WASHINGTON, February 5, 2019 — When President Donald Trump arrives in the chamber of the House of Representatives to deliver his second State of the Union address Tuesday, the bipartisan-minded speech he is expected to deliver will be a dramatic departure from the apocalyptic rhetoric he frequently uses to describe his political enemies.
In a briefing with reporters last week, White House aides attempted to cast his annual message to Congress as an olive branch. In one excerpt of the speech, which is entitled“Choosing Greatness,” Trump is expected to call on Congress to “break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary process of America’s future.”
Trump’s turn to bipartisanship may only be a momentary break in character. Since the midterm elections, the president has consistently described those opposed to him interms both vague and extreme.
Midterm election rhetoric laced with concerns about the ‘radical left’
During the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, applause lines warning of “radical Democrats” who“want to tear down our laws, tear down our institutions in pursuit of power, demolish our prosperity in the name of socialism and probably worse” were a staple of the president’s campaign stump speech. At least one tweet warned of “radical leftists” supporting Democratic candidates.
During the 35-day partial government shutdown he instigated over his proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump used a Pentagon event on missile defense to complain to an audience of military officers that the “radical Democrats” in the House majority had come from the “radical left.”
He also spoke of a “radical left” opposed to border security during his first prime-time Oval Office address, telling Americans: “The radical left can never control our borders.”
The president’s preferred phrase for his perceived enemies has filtered down to Congressional Republicans and conservative media, both of which are replete with examples of the use of terms like “left-wing,” “leftist,” “radical left,” and “radical Democrats.”
These can refer to anyone ranging from moderate Democrats opposed to the president’s border wall to so-called “Never Trump” conservatives who’ve remained stalwart in their opposition to a president they say is not one of them.
Trump’s epithets show the hallmarks of an ‘authoritarian statist,’ says consultant Rick Wilson
According to conservative strategist Rick Wilson, the use of such vague epithets by both thepresident and his supporters marks Trump as an “authoritarian statist” and canbe traced back to two inflection points involving Fox News architect Roger Ailes.
“One of the great tricks of authoritarians and statists is the amorphous other. There’s always a threat — the evolving threat of the other,” said Wilson, a veteran GOP ad maker and the author of “Everything Trump Touches Dies.”
Ailes, Wilson said, understood there was a mass of Democratic voters who were “not of the Ted Kennedy type,” meaning that they were not progressive on social issues.
Speaking of Republican strategy generally, he said, “We went after them on cultural issues and on describing an effete elite possessed of amazing power and pure evil trying to destroy our way of life.”
Wilson explained that such thinking became even preeminent in GOP politics in 2010 during the rise of the Tea Party, in part because the internet had lowered the cost of communicating to a targeted audience.
“If you poke the average guy in a focus group who’d easily use the term ‘cultural Marxism’ and ask ‘what does that mean, exactly?’ the dumbfounded stare is always the same,” he said. “They don’t know what it means, they just know that they hate it.”
Wilson noted that as a prominent anti-Trump Republican, he often is confronted by people who accuse him of being a “socialist, liberal, blah blah blah,” based solely on his opposition to President Trump.
“It always comes down to one thing — you don’t like Trump, therefore your politics are of the left.”
“That’s how they look at everything, though this one prism of ‘are you a socialist liberal or are you Trump supporter?’” “The only thing they can ever say is ‘you don’t like Trump, therefore you’re a leftist. It’s kind of shocking and frightening at the same time.”
Wilson said that none of the characteristics or beliefs shared by him or other anti-Trump Republicans could by any means be considered to be “of the left” – until now.
‘Stabbed in the back’ by moderate Republicans and mainstream conservatives
“[Trump is] great at playing the statist politics of these guys, who Republicans on paper believe are oppressive to human freedom,” Wilson continued. These are the same kinds of “games that Saddam [Hussein] played, and Kim [Jong-un] plays, and [Vladimir] Putin plays.”
Wilson theorizes that Trump’s praise of Putin as an exemplar of “strong leadership” stems from apolitical impulse akin to the “stabbed-in-the-back” myth popularized in Weimar Germany. In the current iteration, Wilson says, mainstream conservatives and moderates Republican stand-in for German Jews.
Charlie Sykes, editor of “The Bulwark” and author of “How The Right Lost Its Mind,” echoed many of Wilson’s sentiments about the zero-sum thinking common with Trump and his supporters. The constant demonization of a hard-to-define enemy is good politics for the president.
“In a lot of ways, this is not surprising for Trump because he’s much more effective running against someone and running against something than running for something,” said Sykes, who hosted a conservative talk radio program until 2016.
“[Trump] needs a foil, so casting the Democrats as dangerous and radical is going to be the formula for his 2020 campaign — to convince his base and swing voters that no matter what his feelings will be, the Democrats are much scarier, that they are coming to catch you, that they hate you.”
