A Short History of Trump's Birtherism (And How The GOP Reacted)

A Short History of Trump's Birtherism (And How The GOP Reacted)

From: "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

For many on the Right, the ur-conspiracy theory of the Obama presidency was the notion that Obama had not been born in the United States and was therefore not constitutionally eligible to be president. An entire cottage industry of “birthers” sprang up, complete with elaborate attempts to document the “evidence” that Obama was, in fact, a secret Kenyan. Arguably, Donald Trump launched his successful presidential bid by seizing upon the issue, which he milked for the maximum amount of publicity. Trump would eventually disavow birtherism in the final months of the 2016 campaign, while attempting to blame its origins (falsely) on his rival Hillary Clinton. But for five years, Trump had questioned Obama’s birthplace.

In March 2011, Trump appeared on the Laura Ingraham Show to declare: "He doesn't have a birth certificate, or if he does, there's something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me -- and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be -- that where it says 'religion,' it might have 'Muslim.' And if you're a Muslim, you don't change your religion, by the way." On CNN, he escalated his rhetoric, saying that “if he wasn’t born in this country, he shouldn’t be the president of the United States.” After Obama produced the certificate in April 2011, Trump briefly acknowledged his legitimacy, but quickly seemed to recant, saying “a lot of people do not think it was an authentic certificate.”

To be sure, some conservatives with megaphones denounced the birthers. Early on, talk show host Michael Medved called the movement’s leaders “crazy, nutburger, demagogue, money-hungry, exploitative, irresponsible, filthy conservative imposters” who had become “the worst enemy of the conservative movement.” Birtherism, he said, “makes us look weird. It makes us look crazy. It makes us look demented. It makes us look sick, troubled, and not suitable for civilized company.”

But despite repeated attempts to debunk the theory, many leading Republicans either stayed silent or refused to forcefully denounce the theories that were springing up. One reason for their reluctance was that “birtherism” was not fringe notion in the GOP. A Public Policy Poll in February of 2011 found that birthers had become a majority among likely Republican primary voters --  51% said they did not think Barack Obama was born in the United States. Less than a third of GOP voters -- 28 percent – said they firmly believed that he was born here, while 21 percent weren’t sure.

The GOP Knew What It Was Getting

The GOP Knew What It Was Getting

My latest, in the New York Review of Books:

“Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities,” the former presidential nominee told the audience. “The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics.”

He reminded the audience that Trump was “an individual who mocked a disabled reporter, who attributed a reporter’s questions to her menstrual cycle, who mocked a brilliant rival who happened to be a woman due to her appearance, who bragged about his marital affairs, and who laces his public speeches with vulgarity.”

He laid out the clear and present danger posed by Trump. “He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press. This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.”

Beyond Trump’s unfitness for office was his coarsening effect on the culture. “Now, imagine your children and your grandchildren acting the way he does. Would you welcome that? Haven’t we seen before what happens when people in prominent positions fail the basic responsibility of honorable conduct? We have. And it always injures our families and our country.”

At stake was the future of our democracy, the former nominee said, citing John Adams. “Remember, democracy never lasts long; it soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

That was March 3, 2016, and the speaker was Mitt Romney. As extraordinary as his indictment was, it had little discernible effect on Trump’s march toward the Republican nomination. But the speech underlines a central reality of our politics: the GOP knew what it was embracing; it was all there and Republicans were warned. They may have been deluded, but they were not uninformed.

Like so many of his fellow Republicans, Romney would eventually make his peace with Trump, even entertaining over a dinner of frogs’ legs the possibility of becoming his secretary of state. Nearly a year after Trump’s election, congressional Republicans and the president find themselves locked in a relationship of morbid co-dependency, but it is not one based on misunderstanding. There was no mystery, no hidden knowledge, about who or what Donald Trump was, or what it would mean to invest him with the royal purple of the presidency. Republicans gave it to him knowingly.

When Did The GOP Learn to Love Deficits?

