by Roger Cohen · December 5, 2017
An image of Robert Mueller at a protest against President Trump in Vista, Calif., in October. Mike Blake/Reuters
It’s the contempt that’s so contemptible: President Trump’s contempt for the Constitution to which he swore an oath, for the F.B.I. that’s allegedly in “Tatters” (sic), for the majority of Americans (including his base) who will be worse off from a fat tax cut for the richest, for the shared wonder inspired by our public lands, for America’s allies, for the science that explains why it’s getting warmer, for due process, for truth, for informed debate, for the press, for the values anchored by liberty that the United States has attempted to represent to the world.
That’s a lot of contempt for one man. But it comes naturally to Trump. He has not given a moment of reflection to the office he occupies, or how its responsibilities may differ from those of running a real estate company. If bullying worked then, if stiffing contractors and trashing the truth worked then, why should they not work now?
Robert Mueller is why they may not work. Mueller, as the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, is interested in facts. On one side, the steady accumulation of facts and the flipping of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who was busy following instructions and trying to make nice to Russia. On the other side, the increasingly frenzied and fantastical early-morning tweets of a president who wakes up every day to Moscow messing with his mind. Trump flails. He can’t believe this is happening.
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, there are no checks and balances. It’s open season for authoritarian make-believe. In the United States, 10 months of Trump notwithstanding, it’s not so easy to get away with a daily truth heist.
I was struck by this passage about Trump from Billy Bush, the former host of “Access Hollywood,” in The New York Times. “The man who once told me — ironically, in another off-camera conversation — after I called him out for inflating his ratings: ‘People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you,’ was, I thought, not a good choice to lead our country.”
“Just tell them and they believe you.” That’s Trump’s credo. In the same way he believes women appreciate his “Grab-’em-by-the-pussy” approach. The president believes what he wants to believe.
With the power he has he thinks he can shape an alternate reality and persuade enough Americans of its authenticity to perpetuate his power. He believes he can turn Americans from citizens into apprentices. Apprentices, in his experience, are pliable to his whim.
In George Orwell’s novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the chief protagonist, Winston Smith, meets an acquaintance at an interrogation center and asks why he is there.
“To tell you the truth,” the friend replies. “There is only one offense, is there not?”
Truth telling is the fundamental, unpardonable offense in any unfree society. The only “truth” in a totalitarian system is lies. Trump attacks truth because he cannot bear the mirror it holds up to him, the emptiness it unmasks. He is drawn to the world’s despots, rather than its democrats, because they can make stuff up and get away with it.
American democracy is so tiresome. Journalists and judges raise their voices. Contestation occurs. Trump would like to dispense with all this insofar as he can.
Theresa May, Britain’s conservative prime minister, tried to cozy up to Trump because she needed to offset the disaster of Brexit with an invigorated Anglo-American “special relationship.” She tried, really she did; she wanted a free trade deal with the United States that badly. Trump received an invitation for a state visit. It has become an embarrassment. Even May ended up in dismay.
Trump’s retweeting last month of anti-Muslim videos from a far-right British group prompted an indignant response from May’s office. There you have it: the leader of the free world (R.I.P. that notion) sharing neo-fascist xenophobia, without so much as an apology. There can be no doubt that it’s not jihadists Trump hates, it’s Muslims (with the possible exception of glad-handing Saudi royals.) His travel ban, now approved by the Supreme Court, was driven by prejudice not reason.
This is an embarrassment. Worse, it’s shameful.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and the most powerful leader in Europe, was alert to Trump’s bigotry from the outset. As noted in William Drozdiak’s fascinating book on Europe, “Fractured Continent,” Merkel insisted that, “Fighting terrorism should not be a reason for blanket stigmatization.” As Drozdiak also chronicles, she told Viktor Orban, Hungary’s nationalist prime minister: “I grew up staring at a wall in my face. And I am determined not to see any more barriers being erected in Europe.”
Principles, and Western values, have not yet disappeared from the face of the earth. But Merkel, like many allies struggling to make any sense of Trump’s outbursts, has few illusions: “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”
So must Americans if they are to resist Trump’s contempt for truth. It’s not just about the next election. It’s about the Republic.