Virtue signaling to the right on religious freedom
Sykes said much of Trump’s appeal is predicated on his supporters’ belief that the other sidewants to destroy the things they care about most, particularly regarding religious freedom.
“That’s been a very bright, powerful message to groups like evangelical Christians who have been convinced that religious liberty is on the line because Democrats will rollover their rights,” he said.
Trump and his political allies are purposefully creating an exaggerated, cartoonish image of a political enemy that hates both him and America itself, said Sykes. That way, he doesn’t have to run against a specific policy or a specific idea.
“Trump is trying to make it not about him so that it’s not being pro-Trump or anti-Trump, it’s being pro-American, pro-values, pro-Christian religious liberty,” Sykes said. He referred to Pennsylvania state representative Rick Saccone, who lost a special election to Conor Lamb, a Democrat who now represents the state’s 18thCongressional district. Saccone said that Democrats “hate Trump, hate America and hate God.”
Trump’s rhetoric parallels recent history in strongman states like Turkey, Hungary, Poland and the Philippines
While Sykes maintained that casting his political opposition as vague yet terrifying was in Trump’s own political self-interest, Michigan State Political Science Professor Dr. Erica Frantz warned that the use of such rhetoric parallels recent history in places like Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines — countries that have seemingly retreated from the practice of western-style democracy in favor of a more populist authoritarianism.
“What Trump has done is not unique to the United States,” she said. “It’s happened in other parts of Europe and in the developing world as well.” She believes that the American political climate is entering a situation in which anytime anybody speaks out against the president, he and his allies immediately label them as unpatriotic or not loyal to the United States.
“You have very vague rhetoric,” she said. “The virtue of vagueness is that it doesn’t have to pinpoint you to any specific thing.”
“Any category that is vague, loose, and encompasses anybody they don’t like is useful. In this instance, the ‘enemy’ is ‘the left.’”
Is Trump’s political rhetoric paving the way for anti-democratic behaviors?
Frantz noted that such behaviors are effective because pointing to political opposition as an enemy can easily paves the way for anti-democratic behaviors.
“Because those who support the incumbent are fighting against an enemy, they’re going to be more likely to accept such activity,” she said, calling Trump’s talk of declaring a national emergency at the border “very troubling in these contexts.”
“Historically speaking, we’ve seen emergencies being used as opportunities for these individuals to clamp down,” she said, citing Turkey’s ongoing national emergency used by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as justification for the continued imprisonment of thousands of journalist, academics, and civil society activists.
Because the one thing that can hinder such authoritarian takeovers of an established democracy is resistance from the would-be authoritarian’s own party, elected Republicans’ failure to stand up to Trump could have lasting consequences, Frantz said – particularly if he is able to declare a national emergency on the border without much meaningful pushback or consequences.
Trump’s power within the Republican Party has been bolstered by his outsider status, she said. It’s “not usually not a good thing in established democracies when we see these outsiders suddenly swoop in and win office.”
Party-Line Votes Stop Schumer’s Subpoena Push
The Senate has rejected a succession of amendments to the rules governing President Trump’s impeachment trial which would direct Chief Justice John Roberts to issue subpoenas to the White House and several executive branch agencies which refused to honor subpoenas issued during the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Senators voted along party lines, 53-47 to table a series of amendments offered to the proposed Republican-authored trial rules by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, which would have compelled the White House, the State Department, and the Office of Management and Budget to produce documents for the Senate to consider as evidence when deciding whether to remove Trump from office for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, condemned Democrats for objecting to the “very reasonable proposal” of using a process similar to that used to try President Bill Clinton in 1999.
“This seems to be a time for Adam Schiff and the house managers to attack the president and lecture the American people,” he said.
While speaking to reporters during a break in the trial, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar hit back against White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who during part of his arguments on Tuesday remarked that “some of you” (referring to senators who are currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination) “should be in Iowa” rather than sitting in the Senate chamber.
“I’ve made clear from the very beginning that I’ve got to do my constitutional duty,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Outlines Proposal to Majority Leader for Senate Trial of Donald Trump
WASHINGTON, December 16, 2019 – Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wants President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to feature witness testimony that was not elicited by House Democrats during their months-long impeachment investigation.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Schumer, D-NY, proposed that the president’s Senate trial begin on Tuesday, January 7th, with House Democrats’ beginning to present their case two days later.
Under Schumer’s proposed trial structure, House Democrats and the president’s attorneys would each have 24 hours to present their case.
But Schumer would also like to hear from witnesses “with direct knowledge of Administration decisions regarding the delay in security assistance funds to the government of Ukraine.”
Among the witnesses Schumer would like Democrats to call are White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Mulvaney adviser Robert Blair, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Office of Management and Budget Associate Director for National Security Michael Duffey.
Messrs. Mulvaney, Blair, Bolton and Duffey were each subpoenaed by House Democrats during the House’s investigation, but each of them declined to appear, citing President Trump’s order that administration officials ignore subpoenas issued as part of the House’s inquiry.
