For a man who too often talked and occasionally governed more like a mob boss than like the 45th president of a democratic republic, it’s sadly fitting that the final days of Donald Trump’s White House are playing out like a closing montage from one of The Godfather movies.
Cue the operatic aria, or maybe the piano riff from “Layla,” as the camera pans over the bloody pavement in a faraway village in Iran and the windshield of a sedan riddled with bullet holes, as a top nuclear scientist is brutally whacked just days after a not-so-secret sit-down between the crime bosses of Saudi Arabia and Israel with Trump’s traveling consigliere.
The brutal killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh is arguably the most cinematic moment in our Trumpian death montage, but it’s not the most lethal. At a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department is racing to commit state-sanctioned murder against five more inmates before Trump leaves office — the first time since 1889 that a lame-duck presidency has carried out any executions at all.
These actions come at the end of a year in which death has covered the United States like a shroud, as a result of our utter failure to contain the coronavirus. In El Paso, Texas — one of the worst epicenters of COVID-19 — officials recently brought in 10 refrigerated morgue trucks to deal with an overload of deaths, a scene that a skillful director like a Coppola or a Scorsese would surely edit with interspersed cuts of an uncaring president lining up putts on a golf course.
In the end — and it is the end, no matter what a deranged team of White House lawyers is still babbling about on Newsmax or Facebook or wherever — Trumpism and America’s hopefully brief experience with neo-fascism has been exposed as a death cult.
The latest bizarre plot twist — an 11th-hour push by Trump and Barr’s Justice Department to allow executions by poison gas, firing squads, or the electric chair if that’s what’s needed to clear any obstacles to the current mode of lethal injection — probably would have been rejected in most Hollywood writers’ rooms for looking too much like 20th-century totalitarianism.
Why is this happening, and why now? Why is a president who practically had to be dragged into starting a transition to the clear election winner Joe Biden’s presidency, and who seems to be spending most of his waking hours playing golf or tweeting bitterly about the unfairness of it all, so determined to mark his lame duck days with a rising body count. No one will acknowledge this grim reality publicly, but the two most likely explanations are equally troubling.
First, remember during the Trump impeachment hearings (15 years ago, right?) when Kyiv diplomat David Holmes testified that then-ambassador Gordon Sondland explained to him that the president only cared about “big stuff” — stuff that would help him get reelected? Apparently in Trumpworld, realpolitik is bigger stuff than the sanctity of human life.
Consider, in this context, the mounting U.S. death toll from the coronavirus, currently on pace to top 300,000 by the much-anticipated end of 2020. It increasingly seems that Trump had a political strategy as the third wave of COVID-19 began to swamp America in the fall, which was push any unpopular public safety response — shutdowns, restrictions on crowds including our beloved sporting events, mask mandates, etc. — onto key swing-state Democratic governors like Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolf. That cold calculation — which ironically didn’t save the widely despised Trump but stirred up enough rage to help Republicans down-ballot — wasn’t a public health strategy, which would have involved Trump negotiating economic aid from Congress to make new lockdowns more survivable. If it meant thousands of excess deaths — including your grandma, perhaps — well, don’t sweat the politically small stuff.
It’s hard to think of anything more cruel and cynical, other than perhaps the Trump administration policy in Iran, which seems to be driven by a lethal desire to trigger a wider war in the Middle East, a doubling down for our outgoing president’s death cult. Indeed, 2020 has been bracketed by unwise, dangerously escalating, and amoral assassinations in Iran. The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was done by a Trump-ordered U.S. missile strike; the Thanksgiving murder of scientist Fakhrizadeh is only a mild mystery — Israel’s fingerprints are all over it — and clearly delighted Trump, who tweeted approvingly about the planned hit, in between his election-fraud lies.
It stretches the imagination that the assassination wasn’t discussed during the recent unannounced confab between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS, a.k.a. “Mr. Bone Saw”) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I’ll never understand why Trump and his criminal accomplices think that the best way to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons is to rip up the deal that prevented Iran from getting nuclear weapons — and then to poke murderous sticks in the eyes of the regime in Tehran.
But whacking an Iranian scientist fits with the broader Trump transition strategy, which is to make life as difficult for President-elect Biden, who promised during the campaign to restore the peace deal negotiated by his then-boss, Barack Obama, in 2015. If these 11th-hour machinations bring Iran to a state of near-war or, heaven forbid, actual war with Israel and the United States, it would surely complicate Biden’s peace agenda, to say the least. If the political gamesmanship leads to fighting and death, the president who golfed while your uncle was on a ventilator doesn’t really care, do u?
The same cruel dynamic is in play with Trump’s embrace of the death penalty, with the federal government on track to kill more of its prisoners in the last year of his presidency — 13, including the five currently scheduled before Jan. 20 — than in the entire half-century before it. The executions create the same contrast between the self-described “law and order” man in Trump and Biden who — despite supporting the federal death penalty in the infamous 1994 crime bill — now backs ending the barbaric practice, as do a growing number of voters.
Which brings us to the second factor, which is that in Trump’s brand of American authoritarian rage, as the writer Adam Serwer brilliantly put it, the cruelty is the point. Behind everything from the brutal separations of toddlers from their mothers at the Southern border to tossing paper towels at Puerto Rico’s suffering victims of Hurricane Maria, Serwer saw “the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.” What better way to channel the “lock her up” rage toward political elites, journalists and scientists than to kill some people found guilty of actual crimes on your way out the back door at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
Thus, no one within Trump’s inner circle seems to care that it looks bad that the folks who weren’t bothered by tiki-torch Nazis in Charlottesville are now giving themselves legal authority to run actual gas chambers, even if it’s unlikely they’ll ever use this, or Soviet-style firing squads. Their grisly executions are simply a form of lack-of-virtue-signaling to the angry base. It’s the attitude that sprouts in crude yard signs that read “(Bleep) Your Feelings” — or in 5-4 Supreme Court rulings where a vague “religious freedom” trumps the communal idea of keeping loved ones alive in a pandemic.
Last week’s SCOTUS ruling to overturn public health restrictions on religious services in New York State — which happened only with the vote of supposed “pro-life” Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the jurist that Trump and his accomplices rammed onto the high court at the same time he was scheduling a full dance card of executions — was a reminder that Americans will be dealing with the hangover of cruelty-is-the-point politics long after the Current Occupant retreats to Mar-a-Lago.
But our lost court’s sharp right turn also inspired an epic smackdown from none other than Pope Francis — supposedly the spiritual leader to four of the five justices behind last week’s superspreader ruling — who penned a New York Times op-ed to remind America what actual moral leadership looks like. Extolling the seemingly forgotten virtue of a public good, Francis wrote, “It is all too easy for some to take an idea — in this case, for example, personal freedom — and turn it into an ideology, creating a prism through which they judge everything.”
Easy ... easy to be hard, one might even say. Political movements born of rage-filled rhetoric almost always end in needless death — and America has proved no exception. One can only hope — and, in the spirit of Pope Francis, pray — that the hideous death cult that seems to be peaking in the last two months of Trump’s failed presidency will be remembered as a low point, the last throes of collective mad rage that paved the way for a new national sense of empathy, a matter of life and death.
» READ MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter