Donald Trump, you may have noticed, is not like other people. No surprise – you don’t live the American Dream of becoming president without bringing something unique to the table, whether it’s JFK’s Camelot charisma or the Gipper’s reactionary optimism. Trump went a different direction, with his ability to win, even when he’s losing, by what could charitably be called chutzpah or could less charitably be called shameless bullying. He keeps doing it because it’s worked so well that a con man who should have been the bankrupt-and-finished answer to a 1980s trivia quiz is instead our 45th POTUS.
Look at Trump’s long history with Deutsche Bank, the former Nazi-enabling institution that hoped Trump’s celebrity would help it gain a toehold in the U.S. This as every other major bank had come to see the short-fingered vulgarian – whom, we now know, lost more money than any other American in the late ’80s and early ’90s – as utterly toxic.
The Trump-Deutsche Bank relationship, as chronicled by the New York Times’ David Enrich, continued through several almost-comic, money-losing endeavors before the Manhattan probably-not-billionaire talked bankers into putting up $500 million for Trump to build a 92-story skyscraper in Chicago. Some Deutsche Bankers had qualms – not just because of his past defaults and his clearly inflated net worth, but some cited apparent ties to organized crime – but went through with the deal with a provision that put Trump personally on the hook for $40 million.
Trump – not helped by the 2008 financial crisis – soon found these were debts no honest man could pay. Rather than admit his mistake (hah!) or sell off assets like Mar-a-Lago to make good the $40 million, Trump called his lawyers. They crafted an outrageous argument – that Trump’s deal with Deutsche Bank would let him off the hook by an “act of God,” presumably something like a hurricane striking the Loop. But no less an expert than Alan Greenspan had called the 2008 crisis “a tsunami” – so wasn’t this an act of God?
Instead of the bank coming after Trump for the money he owed, Trump sued the bank – for a galling $3 billion!! The move – very much in the spirit of Trump’s long-ago, admit-nothing-deny-everything lawyer Roy Cohn, or maybe the Gambinos that he used to buy concrete from – tied everything up for two years, which led to a deal that bought him two more years. By then, he’d (amazingly) wooed a different arm of Deutsche Bank to loan him the money to make the problem go away. He was just a couple of years away from running for the White House ... as a successful businessman.
The reason why we have an anti-bullying movement in this country is not just because bullying tactics are cruel and morally abhorrent, but also because bullying is ruthlessly effective. A total narcissist in the White House – who plays to win with no sense of embarrassment, let alone ethics – will not only plow through the guardrails that have mostly kept America on a bumpy path of democracy for 243 years, but run over anyone who insists on playing by the old rules like a 40-ton truck.
What President Trump is doing to American democracy right now is the outrageous political equivalent of suing Deutsche Bank for $3 billion – except the stakes are much, much higher. Confronted with the long-awaited report of special counsel Robert Mueller that demanded further investigation by Congress, Trump has finally built his wall – a stonewalling approach of new obstruction to block the old obstruction.
Over the last few weeks, Trump has not only prevented administration officials from testifying before Congress -- thus thwarting its constitutionally mandated oversight role -- but is also looking for levers to block former officials like ex-White House counsel Don McGahn from providing information. He’s made broad claims of executive privilege aimed at halting release of the full Mueller report, while his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is openly defying the law to keep his boss’s tax returns secret.
The president is trying to sue not just Deutsche Bank but other financial institutions to stop them from turning over information not just about him but about family members who aren’t in government. And now he’s siccing the power of his no-longer-independent Justice Department on the federal agents who dared investigate credible allegations against Trump and his associates in 2016. He’s also threatened to stall action on America’s very real problems -- like its crumbling roads and bridges -- as a kind of blackmail threat to force Democrats to drop their investigations.
This is more than just a constitutional crisis. Watergate was a constitutional crisis. This is a large dumpster truck that’s on fire and barreling down a country road at 110 mph, sparks flying as it violently scrapes the rule-of-law guardrails. Trump’s opponents – most notably (but not exclusively) the Democrats on Capitol Hill – are watching all this in their rearview mirror yet still plodding along at 55 mph, afraid they’ll get a ticket for crossing the double yellow line, praying they won’t get flattened.