According to Schumer, witnesses are necessary because unlike most figures involved in President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial, none of the witnesses he has proposed have offered any previous testimony, while many potential witnesses at Clinton’s trial testified before Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s grand jury.
“The trial structure I outlined in my letter to Leader McConnell will ensure all the facts come out,” Schumer said Monday while speaking to reporters.
“In the coming weeks, Republican senators will have a choice — do they want a fair, honest trial that examines all the facts, or do they want a trial that doesn’t let the facts come out?” he asked.
“Trials have witnesses,” he said, adding that if Republicans declined to allow witnesses to be called, the American people would infer that Trump has something to hide.
Trump Administration and Its Enablers Attempt to Smear Civil Servants, Not Political Holdovers
After two weeks of hearings which revealed President Donald Trump’s attempt to force Ukraine’s government to announce sham investigations into conspiracy theories meant to exonerate Russia from having interfered in the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden’s family, it’s now a foregone conclusion that Democrats will eventually vote to approve articles of impeachment against a president for only the third time in American history.
When the House reconvenes in December, the task of crafting those articles will fall to House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and his staff. They will have a lot of material to work with, mostly testimonial evidence from career foreign service officers, civil servants, foreign policy experts, and even an active duty Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.
But rather than accept the testimony of these largely nonpartisan public servants, Republicans have endeavored to shoot the messengers.
Lt. Col. Vindman, who emigrated here as a child from the Soviet Union and who has literally bled for his adopted homeland (earning a Purple Heart in the process), was recently branded as “Vindictive Vindman” by first-term Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
Other witnesses, like Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, have been branded as “Never Trumpers” by the president himself. And the Intelligence Community whistleblower whose complaint touched off the entire impeachment inquiry has been labeled — without evidence — a “Democrat operative” by Trump defenders such as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member.
Some observers may see the constant counterpunching and impugning of witnesses’ motives as just another part of Republicans’ strategy to defend President Trump. But it’s not.
It’s much more frightening than that.
The attempt to smear these nonpartisan civil servants is part of a long-running attempt by Trump and his allies to delegitimize the entire concept of a non-partisan civil service.
It’s a project that stems both from Trump’s obsession with loyalty combined with his misguided belief that federal employees work for him, and from his administration’s goal to “deconstruct the administrative state.”
It began shortly after Trump was sworn in on January 20, 2017, when his allies in conservative media began complaining about “Obama holdovers” serving on the staff of the National Security Council, and in places like the Defense Department, State Department, and pretty much every other executive branch agency.
These “holdovers,” Trump allies said, were to blame for many of the president’s failures, and were part of a Democratic “deep state” working to frustrate Trump’s goals.
The problem with that, of course, is that there is no such thing as a “holdover” — at least not the way Trump and his allies mean.
It is possible for an agency official to be a holdover from a previous administration. When President Obama was preparing to take office in January 2009, he asked then-Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain in his position.
Gates, a political appointee, was literally held over from the previous administration.
But that’s not what the term means to Trump and his allies.
To them, “holdovers” are the career civil servants and subject matter experts who keep the government running. Such people been a fixture in American government since 1883, when then-President Chester Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which created a competitive exam process for selecting government employees and made it illegal to fire them for political reasons.
Arthur was an unlikely booster for the idea of a professional civil service. He was a “stalwart,” part of a faction of the Republican Party that supported the “spoils” system, which gave the president — and the party controlling the White House — complete control of federal hiring. He was elected as James Garfield’s running mate to placate those Republicans who were concerned about Garfield’s potential for turning off the spoils system’s spigot of graft.
But the abundance of patronage jobs — and the president’s control over them — ended up costing Garfield his life in September 1881, months after he’d been shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a mentally ill man who’d attacked Garfield in a Washington, D.C. train station because he’d been denied the job of consul to Vienna or Paris.
The horror of Garfield’s assassination galvanized public support for a civil service bill, and Arthur — who’d been the subject of unfounded suspicions after his name was invoked by Garfield’s assassin — signed it.
Since then, nonpartisan civil servants have been a fact of life for presidents.
Most have understood that the career professionals who staff the executive branch departments have a vital function.
But not Trump.
For Trump, having served in government during Barack Obama’s presidency is enough to cast suspicion on any federal employee, and his suspicion of career professionals has extended throughout the executive branch.
At agencies large and small, policy planning meetings are routinely restricted to political appointees, and some policies — like the proposed (and dead-in-the-water) merger between the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration — have been designed to give the White House more control over hiring.
Many of those policies have not come to fruition, but the goal of getting rid of “disloyal” employees has now become an article of faith for Trump defenders.
A Senate trial will give Republicans yet more reasons to attack career professionals as disloyal.
The next election will determine whether punishment for “disloyalty” will become more than a conservative pipe dream.