This week’s whirlwind of Trumpian treason — or at the very least, cowardice — in the face of Vladimir Putin, followed by the president’s furious backpedaling at home, reveals two important takeaways:
1) Trump is a pricey but easily acquired marionette, whose strings beg to be manipulated by ratings and the approval of strong-arm autocrats — most notably, Putin;
2) Those strings still can be influenced, if not outright seized, by the American public and Congress, if we are but willing to exert enough force.
Every president needs counsel. No single person could know everything that needs to be known to run this republic. They must rely on advisers, who in the past have been drawn from Congress and the top shelf of academia and public service.
Trump, however, has surrounded himself with shallow, toxic ideologues like Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway, who have little to offer but blind obeisance to the president, a capacity for ginning up salacious fervor among his base and a dangerous white nationalist agenda.
Add to the mix disgraced former Fox News co-president Bill Shine, named the White House’s deputy chief of staff for communications on July 5.
The appointment tightens Trump’s control over what he has crafted as his own state media outlet, but also gives stronger grip to Fox “news” celebrities — especially Sean Hannity — on the president’s marionette strings.
Gabriel Sherman, Vanity Fair’s White House correspondent, reported recently on NPR that Trump and Hannity “speak almost daily, after Hannity’s show, sometimes before, and sometimes for up to an hour a day.”
“Hannity has become a de facto chief adviser/strategist/chief of staff,” Sherman told NPR. “I mean, he recommends ideas, policy ideas, communications ideas to the president…”
It is deeply disturbing but not surprising that such a dedicated far-right lickspittle as Hannity would hold sway with the president.
Donald Trump invented himself in popular media forms, long on sensationalism and short on substance. First came the tabloids, then reality TV, social media and finally his successful amalgamation of the presidency and Fox News. The president’s contrived persona has thus long been defined and driven by ratings — a superficial measurement of efficacy he’s carried over into every aspect of the presidency.
Fintan O’Toole, in a June 26 column in The Irish Times, adeptly described Trump’s constant cycle of “trial runs” to see how far he can push the American public off our principles before we push back. It’s a cycle drawn from the president’s reality TV outlook and ensuing obsession with ratings, O’Toole wrote: “Put something out there, pull it back, adjust, go again.”
We’ve seen this model repeatedly, with the president’s comments on Charlottesville, on North Korea, Russian meddling in the 2016 election, on NATO, Theresa May and Brexit: tweet a sensational claim, a lie or insult; wait for the public’s response; lie again to double down or change course accordingly. It’s a dizzying dance in which truth holds no meaning.
Trump took this dance to new heights Monday, when he sided with Putin against the U.S. intelligence community, making him at least tacitly complicit with Russia’s attacks on the United States and a rank coward on the world stage.
Faced with scathing criticism from within his own party, Trump clumsily backtracked Tuesday, chalking the whole affair up to a grammatical slip of the tongue. Still facing criticism, the president spent much of Wednesday and Thursday claiming he took a strict stance with Putin on election meddling, perhaps forgetting the whole free world watched him, just 72 hours earlier, dance like a bootlicking doll to Pappy Putin’s favorite tune.
This whole episode is sad, and does not bode well for the survival of this nation as a free republic. But, it also offers hope, and the way forward — if we still are a free people, deserving of our freedom.
The reason Trump backtracked this week, and on family separation before that, wasn’t because he had an epiphany of democratic virtue, moral courage and basic human decency. He reversed course because the backlash was loud and stern enough to break through the deafening sycophantic echo chamber that surrounds him.
In essence, the outcry over family separation and Helsinki became loud enough to stir the president’s fear of “bad ratings,” and drove him off his preferred course toward autocracy. That we still have the power to effect that change is heartening, and the Republicans who spoke out against the president this week should be commended. But, these gains are fleeting.
If we are to maintain the control of “We the people” over our government, and constrain the ill effects of this president on our republic, we all — of all parties — must make our voices heard loud, early and often.
As a free people, that is our duty. If we fail in it, we do not deserve to be free.