When Did The GOP Learn to Love Deficits?

My latest from the Los Angeles Times: 

Not that long ago, Rep. Paul Ryan was freaked out about the national debt.

The “red tidal wave of debt,” he told Sean Hannity back in 2012, would trigger what he called the “most predictable economic crisis we have ever had in this country.” Debt would mean nothing less than the “end of the American dream.”

In 2012, the debt stood at $15 trillion, and the exploding costs of entitlements, Ryan said, meant that “by the time my grandkids are raising their grandkids, we are taking 80 cents out of every dollar just to pay for this federal government at that time.”

Ryan, who was then House Budget Committee chairman and soon to be the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, warned that the debt crisis would be catastrophic to the American way of life, leading to a massive rise in interest rates and — eventually — “bitter austerity” measures including “cuts to current seniors” and “cuts to the safety net.”

He also said the crisis was imminent: “All the experts are telling us we have about two to three years, is the time frame they tell us.”

That was five years ago. Ryan is now speaker of the House, and the national debt now exceeds $20 trillion. But he’s pushing ahead with tax cuts that are likely to increase that figure by trillions more. And that’s only part of the story.

Hugh Hewitt And The GOP's Captive Minds

Hugh Hewitt And The GOP's Captive Minds

I find much to admire about Hugh Hewitt, who has managed to resist many of the temptations to blather and bombast to which so many of his talk radio colleagues have succumbed. 

But Hewitt has also carved out a niche as a reliable rationalizer of Trumpism. His talents in that direction were on display last weekend as he manfully tried to make the case that, despite appearances, there was no civil war in the GOP (and shouldn't be one, since everything is going so swimmingly.) In Hewitt's rosy world, there was "only a series of skirmishes on the fringes of the party and among its chattering Manhattan-Beltway class estranged from President Trump." 

The Never Trump movement has become a long-running version of “Saturday Night Live’s” “More Cowbell” skit. It seems every column, editorial, television appearance, panel participation and probably every trip to Safeway must include a Never Trumper’s own version of Cato the Elder’s “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” — “Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.” Admiring lookers-on then respond via tweet or Facebook post: “Well done! But it could use more cowbell.” And so more cowbell we get.

Hewitt  betrays a small note of defensiveness, even as he claims the mantle of substance and seriousness in contrast to the nabobs nattering on about things like Russia, the rule of law, attacks on democratic norms and what not.

How The Right Lost Its Mind And Charlie Sykes Lost His Faith In The GOP

My interview with WPR's To The Best of Our Knowledge:

"Charlie Sykes spent more than two decades hosting a popular conservative talk-radio show. He railed against the Clintons and Obama. He helped push Paul Ryan and Scott Walker onto the national stage. And today he’s a Trump critic who's profoundly disillusioned with the Republican Party. He explains why in a book called “How the Right Lost Its Mind.”"

Listen here: https://www.ttbook.org/interview/how-right-lost-its-mind-and-charlie-sykes-lost-his-faith-gop

A Guide For Perplexed Conservatives In The Age of Trump

A Guide For Perplexed Conservatives In The Age of Trump

Published at NBC News Think: 

How are we going to survive this thing?

These are (to put it mildly) tough times to be a conservative, especially one who is skeptical of Donald Trump. While there will be some real policy victories — the judiciary for example — conservatives have watched these past nine months as conservativism has been tarnished by a politics of cruelty, insult, and erratic tweet storms. And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

So far, only a handful of elected Republicans have been willing to speak out — Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, John McCain and Bob Corker come to mind — but we are going to have to hear more from contrarian conservatives if the movement has any hope of salvaging its brand, and its soul.

Being a contrarian comes rather naturally to me (maybe it’s genetics), and I suppose this current dissatisfaction takes me full circle. Back in the 1970s, I became a “recovering Liberal,” when I looked around me and decided I no longer wanted to be a part of what that movement had become. My decision came slowly, but it was ultimately liberating to break free from tribal politics and its tendentious talking points.

