The fallout from Trump’s press conference with Putin has been worse than what Trump actually said in the press conference. We all knew he was a Russian agent, but now we’re trying—again—to pin him to a few specific words rather than connecting the manifold constellation of his words and actions over the past two years. He gets out of this with pure shamelessness, piling irreconcilable lies on top of each other, a stack of lenses so scratched and fogged it’s impossible to discern meaning. His woulds and wouldn’ts and walkbacks and whoops-a-daisies and jaykays have been well covered, and it hurts my head to try and parse them for you again. But I don’t need to, because you get it: The President is a liar, and he’s lying to everyone about everything all the time. You can’t reason with an unreasonable thing. In such a mind, nothing and anything is possible, and so you can’t even talk to the man, let alone have informed debate.
This isn’t devious or evil genius on Trump’s part. It’s just what happens when primal terror hijacks a bad brain. But it doesn’t matter whether Trump knows it, because this is exactly how you strip words of their meaning—through what George Orwell famously called “doublespeak.” And when language goes, that’s the ball game.
By contrast, Trump’s pathological pro-Putin apologetics—though treasonous behavior—don’t by themselves corrupt the basic requirements for a functional democracy.
When the administration starts amplifying Trump’s doublespeak, as Sarah Sanders did for about an hour yesterday, it makes it impossible for anyone playing by the rules to pin the government to anything. And if you don’t play by the rules you’re even worse off, because you’ll be silenced. This makes information useless, and in turn that makes reasonable debate impossible, and that turns democracy into kabuki theater.
And when American democracy goes, so will lots of other things, such as civil rights, voting rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the global economy, the markets, jobs, low prices at Target, reasonable gas prices, the trust of your neighbor, etc etc. This isn’t purely academic: If American democracy falters, it will likely lead to a major war somewhere on the globe. Perhaps here. In other words, the loss of something this necessary and this normal—language—could confuse democracy to the point of ruin.
And that leads us to the Theory of Impending Doom.
The Theory of Impending Doom (TID), is something I completely made up. But it’s real, folks. It outlines two vectors, Time and Pressure, on a collision course with the midterm elections. And Trump, with one sentence in the middle of his disturbing press conference in Helsinki this week, made it clear he’s aware that he wields power over this collision.
Let’s look at where the first vector is headed: Time.
In a rare act of Voltron-like spine-assemblage after that disaster, Americans on the left and right alike bucked Trump’s revolting press conference with Putin. If nothing else, the whole world saw that it’s undeniable that Vladimir Putin has something on the president. Those who deny it are at this point either Trump cultists, opportunists, self-important trolls, complicit themselves, or some combination.
But now we face the familiar dispiriting question: What will anyone do about it?
The answer is, as always, nothing. There are many reasons, but the one that’s most central to the Theory of Impending Doom came from the most underreported line from that press conference, when Trump said Mueller’s investigation will “go on for a while.” That’s the exact opposite of what he’s been saying for over a year.
Has Trump conceded he can’t end the probe himself, either legally or without being impeached? It’s more likely he’s calculated that it’s better for his self-interest if the investigation drags on. After all, if we’re always confused, we can’t conclude anything.
Here’s the full quote:
I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing; where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails? 33,000 e-mails gone—just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 e-mails.
The statement is drenched in confusion, rife with whataboutism and arcane conspiracy theories. But Trump framed all of that stuff as a necessary part of the investigation. Though it’s true Mueller’s investigation—a probe into a sprawling international conspiracy helmed by a very capable and practiced Russian intelligence outfit—will run long, Trump and his legal team have always insisted it would end soon. Remember, Trump fired Comey, as he told senior Russian agents in a private Oval Office meeting, because it relieved “great pressure” on him. And his lawyers, including Ty Cobb and Rudy Giuliani, have presaged for months now the investigation’s imminent end.
Now an abrupt change in thought. Why?
Though Trump only commands about two-thirds of GOP voters, he fully commands them. Polls have consistently found that a sizable majority of Republican voters would support Trump no matter what he does. They’ll side with him against anyone, as they’ve demonstrated time and again with attacks on Paul the Cuck Ryan, John McCain — Tokyo Rose — and other GOP members whenever they dissent. They wanted to elect a child molester to the Senate. The GOP is helpless against this cult.
