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.”
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.
Trump Still Wants Putin Back In G-7, Lies Repeatedly About Why Russia Was Suspended
WASHINGTON, August 20, 2019 — President Trump on Tuesday said he’d support allowing the G-7 to become the G-8 again by allowing Russia to rejoin the annual summit held by the leaders of the world’s seven largest advanced economies.
Speaking in the Oval Office alongside Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Trump repeatedly lied about how long Russia had been participating in the annual summit before its 2014 suspension from what had been the Group of Eight, as well as the reasons for the suspension.
“So it was the G8 for a long time, and now it’s the G7, and a lot of the time, we talk about Russia,” said Trump, who then suggested that it “would be much more appropriate to have Russia in” and return to the G-8 format.
“It should be the G-8 because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia,” he said. “So I could certainly see it being the G8 again, and if somebody would make that motion, I would certainly be disposed to think about it very favorable.”
Trump also falsely attributed Russia’s non-participation to nothing more than spite on the part of his predecessor, rather than a consequence of Russia illegally invading and occupying part of Ukraine.
“I guess President Obama, because Putin outsmarted him, President Obama thought it wasn’t a good thing to have Russia in. So he wanted Russia out,” he said.
None of the claims Trump made about Russia and the G-8 have any basis in reality.
Although he claimed that Russia had participated “for a long time,” the G-7 summit existed for more than two decades before Russia first became involved.
The first edition of what would become an annual affair took place in 1975, when the leaders of the world’s top six International Monetary Fund-ranked industrialized economies — France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States — met in France.
Canada joined what had been known as the Group of 6 a year later, after which the annual meeting would be known as the Group of 7, or G-7, for the next 19 years.
Russia’s involvement dates back to 1994, when Russian officials met with G-7 leaders at a series of separate meetings after that year’s summit had concluded.
Boris Yeltsin, then President of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, attended the next three meetings as a guest, and in 1998, Russia became a full member of would then be known as the Group of Eight. The invitation was extended in spite of that country’s comparatively insignificant position among the world’s industrialized economies as a way to encourage Yeltsin’s efforts to transition Russia away from the Soviet model to a market economy.
Trump’s claim that Russia’s suspension was initiated by then-President Barack Obama is also false.
The suspension began in March 2014, a month after Russian forces invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. As a result of the invasion, which has been widely condemned by the international community, the leaders of what had been the Group of Seven canceled plans to attend that year’s G-8 summit — which Putin had been set to host.
While the assertion that subjects having to do with Russia are routinely discussed at the G-7 level is correct, those discussions most often concern efforts by the G-7 nations — six of which are NATO members — to counter Russian aggression.
Although the international community holds Putin responsible for Russia’s occupation of its neighbor, Trump has previously lied about his culpability and attempted to place the blame on Obama to justify allowing Russia to rejoin the G-8.
During a question-and-answer session with reporters last June, Trump said Putin “should be in the G8” and repeatedly accused Obama of having “lost Crimea.”
“President Obama lost Crimea because President Putin didn’t respect President Obama, didn’t respect our country, and didn’t respect Ukraine,” he said.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Rejects Linkage Between Donald Trump and Anti-Hispanic El Paso Killer
WASHINGTON, August 6, 2019 — White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley on Tuesday rejected the idea that President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric played any role in pushing a Texas man to drive to an El Paso Wal-Mart and open fire on the mostly-Latino shoppers inside.
“There are plenty of people in this country who commit acts of evil in the names of politicians, of celebrities and all types of things,” Gidley said while speaking to reporters outside the West Wing.
The alleged gunman, 21-year-old Patrick Crucius, posted a manifesto online before he allegedly shot and killed 22 people on Saturday.
In it, he claimed to be responding to the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” He also cited the March 15, massacre of two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, as an inspiration for his action.
The incident renewed questions over President Trump’s frequent use of anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric which have persisted since he opened his 2016 presidential campaign by attacking Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
His attacks on immigrants were also featured prominently in the run up to the 2018 midterm elections, during which his campaign rally stump speech frequently included descriptions of “caravans” of migrants, which he warned would be allowed to bring diseases into the country of Democrats were allowed to take control of Congress.
Democrats, civil rights activists, and some Republicans have condemned Trump’s remarks as racist, and many observers have drawn parallels between his rhetoric and the views expressed in Crucius’ manifesto.
Other violent killers have invoked rhetoric from Donald Trump
Crucius is not the first violent actor to invoke Trump’s rhetoric.
Last fall, federal agents arrested so-called “MAGA Bomber” Cesar Sayoc after he sent pipe bombs to a long list of prominent Democrats and journalists.
In court documents, Sayoc’s attorneys said their client had fallen victim to the cult-like atmosphere of Trump’s campaign rallies and a steady diet of Fox News and pro-Trump internet conspiracy theories.
But Gidley denied there was any connection between Trump’s rhetoric and those violent actions, and suggested any attempt to link them was beyond the pale.
“It’s not the politician’s fault when someone acts out their evil intention,” he said before rattling off list of Democratic politicians whom the administration “would never blame” for various attacks allegedly carried out by their supporters.
“We would…never blame Barack Obama for the police shootings in Dallas,” Gidley added. “And quite frankly, it’s ridiculous to make those connect in some way. You have to blame the people here who pulled the trigger.”
But other Republicans did, in fact, blame Obama for the 2016 sniper attack that killed five police officers in Dallas, Texas.
During an appearance on Fox News, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., blamed the shooting on “the demonization strategies that the Democratic Party uses on a regular basis.”
“I personally believe that what we saw in Dallas where a gunman shot at and killed law enforcement officers and Caucasians simply because they were law enforcement officers and Caucasians is in part because the Democratic Party strategy of demonizing the law enforcement community on the one hand, and also engaging in a strategy of racial division, where they try to get block votes from minority groups by trying to portray Caucasians as the enemy,” Brooks said.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, also blamed then-President Obama for the shootings at the time.
“The spread of misinformation and constant instigation by prominent leaders, including our president, have contributed to the modern-day hostility we are witnessing between the police and those they serve,” he said.
Trump, on the other hand, accused the press of fomenting violence in the wake of last year’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
During a question-and-answer session with reporters on the South Lawn last November, a reporter asked him about a poll which found that over half of Americans said he was encouraging political violence.
“You’re creating violence by your questions, you know,” Trump said. “And also, a lot of the reporters are creating violence by not writing the truth. The fake news is creating violence.”
“I’ll tell you what, if the media would write correctly, and write accurately, and write fairly, you would have a lot less violence in the country,” he added.