So this feels familiar to me. If the conservative movement wishes to be defined by the nativist, authoritarian, post-truth culture of Trump-Bannon-Drudge-Hannity-Palin, then I’m out.

So what does that mean?

The American Conservative: Exorcising the Conservative Media

The American Conservative: Exorcising the Conservative Media

Really great discussion of 'How The Lost Its Mind" in the American Conservative:

A long time ago (two years, actually), there was a sort of person we referred to as a “full-spectrum conservative.” Full-spectrum conservatives supported traditional morals, free enterprise, and a strong public investment in national security. For this group, 2016 was not a good year.

Trumpian populists effectively set fire to the proverbial three-legged stool. The full-spectrum conservatives of yesteryear were faced with a choice: move quickly or else find yourself on the ground. Many moved. Some took the fall. And few took the latter course quite so spectacularly as Charles Sykes, the radio host whose March 2016 interview with Donald Trump helped send the real estate tycoon spiraling into a dramatic primary loss in his home state of Wisconsin. Sykes won that battle, but he and his associates went on to lose the war. Now he’s compiled his thoughts on conservatism’s decline into a new book, How the Right Lost Its Mind.

If nothing else, the book is a triumph for this reason alone: though he clearly views Donald Trump’s election as a catastrophe (both for conservatism and for America), Sykes manages to discourse on the problem for 274 pages without allowing the Mogul to hog the spotlight. It’s refreshing to find a discussion of right-wing politics that doesn’t veer into yet another attempt to chart the murky waters of Trump’s fevered brain. Instead, Sykes wants to understand how the party of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley could have degenerated to the point where a frivolous attention-seeker ducked out of a Democratic Party fundraiser just in time to take the GOP on a cosmic joyride.

Here’s the core of Sykes’ answer: Right-wing media created a fever swamp of misinformation, fanaticism, and resentment, which ultimately derailed the party and American politics.

How I Was Excommunicated

How I Was Excommunicated

(Excerpted from “How the Right Lost Its Mind” pp. 211-213) 

The demand that conservatives drop their objections and conform was also taken up by the grassroots.

In Wisconsin, even after I stepped down from my daily radio show, there were calls for pogroms against conservatives (like me) who might dissent from the new regime. The publisher of the Wisconsin Conservative Digest, for instance, sent out a blast email excoriating conservatives who had not backed Trump, calling them “Judas goats,” suggesting that activists retaliate against them after the election.  This was curious, because just months earlier (in August 2016) the same publisher had sent out a similar mass email calling on the GOP to repudiate Trump. “If the top leaders, not the old timers of the party stand up and disavow him and tell him to get out let pence (sic) carry the mail we could at least stop the rest of the bleeding,” he wrote onAugust 15. Within weeks, he had decided to back Trump and began castigating dissidents.

After the election, he ratcheted up the recriminations, which were aimed not merely at me (I was about to go off the air,) but other hosts and conservative activists who had been critical of the new president.

ICYMI: Conservatism Betrayed

ICYMI: Conservatism Betrayed

The Washington Times Book Review: 

How the Right Lost Its Mind” is an important work. Any serious-minded citizen, no matter of what political persuasion, will benefit from reading it and carefully contemplating the powerful message of its thoughtful, solidly conservative author.

A highly principled conservative of the William F. Buckley Jr./Ronald Reagan mold, Charles J. Sykes is the author of eight other acclaimed conservative books and was a well-known Wisconsin conservative radio talk-show host.

Many will remember when an especially ill-prepared Donald Trump called into “The Charlie Sykes Show” days before the Wisconsin primary and how during that 17-minute interview Mr. Sykes respectfully but grippingly dismembered him regarding his fitness for the presidency and his elusive and anything but conservative positions on important issues. That the Wisconsin primary became a Ted Cruz routing of Donald Trump was in no small measure because of the challenging questioning Mr. Sykes and other leading conservative talk radio hosts in that state had raised about the Trump candidacy.

