October 3, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
It’s Still a Crime If Everyone Sees It
The president is doing what all totalitarians have done.
This morning, on the White House lawn in front of TV news cameras, Donald Trump repeated his call for the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. He took things another step, though. He asked China to do the same thing.
Why would the president break the law in broad daylight at the same time he’s being investigated for committing a similar crime? The smarties say he thinks he can’t be impeached for an offense everyone saw. Others say he’s signaling to supporters that such impunity is completely normal. While these are worth debating, I think they’re missing something. An authoritarian isn’t satisfied with mere deception. His goals are higher and more ominous. We must understand them clearly to defend democracy.
Why would the president break the law in broad daylight at the same time he’s being investigated for committing a similar crime?
For a very long time, I suppose most of his adult life, Donald Trump has been able to make people believe whatever he wants them to believe even if what he wants them to believe is total bosh. The president has two gargantuan gifts. An ability to detect vulnerabilities in people, and a seemingly unlimited capacity to lie about anything, any time, and anywhere for as long as it takes to con his mark (that includes the press).
He’s been quite successful (that is, for a criminal president). But you can sense the ground shifting a little. Perhaps he’s feeling the walls of impeachment closing in. Maybe he’s a bit worried Senate Republicans might finally betray him. It could be that he’s freaked out by the likelihood of indictments waiting for him post-presidency.
I’m skeptical. Trump is a nihilist. What matters is the now, and if things are not going his way this minute, someone has to pay. You, me, the press, the American people—someone must be punished for the fact that his lies aren’t working like they used to. Yesterday’s press conference with the forlorn president of Finland was illustrative. Tim O’Brien, the Bloomberg Opinion editor, said: “The angry, snarling Trump on display just now is familiar to those who worked with him at the Trump Org, others who have witnessed that behavior in the White House, and reporters who have seen him up close—but I can’t recall him ever being this unspooled in public before.”
The worst thing you can say about Hunter Biden’s business background is that he cashed in on his dad’s name while Joe Biden was vice president. That’s not honorable much less admirable, but what he did with a Ukrainian energy firm wasn’t unethical or illegal. It was just disgusting (like getting-paid-$50,000-a-month kind of disgusting).
That nuance doesn’t matter, though. All that matters is the whiff of a shadow of a degree of “impropriety,” enough to “substantiate” a narrative already running in Trump’s head. Indeed, it’s been running since 2017. He has been pushing the idea since then that the Ukrainians, not the Russians, attacked our sovereignty, and it was the Democrats, not his campaign, who conspired to defraud the electorate in 2016.
Pro Publica’s Eric Umansky traced each time, finding that Trump or his surrogates (mostly Rudy Giuliani) advanced the “Biden conspiracy” in April, May, and July, right up to the moment Trump asked the new Ukrainian president for a “favor, though.” And now the president isn’t retreating, as you’d expect when someone is caught breaking the law red-handed. He’s making the big lie bigger by including China.
His goals are higher and more ominous. We must understand them clearly to defend democracy.
You’ve heard people say the president accuses opponents of treason because he sees no difference between himself and the state. To question him is to question America. Hence, accusations of “treason.” I’d like to suggest that the same dynamic applies to empirical reality, i.e., the truth. For him, there is no difference. Trump is the truth and the truth is Trump. Questioning him means questioning the truth, and vice versa. Put a bit differently: the truth cannot exist independently of Trump’s consciousness. The truth is whatever he says it is, and the truth is always to his advantage and always to his opponents’ disadvantage. Dissent, moreover, must be, and is, severely punished.
If the truth is whatever he says it is, and if it’s always to his advantage, you can start to understand more clearly why he lies so much, and what he’s actually trying to do. He’s not merely trying to deceive us. What Trump is doing is turning his lies into reality. The more widely accepted his lies are, and the less often they are questioned, the more his lies become real. What he’s doing, in other words, is a variation of what all totalitarian leaders have done. They make you doubt everything so that you must trust him only.
So: why would the president break the law in broad daylight? Because he believes he can warp reality so much the American people won’t believe their own eyes, and so the American people won’t see his high crimes and misdemeanors as worthy of his removal. If they do see it, he’ll punish someone—anyone—by “losing it,” as the Chronicle’s John Diaz put it. But the lies, even the biggest ones, aren’t working.
Someone’s got to be punished.
We’re all going to talking about impeachment for a while. For that reason, I’m going to make the Editorial Board free as often as I can. But please help by becoming a financial supporter of the Editorial Board. If you’re not yet a supporter, please click the red button. (If you’re not sure if you already are, please click the red button.) Thanks! —JS
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.