by Frank Rich · February 7, 2018
Devin Nunes, memo author. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.
Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the GOP’s status as the law-and-order party, the political effects of the recent stock market turmoil, and the ongoing wrangling over whether Donald Trump will sit down with Robert Mueller.
In the fallout from the Nunes memo (and amid promises of more Nunes memos), the GOP finds itself in opposition to federal institutions of both law enforcement and national security. Isn’t this a radical shift for the party that once presented itself as the champion of law and order and portrayed the Democrats as soft on crime?
It is indeed stunning that the party which routinely trashed the Democrats for championing “criminals’ rights” (a.k.a. civil rights) is now, at its highest levels, vilifying the FBI and the Department of Justice. Of course, the immediate goal in this anti–law enforcement jihad, led by the White House and abetted by congressional stooges like Devin Nunes and Paul Ryan, is to discredit the Mueller investigation before it nails Donald Trump. But to say this cultural shift is a sudden metamorphosis for the GOP, brought on by Trump’s supposed hijacking of the party, is revisionist history. Trump pushed an open door. His assault on Justice and the FBI is merely heightening and exploiting the dangerous anti-government toxins that GOP leaders humored in the Republican base well before he arrived — much as his administration’s overt white supremacism and xenophobia is the apotheosis of a racist Republican strain dating back to Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.
Let’s not forget that in the 1990s the GOP and its rabid talk-radio auxiliary winked, nodded, and at times endorsed a gun-crazy right-wing militia movement that demonized Justice Department law-enforcement agents as “jack-booted thugs.” (That alt-right movement had more than a little in common with the “fine people” who congregated at Charlottesville.) Newt Gingrich, then House Speaker, went so far as to appoint one of his caucus’s most reckless anti-government radicals, Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, to a congressional gun task force; Chenoweth had floated a bill that would require armed federal agents to seek the permission of local sheriffs to enter their counties when pursuing law enforcement. The GOP retreated from tacit tolerance of the crazies in their ranks only after Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, leaving 168 dead. But only temporarily.
Some 15 years later, this strain reemerged, first at Sarah Palin rallies, and then during the hysterical tea-party summer of 2010. That year, Steve King, the redoubtable congressman from Iowa, all but condoned the domestic terrorist who flew a plane into a federal building in Texas in protest of the IRS: “It’s an agency that is unnecessary,” he argued. Republicans looked the other way as attendees showed up with assault weapons at presidential health-care rallies.
The Trump anti–law enforcement campaign has been very effective in rallying the base. An Axios/SurveyMonkey poll last week showed that only 38 percent of Republicans approve of the FBI (as opposed to 64 percent of Democrats). Nunes’s next memo will reportedly go full Joe McCarthy and smear the State Department. Trump’s labeling of Democrats as traitors is another part of the offensive. The goal is nothing less than a full destabilization of the rule of law — all to help Trump, his son, and his son-in-law (at the very least) escape legal jeopardy in Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and obstruction.
It’s not just an idle daydream that Trump is now calling on the Pentagon to stage a costly Washington parade to show off America’s military might. His aim here, I’d suggest, is not just to impress North Korea and other American adversaries but to draw the military closer to him for when the crunch comes. He is hoping that the generals he constantly flatters (and appoints to White House posts) will be “loyal” to him when federal law enforcement, including the judiciary, or a potential post–Election Day Democratic majority in Congress, try to hold him accountable.
When Donald Trump looked for a success he could point to in his first year in office, he often turned to the stock market. Should he pick a new pet topic after the market turbulence of the past few days?
For all the psychiatric speculation about Trump, I think a principal clue to his psyche is self-evident: He tries to compensate for his various masculine insecurities by citing high numbers, whether at the stock market or anywhere else, that allow him to inflate his profile as a Big Man.
Sometimes he doesn’t even bother to sublimate his psychic trigger. When Graydon Carter at Spy magazine labeled him a “short-fingered vulgarian” in the late 1980s, Trump tried to counter the implicit charge by exulting in (and probably planting) the 1990 New York Post page-one headline in which his mistress (and, ultimately, second wife) Marla Maples said he was responsible for “the best sex I ever had.” (Maples denied ever having said any such thing just this week.) More than a quarter-century later, he was still relitigating his penis size in a 2016 insult contest with “Little” Marco Rubio.
Trump usually asserts his manhood instead by exaggerating the size of his inaugural crowd, his Electoral College victory, his poll ratings, and any other number he chooses to fictionalize. The rising Dow Jones average was a godsend for him, because it actually was going up, and, for once, he didn’t have to lie to claim credit for an ever-more erect graph line. But as always, he didn’t have the self-control to know when to stop: On the day of his State of the Union address, the Dow started its drop, falling 363 points, and yet still he bragged in his speech that night that “the stock market has smashed one record after another.” He declared that, “Americans’ 401(K), retirement, pension, and college-saving accounts have gone through the roof.” If there is a market correction, this video clip will be a staple of Democratic campaign ads come fall.
As to his next pet topic, who knows? I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that he will accuse Dow Jones of purveying “fake news” and hiding the “real” market numbers. Or perhaps he’ll just make up his own numbers. Or pin the blame on his newly appointed Fed chair, Jerome Powell, who had the bad luck to take office just as the Dow started to slide.
The Times is reporting that Trump’s lawyers have advised him against sitting for an interview with Robert Mueller, potentially setting up a lawsuit that would cast a shadow into November. Has he lost the faith of his counsel?
What faith? Any lawyer who advised a compulsively mendacious client like Trump to sit with Mueller should be brought before the bar for unprofessional behavior.
It might be a good time to note that there is a lot of faux suspense being applied to the Mueller narrative. Trump’s claims of wanting to talk to the special prosecutor notwithstanding, he never was going to do so, under oath or not, under any circumstances. Nor is there any doubt that Trump will do anything possible, legal or not, to derail Mueller’s investigation. The only question is how and when. The White House denials that he has no intention of firing either Mueller or Rod Rosenstein have no more veracity than any other White House denials. Of course he will if that’s what is required to escape culpability. Entertaining as these subplots may be, they are merely diversions as we await the constitutional crisis that grows closer by the day.