“How the Right Lost Its Mind” will be labeled as anti-Trump. It’s that, to be sure — but it is so very much more than merely that. Above all, this is the story of the betrayal of the conservative cause by many prominent persons who had been considered, and disingenuously still claim to be, principled conservatives.

The author neither minces words nor pulls punches as he mourns over how some of the right’s “leading voices turned from gatekeepers to cheerleaders and from thought leaders to sycophantic propagandists” and how “a movement based on ideas devolved into a new tribalism that valued neither principle nor truth.”

The Washington Post Reviews "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

The Washington Post Reviews "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, Republican Party honchos released a 100-page report, nicknamed the “autopsy,” trying to figure out where the GOP went wrong. It’s the kind of thing you do when you lose.

But how about when you win and kind of wish you hadn’t? “In victory,” Charles J. Sykes writes of the latest presidential race, “conservatives will need something very different — an exorcism of the forces that have possessed and, ultimately, distorted conservatism.”

Instead of examining a corpse, today the GOP must battle its demons.

Sykes, a conservative true believer and former talk-radio host in Wisconsin, earned the wrath of Donald Trump’s supporters when he criticized the Republican front-runner early in the race, calling him “a cartoon version of every leftist/media negative stereotype of the reactionary, nativist, misogynist right.” On the radio and on social media, Sykes was branded “a sellout, a traitor, a Judas,” he recalls, for not boarding the Trump Train. In “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” Sykes has written a sort of “What Happened” for conservatives. The culprits are not James Comey, Vladi­mir Putin or a reality television  opponent, but the return of “crackpotism” on the right; the fecklessness of conservative media, political and religious figures; and the rise of a distorted worldview in which Trump’s overwhelming character flaws mattered little to a base that behaved as though civilization was in play in his election.

What The GOP Is Becoming

What The GOP Is Becoming

For the GOP, especially its Trumpist wing, the moment is piled high with irony. The primary victory of Roy Moore in Alabama over the candidate for the U.S. Senate seat backed by President Trump suggests that that not even Trump himself can control the forces that he unleashed.

Moore’s win is an acid flashback to 2010, when GOP voters in Senate primaries nominated Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell in Delaware and the unelectable Sharron Angle in Nevada, who announced a 2018 campaign in March. Republicans had hoped that they had exorcised those characters after that debacle. But years of stoking a sense of perpetual outrage has created a new political dynamic that has given us Roy Moore, a perfect stew of extremism, ignorance and intolerance.

Commentary Magazine Reviews 'How The Right Lost Its Mind"

From Commentary Magazine, a lengthy, thoughtful review:


Late last year Charles J. Sykes published an op-ed in the New York Times called “Where the Right Went Wrong.” Sykes wrote that he was giving up his talk-radio show in Wisconsin after nearly 25 years: “My reasons are personal,” he said, but the rise of Donald Trump “has made my decision easier.” Not that the presidential campaign had lacked a certain personal angle for Sykes, a sharp Trump critic. “Conservatives I had known and worked with for more than two decades organized boycotts of my show,” he wrote. On social media, “I found myself called a ‘cuckservative,’ a favorite gibe of white nationalists; and someone Photoshopped my face into a gas chamber.”

The op-ed was a signal moment in the aftermath of Trump’s election. For years, Sykes had been a conservative stalwart, helping to make Wisconsin a wellspring of conservative thought and action. (He has also written for Commentary.) He had championed the political careers of conservative Republicans including Representative Paul Ryan, Governor Scott Walker, and Senator Ron Johnson, and he had backed conservative reforms such as reining in public-sector unions and widening school choice. Yet here he was in the Times, declaring: “The conservative media is broken and the conservative movement deeply compromised.” Conservatism’s “moral failure” in a time of ugly tribalism, he said, “lies at the heart of the conservative movement even in its moment of apparent electoral triumph.”