The timidity of Democrats in response to Trump’s take-no-prisoners approach is disappointing, even after watching decades of battered-dog politics from the center-left. The slow-motion House Democratic strategy of finally issuing some subpoenas after several months in power, then watching them get ignored and finally tied up in court as the clock ticks toward the 2020 election appears hopeless in the face of all-out Roy Cohn-ism. And yet the Democrats are politically terrified of using the only power that matches Trump’s tactics – an impeachment inquiry, and the expanded powers that flow from that.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains determined to stick with her initial focus-group-and-poll-driven strategy that impeachment will hurt Democrats and help Trump by angering moderate voters and by giving him a big stick to beat his opponents when right-wing Senate Republicans refuse to convict him. “[W]e’re not at that place,” Pelosi said last week – even after she cited both Trump’s obstruction of justice and his bizarre behavior that screams out, in the speaker’s own words, for “an intervention.”
I agree with the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg and others who’ve said that – while Pelosi remains a brilliant legislator and Capitol Hill tactician – her strategy on Trump and impeachment is increasingly “incoherent.” She herself has outlined an open-and-shut case for an impeachment probe yet she and many other top Democrats remain paralyzed by fear – both of moderate voters and the idea that Trump will use victimization to “fire up his base” in 2020, as if he wouldn’t find some other way (like tweeting edited videos) to do that.
Trump is already emboldened and more than a little out of control. We saw that last week with his authoritarian demands on his cabinet and key aides to vouch for the TV cameras about Dear Leader’s “calmness,” a crazy scene that looked like a comic outtake from the movie The Death of Stalin. That should worry people, but people should be more concerned about the increasingly autocratic policy actions by Trump’s government. We simply can’t wait for Jan. 20, 2021.
Just in the last few days, we’ve seen the Trump administration defy the role of Congress not just on subpoenas but on selling $8 billion in bombs and other weapons to the murderous Trump-friendly regime in Saudi Arabia, which will be used to slaughter women and children in Yemen. We’ve seen the president’s handmaiden at the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr, develop a new legal theory about news leaks that – while it’s being tried out for now on the loathsome non-journalist Julian Assange – can and probably will be used to kill the First Amendment rights of legitimate journalists. That’s on top of Barr’s Trump-ordered probe of his perceived political “enemies” in the FBI and other government agencies, which belongs on a “greatest hits” album of 20th-century dictators.
Waiting in a defensive crouch until an election in November 2020 is a terrible strategy, and not just because it’s too long to wait. It’s true a majority of voters will for now tell a pollster they don’t favor impeachment, but they also haven’t been presented the evidence in televised hearings as happened during Watergate. It’s also true that voters want action on issues. But they also trusted the people they elected to uphold the basic rule of law so that everyday folks don’t have to worry about it. We focus so much on issues – but voters care most about character.
And the character that voters admire most is courage.
We need courage from Speaker Pelosi and congressional Democrats to understand that the only way to respond to a narcissistic bully like Trump is with an equally resolute show of force, and with every tool in the toolbox. That includes an impeachment probe to counter the president’s abuses of power. That response – for a POTUS that even Pelosi admits has probably committed high crimes and misdemeanors – requires Congress to follow its constitutional duty, do what’s right and not expedient, and realize that voters don’t reward politicians who lead by focus group.
But it’s not just Congress.
We need more courage from Mueller himself, whose reluctance to testify before the American people, who’ve paid his salary for the last two years, and to better explain his report isn’t just bizarre but threatens to tarnish an admirable record of public service that goes back to his heroism in Vietnam.
We need more courage from the mainstream media to show that it fully understands – and is willing to inform the public by any means necessary – the authoritarian threat posed by Trump. That means no-more embarrassing puffery like Sunday’s utterly bizarre article in the New York Times that celebrated the bullying nicknames that Trump gives to Democrats.
We need more courage from the broader Democratic Party establishment and some of its rank-and-file voters who don’t really want an open debate and a contest of ideas in the 2020 primaries. They seem determined to rally behind the most predictable – and, frankly, tired – choice not out of a passion but out of fear – the fear of how Trump and white working-class men might bully a woman or someone with innovative, progressive policy proposals.
We need more courage – and I’m sorry if this offends anybody, but it needs to be said – from the everyday citizens who aren’t happy with what’s happening in this country, and who did take to the streets in record numbers on January 2017, over the mere threat of Trump autocracy, yet are sitting on their couches now that the president is making those threats come real.
We need more courage like that exhibited by Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash, who has made the case for Trump’s impeachment more clearly and more forcefully than any member of the Democratic leadership. They should follow his lead.
In their groundbreaking 2017 book, How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt look at countries threatened by potential strongmen or anti-democratic movements. They found the nations that successfully resisted such movements – like Finland and Belgium during the Great Depression – had leaders who united despite their opposing views because they thought the long-term goal of democracy trumped their short-term self-interest. Countries where would-be opponents stayed silent for reasons of self-preservation, they found, slid into dictatorship.