Our reading for today comes from Seinfeld, Episode #29 …
George: Was that wrong? Should I have not done that? I tell you I gotta plead ingnorance on this thing because if anyone had said anything to me at all when I first started here that that sort of thing was frouned upon, you know, cause I’ve worked in a lot of offices and I tell you people do that all the time.
Some of you will recognize this passage from a classic episode of Seinfeld, which now seems hilariously and painfully familiar. We’ve now heard from the President’s son, the President’s top media toadies and now even the President himself a simple message: Yes, we’d work with a hostile foreign intelligence service to get dirt on and defeat a political enemy. Anyone would. “That’s politics!” as the President put it this morning. In other words, we’ve now gone rapidly from “no collusion, no obstruction” to “collusion is awesome.”
To a great degree this is no more complicated than people who are willing to justify anything and say anything and continue shifting the goalposts as the facts evolve. But there’s a deeper issue than even this which became clear over the course of the 2016 campaign and which I would argue is in its own way as important and dangerous as what now seems to be the clear evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and emissaries of the Russian government.
Here’s how I would put it.
Is Donald Trump a conservative? He certainly seems like one now. There’s also a number of consistent themes in his biography going back decades that provide continuity with today: hostility to immigrants and minorities, strong support of protectionism and affinity for foreign dictators. This all amounts to a sort of revanchist populism, which matches up with key elements of contemporary conservatism, even as it deviates from others. So that’s Donald Trump. Except when it’s not. Certainly he’s not a conservative in any real sense, even though he’s entirely adopted the rhetoric and policy agenda of de-regulation, tax cuts and all the rest.
What about Don Jr? He’s now the Trump family member most beloved by the so-called “alt-right”, i.e., Internet-focused racists and the far right. Is Donald Trump Jr really a political person at all? In other words, was he a political person before his father adopted birtherism as his political movement half a dozen years ago? I see no evidence for that. Jared Kushner and certainly his family were actually high powered Democratic donors in New Jersey, at least before Charles Kushner went to prison.
My point here is not that these people are ‘not really conservatives’ and thus maybe something else. It’s that they’re not really anything. I certainly think the far right politics comes naturally to the President in many ways. My guess is that the same is true for his son Don Jr. But fundamentally politics itself and everything most of us think of as policy is alien to all of these people. Except as an opportunity. Politics, for them, is about winning, power and self-enrichment. Of course, the first two of these – winning and power – play some role for the great majority of politicians. And self-enrichment, albeit often in technically legal permutations, is a preoccupation with many politicians. With the Trumps, I believe that is really all there is. Power and appetite. That’s it.
If you look through Trumps business history, you see a similar pattern. He goes luxe or bargain basement, clean or crooked. It’s whatever counts as a win in the context. Having researched the Trumps a lot they started to look more and more to me like a mob family in the sense that whether things were legal or right just didn’t seem to be a metric they operated in. Lots of people break laws. That doesn’t make them unique. But this is a bit different. Looking over Trump’s history, breaking laws or not or cheating people or not just never seems to have been part of the equation.
Which brings us to Trump Jr and the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. I do not think we know even close to the full story about this yet, either this meeting or the broader collaboration between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. But in most respects Don Jr’s reaction to an explicit offer of assistance from the Russian government did not surprise me. At some level the man was a fool to openly and gleefully welcome Russian government assistance by email. That is insane. Some have expanded on this incredulity to think somehow that Trump was new at this? New at politics? New at running for President? New at being an American?
This is of course nonsensical. Don Jr. is about to turn 40. He has a large family. He’s been an executive in a large international business for most of his adult life. Despite what Trump’s media toadies are saying today, almost anybody without a severe mental disability would be able to understand intuitively that it is not okay to work with a foreign government with a history of hostility to the US in a US election campaign.
But there’s one small element of truth to the “Was that wrong?” argument. Everything we know about the Trumps suggests they are fundamentally amoral people. Their loyalty is to a triad of enrichment, power and family – the order in that hierarchy I don’t really know. The idea that there are limits to what you do in pursuit of those goals is, I believe, quite alien to them.
And so again, back to Don Jr.
Does this 39 year old man have some affinity for Russia? Does he espouse some ideology that made this breach seem okay to him? I very much doubt it. It’s much simpler. His father and in a broader sense his family was running for President – which meant power and money. The idea that there were any lines that were uncrossable in pursuit of that aim is again quite alien.
I confess that with all I’ve read and seen over the last two years, even I was astonished at the total alacrity and glee with which Don Jr embraced the offer. But as soon as I did, I realized that I shouldn’t be. It is who these people are. I’ve written as much. I just hadn’t followed it out to its logical conclusion, even though I thought I had. It’s the thread uniting the self-dealing nonprofits, the endless lying about charitable giving, Trump university, swindling the people he fleeced when he took his dying casino businesses public. It’s also what explains the long history of involvement in money laundering.
To put this all as clearly as I can, it’s not that somehow Don Jr was so profoundly clueless that he didn’t know this was a problem. He knew enough to lie about it for at least a year. It’s not that he doesn’t know it’s wrong or against the law. It is that in this family having that be a brake or obstacle to action is simply alien. Dad’s good, Hillary’s bad. What’s the problem? Of course he loves it. It’s fits the family’s entire pattern.
The additional factor to the Trump’s is the coterie of lackies and toadies who trail around them. There are numerous people in the Trump universe who were either apolitical or relatively committed Democrats before 2016 and now they’re the most committed Trumpers. Other people who probably had not entirely embraced a total amorality are nonetheless dragged alone. We can call them Dignity Wraiths. But another way to look at it is that there is a contagious amorality that emanates from the Trumps.
Needless to say, people who know no limits on their actions, not even cynical limits on actions that may simply be too dangerous to risk (what keeps many, though by no means all super powerful people in check) are very, very dangerous people and all the more so when they take control of a state with such vast powers.