The story of that moral failure demanded a fuller accounting than the spate of op-eds, columns, and articles produced by disillusioned conservatives following Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Now we have it with Sykes’s How the Right Lost Its Mind, a dissection of conservatism’s 2016 collapse but also a canny historical analysis. Sykes closes by suggesting how “contrarian conservatives” can work to restore the movement to sanity, but after reading this portrait of cynical acquiescence, collaboration, and opportunism, they would need a strong stomach to undertake such a mission.

Read the whole thing here: 

A Starred Review From the Library Journal

 

From the October 1, 2017 issue:

"What happened to the Republican Party? That's the knotty question Sykes (A Nation of Victims) cuts into in this, despite its inflammatory title, stark, honest, and unflinching look at the steps that moved the right to the fractious party it is today, argued from a voice within the camp.

"Sykes is not rejecting conservatism but providing a contrarian voice to the state of affairs as embodied by the support for and election of President Donald Trump through ideological bubbles and a vocal conservative media. Was the act emblematic of the modern conservative's ideals, or a fluke, out of line with the principles of Republicanism? Where does the "alt-right" end and conservatism begin? And, more pressing than the identity crisis of a political party, what kind of world is being shaped by the politics of this evolution and blurred lines?

"Sykes concludes with advice to conservatives for how to recover their values and suggestions for how to exorcize the party from its problems. Exceedingly readable, Sykes's voice comes across as clearly as if over the airwaves. VERDICT: Highly recommended. Sykes provides a valuable contribution to the arguments happening in the GOP about the party's future and priorities. --Laurel Tacoma, Fairfax County, P.L., VA"

The Trap of Liberal Tears

The Trap of Liberal Tears

For much of the Trumpist Right, it's all about Liberal Tears.

Tweeting over the weekend columnist/author Kurt Schlichter declared:

The main reason for President Trump to pardon Sheriff Joe was fuck you, leftists. The new rules, bitches.

Trumpist talker John Cardillo echoed the sentiment:

Once @realDonaldTrump eliminates #DACA, leftists will drown in their own tears. Win win

This has become a familiar pattern among some on the right, who rush to defend anyone (especially Trump) who is attacked by the Left, no matter how reckless, extreme, or bizarre their behavior has been.  If Liberals hated something, the argument goes, then it must be wonderful and worthy of aggressive defense, even if that meant defending the indefensible and losing elections. So in years past, conservatives embraced and defended figures like Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell and lost winnable senate races with candidates who said bizarre things about rape (Todd Akin) or were just too weird for the electorate (Sharron Angle.)

But in the era of Trump, the appetite for Liberal angst has morphed into an addiction.

The Pardon of Joe Arpaio Was Worse Than You Think

The Pardon of Joe Arpaio Was Worse Than You Think

Where to begin here?

In the name of “law and order,” President Trump just pardoned a man who defied the law to violate constitutional rights.

On the obvious level, his pardon was an unmistakable symbol to the darkest fringes of his nativist base. But it was also an insult to law enforcement itself. Far from being a martyr who was persecuted for “doing his job,”  Sheriff Joe Arpaio was a caricature of law enforcement – living up to every stereotype of a lawless, brutal, racist cop, who ignored fundamental rights and reveled in calculated cruelty. 

Behind the Arpaio Pardon: The Alex Jones-Drudge-Hannity Nexus

Behind the Arpaio Pardon: The Alex Jones-Drudge-Hannity Nexus

Here’s a bit of useful background to the president’s hint that he intends to pardon former Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, illustrating once again the influence of the fever swamps on Trump’s thinking.

For months, the idea of pardoning for Arpaio has been been a cause celebre for the Alt Right and a near obsession for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website.

Was Infowars’s support in fluential on the president? Arpaio thinks so. Via Media Matters:

Donald Trump's Grievance Presidency

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Because you surely have; the meltdown of Donald Trump’s shambolic presidency may be the most predictable event in political history.  

