blaming him for the phone call with Ukraine’s president. Even John Bolton — John Bolton! — ran for the hills.
Whatever the best and brightest is, this is the opposite. And at the center of it is a man who on Monday tweeted about his “great and unmatched wisdom,” and a man who boasted during the campaign that he would hire “the best people” — and, it seems, a man who has turned his administration in the Keystone cops division of Infowars.
But when Giuliani and Trump’s other ardent defenders ramble on about CrowdStrike, or when Trump’s campaign blankets cable news (as it did this weekend) with invented accusations about Biden’s supposed corruption that the media then dutifully regurgitates (noting, also dutifully, that they are “baseless” or “unproven”), or when the White House pretends that it is Very Serious about some scandal you would already know about if the Fake News cared about the Truth, understand this: They’re not out to convince people of anything. They’re out to pollute the conversation with nonsense, then fill the swamps with noise on to give the right-wing propaganda feeds something to hyperventilate and your uncle to breathlessly share on Facebook.
They’re out to not to make Donald Trump appear upright, but to make everyone else appear corrupt, too — to make it seem as if there’s no truth out there, because everyone is corrupt, because it’s all pollution and noise and nothing can be trusted.
So, to Trump’s followers, the message is clear: They can’t trust anyone. And since the elites are ganging up on him, the elites are ganging up on them, too. They’re all in this together. Even if they think Trump is a bastard, he’s their bastard.
It’s Demagoguery 101. In the short term, it will probably work. GOP officials will listen to their voters, and their voters will tolerate no daylight between them and their president. Consider the case of U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who last week called maintaining whistleblower protections “critically important” — obvious, no? —but then had his press secretary force a local newspaper to “clarify” its assertion that he was “breaking” with Trump after his primary opponent criticized him. (The spine, it bends.)
In a cult, the person at the top is more important than any principle. Trump’s GOP functions very much like a cult. This is why, no matter how much Trump degenerates over the next few months as impeachment proceedings drag on, no matter how much he lashes out at Mitt Romney, no matter what horror shows he concocts to deter asylum seekers, no matter how much he sounds like a sundowning Wizard of Oz on Twitter, Democrats are unlikely to snag the 20 Republican senators they’ll need to remove the president from office.
Of course, cult leaders also tend to be poorly served by their subordinates, as everyone who’s smart enough to know better stays away. On a completely unrelated note: On Monday, Axois reported that Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, believes that Trump’s inevitable impeachment will lead him to a 45-state landslide next year.
(Jeffrey Billman is the editor of INDY Week, in Durham, North Carolina.)