And so the closer we get to the midterms this November, the less palatable it becomes for the GOP to stand up to Trump: If Trump’s base turns on the GOP, it’d be a disaster. Not only would it cost many of the incumbents the election—and likely cost the party control over both the House and the Senate, in turn leading to Trump’s immediate impeachment—it would also pare off a permanent extremist, Trumpist wing of the party. That would create a drought for the GOP that would likely last many years.
And that’s not equatable to short-term GOP disasters such as losing a bunch of lobbyist money or failing to repeal Obamacare—no, a split that large in the GOP would change American history.
The GOP, however, underestimated just how terrible these people are. With midterms approaching, there’s no turning around now, and so they’ve found themselves bound to outwardly treasonous behavior. Trump senses that now they’ll let him get away with pretty much anything. All this would/wouldn’t stuff is meaningless. In a few days we’ll be back to the witch hunt.
It’s in Trump’s best interest, then, to rally his base and turn them against anyone who opposes him. Members of his own party have no reason to believe they’d be exempt.
In fact, they probably calculate, like Trump, that it’s now in the interest of their careers. That brings us to pressure.
This vector is Pressure. The closer we get to midterms, the closer Mueller gets to Trump. The president has increasingly felt the heat lately: several members of his campaign have agreed to cooperate with the government; his incompetent personal attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen might well be among them; Mueller has criminalized the hacking conspiracy; that investigation’s timeline is about to hit WikiLeaks and Roger Stone; the NRA is now heavily implicated in funneling Russian money to the RNC; and Mueller is expected to submit his report on one branch of his probe, the investigation into Trump’s conspiracy to obstruct justice.
In the coming weeks and months, the pressure on Trump will mount. If you think that he’s behaved erratically before, wait until he feels cornered and existentially threatened.
In the meantime, though, he’s discovered his most effective weapon is whataboutism. This has led him to spew and endorse incoherent conspiracy theories about the “Deep State,” the Steele dossier, the FBI, Hillary Clinton, and of course, the investigation itself. Watch the Putin press conference, and you’ll hear it all. Check out the replies to his tweets and you’ll encounter a disturbingly fervid devotion to insanity. Desperation, as the late Daniel Von Bargen put it, is a stinky cologne. His base is all-in.
This is why, as midterms approach and the two vectors collide, Trump wants the Mueller investigation to drag out. He can use it to split the country and motivate his base. Trump’s interest in motivating his base isn’t so much political as it is self-preservation, of which his political actions are but one of a slew of functions. He doesn’t care about retaining a GOP majority because he likes the GOP. He just knows that he’s toast if the GOP loses.
More importantly, though, he’s central to the conspiracy to attack America and knows that zero-hour approaches. Trump is ignorant enough to have underestimated the severity of his crimes, and arrogant enough to have underestimated the capability of the U.S. intelligence community to uncover and prove those crimes. Now he knows better, and he knows that, barring unconstitutional abuse of power and the threat posed by a rabid and heavily armed base, he’s cooked.
The scary thing: It will probably work. Trump might not be able to fire Mueller, but that might not be his best choice: by playing along with the investigation, he’ll be able to build a more durable defense of public opinion. We face a real danger that an election will collide with mass social unrest, fed by unfalsifiable conspiracy theories. In other words, a clash of fact and faith, of the rule of law and true believers.
The fact that there’s a chance of this tells us that a sizable faction of America wants a dictator, so they can sustain their extant white power and own the libs. And if they keep the House, Trump might survive until 2020, when there’s not much of a chance they transfer power even if he loses.
For a glimpse of the evidence that the Russia investigation whataboutism isn’t just a fringe phenomenon, check out the replies to this tweet: Intellectual rationalizations that split the difference between being anti-Trump and against the merited outrage over the Russia scandal—which in this view is just a bunch of triggered libs who are too stupid to focus on the “real issues.” This is radical centrism, and its flavor of doubt poses nearly as much a threat to the system as Trump’s base.
Doubt is healthy. But flowering from the seeds of doubt today is an intellectual dissonance among a certain type of independent, annoyed at a perceived equitable iniquity of both sides: Indisputable skepticism.
For these true believers, not only it their skepticism beyond reproach, it can’t even be diminished, despite the evidence. This too is post-truth, the redoubt of the threatened true believer. The fringe centrist suckling the soma of doubt.
In the coming months, expect Trump to take ever more outrageous positions and do ever more outrageous things. Don’t expect the GOP to stop him. Don’t expect even centrists to commit to any movement against him. Trump believes the coming months present a unique opportunity for him to inoculate himself, and if he can hang on to the House, mercy on us all.