The rationalizations, wish-casting, and projections of the pro-Trump flunkies notwithstanding, his presidency is cratering, at least in terms of governing. As Trump becomes more isolated and his relations with Congressional leaders trend into mother-in-law territory, the prospects for legislative victories appear to have gone south of slim. As a result, his presidency has now shifted into the full-on Grievance Phase.

This was also predictable.

As I tweeted the other day, it is worthwhile going back to the last weeks of the 2016 campaign, when Trump seemed on track to an historic defeat. Re-read this piece from The Washington Post’s Philip Rucke and Robert Costa, headlined “Inside Donald Trump’s echo chamber of conspiracies, grievances and vitriol”:

He is preaching to the converted. He is lashing out at anyone who is not completely loyal. He is detaching himself from and delegitimizing the institutions of American political life. And he is proclaiming conspiracies everywhere — in polls (rigged), in debate moderators (biased) and in the election itself (soon to be stolen).

In the presidential campaign’s home stretch, Donald Trump is fully inhabiting his own echo chamber. The Republican nominee has turned inward, increasingly isolated from the country’s mainstream and leaders of his own party, and determined to rouse his most fervent supporters with dire warnings that their populist movement could fall prey to dark and collusive forces.

This is a campaign right out of Breitbart, the incendiary conservative website run until recently by Stephen K. Bannon, now the Trump campaign’s chief executive — and it is an act of retaliation.

Four days later, Costa predicted that this “Trump-driven divide” would haunt the GOP long after the election.

The axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose.

Trump’s insistence that the election will be “rigged,” which he again suggested at the debate, has only stoked the specter of a grievance movement that will haunt Republicans for months and years to come — threatening to leave the longtime norms of American politics shattered and Washington paralyzed by his followers’ agitation and suspicion.

Fast forward to this week, and Trump’s Phoenix rant, twitter storms, attacks on the “fake news,” and on his fellow Republicans. It’s all there as if nothing has changed: the politics of division, paranoia, anger, with Trump always as the victim – the “fighter” who is being betrayed by an opposition that is simultaneously weak, low energy, and yet “dark and collusive.”

 In defeat, Trump’s campaign would have evolved into an ongoing “grievance movement.” But in victory, the result has been the same thing, a president unable to lead, but determined to stoke a deep sense of alienation and grievance among his base. For Trump, that may be enough.

 

 

We Are Not Immune To History

My interview with Ana Marie Cox appears in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. You can read the whole thing here. 

 

Q: How do you think the elevation of hard-liners has affected the party?


A: I wake up every day in disbelief. It’s not that just that Donald Trump is president. It’s
that he has empowered the worst people in the world: people who would’ve been
regarded as misfits and crackpots just a few years ago. We’re being tested in a
fundamental way, and I think we operate in a system that simply assumes that you
have honorable people who will be constrained within political norms. Now they’re
being violated on a daily basis. I don’t think America comes out on the other end of
this unaffected. We’re not immune to history.
 

 

Bannon's Departure Doesn't Change This Presidency

Like so many others on the Right, Steve Bannon thought he could ride the tiger. Instead, he and his allies have become the latest road kill in this shambolic presidency. Just another Friday in August.


While it’s tempting to see Bannon’s fall as an inflection point, the reality is that his departure does nothing to change the fundamental nature of this presidency, which continues to be shaped by Donald Trump’s erratic character and impulsivity


Ironically, though, Bannon’s firing comes just days after what may have been Peak Bannon: Trump’s full-throated embrace of much of the Alt Right agenda. In his final days, Bannon openly relished the escalation of a racially-charged culture war:  “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it,” told The New York Times.  Trump agreed, channeling Bannon as he tweeted support for maintaining monuments to Confederate heroes. 


So Bannon’s firing creates a new dynamic on the Right, with an uncertain outcome, especially as it comes in the midst of other cracks in Trump’s shrinking base.


Trump’s loss of support from the GOP mainstream, including members of the business community and congressional Republicans, was damaging enough, but a break with the Bannon-Breitbart wing could lead to bitter divisions within the hardest of the hard core wing of the president’s base. 


Last year, Trump beat the establishment, but he relied on the populist, nativist movement that Bannon had cultivated for him. Simply put, he can’t afford to lose the base that elected him in the first place.


Bannon has already declared that he going to “war” with the forces he believes have stymied Trump’s populist agenda. With Bannon back at the helm, expect Breitbart and its allies to attack against “the Democrats, globalists, generals, bankers, and hawks,” who now dominate the White House and are plotting to undermine and the populist/nativist movement.


Already, they are warning that Trump’s presidency is in danger of being derailed by RINOS (Republicans in name Only).  Within minutes of his firing, a headline on the Breitbart website declared: “With Steve Bannon Gone, Donald Trump Risks Becoming Arnold Schwarzenegger 2.0,” a reference to the action star turned liberal-leaning governor of California. 


"Bannon won’t go straight at Trump,” observers Ben Shapiro (himself a former Breitbart staffer). “That would be foolish. Instead, he’ll pretend to be Trump’s ally in fighting the swamp from the outside.” That means that “Bannon will pretend that Trump’s foibles are really just Trump being misled by others. Until, that is, Bannon finds a convenient way to turn on Trump himself."

But Bannon may also find that he is reaping what he has sowed. For the last year, he imagined that he could control, shape, and use Donald Trump. (In that sense, he was much like Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and Mitch McConnell.) But he helped create something else: a cult of personality that may be immune to the attacks he is about to launch.


Bannon and others helped create the persona of Trump as the great leader and perpetual victim – a man who’s every falsehood, slur, blunder, and fraud had to be rationalized and defended at any cost. For months, it has been obvious that Trump cannot be controlled (even by himself) and is not going to pivot to anything remotely presidential. It has been obvious that his ignorance and indifference to policy runs deep; that he is a man without any deep principles and little loyalty to even his closest allies. But despite all that, his base continues to rally to him and will likely continue to do so. 


Voters who swallowed the multiple indignities of the last year are unlikely to break with him because Bannon thinks that Gary Cohn is a globalist. 


But do not expect a more modulated or moderate Trump. Instead expect the president to attempt to insulate himself against Bannonite attacks by throwing out even more red meat for his base, and escalating the culture wars that Bannon has done so much to foment. 
In other words, don’t expect much to change.  Bannon may have helped write the ill-fated travel ban, but it was Trump who denounced “Mexican racists,” and called for a Muslim ban. It was Trump, not Bannon who rode to prominence by spreading Birther conspiracy theories. It was Trump, not Bannon, who retweeted white supremacists and refused to distance himself from white nationalists during the campaign; Trump, not Bannon, who attacked a Mexican-American judge, demeaned women, and mocked a disabled reporter.


Firing Steve Bannon doesn’t fix what is wrong with this presidency. The cancer at the heart of this White House isn’t the staff. It’s the man in the Oval Office and he is not changing.

##

What Trump Is Doing To The Conservative Character

Curious minds want to know: how would conservatives react if Donald Trump fired special prosecutor Robert Mueller? If he issued sweeping pardons of his family members and cronies, or even himself?

Would that cross a red line for movement that once claimed to care about the rule of law? Would there be a backlash among the folks who once insisted that character mattered and rushed to buy books like the Book of Virtues?

Or would they go along, once again shifting their standards to accommodate the need to defend Trumpism?

Obviously, this would be a defining moment. As David French wrote recently:

If he does any one of these things — much less several in combination — the GOP will have to decide, once and for all, if it is an American political party or a craven, fearful instrument of Donald Trump’s personal brand.

We may already know the answer. Trump, who remains unbowed and unchanged by the presidency, continues to transform the party that last year capitulated to him. Or more accurately, the conservative movement continues to transform itself into his image.

I’d written about this earlier this year:

[In] the right’s new media ecosystem, a willingness to accept and rationalize lies has now become a test of tribal loyalty.  Unfortunately, the effects run even deeper as Trump’s acolytes in politics and social media model their behavior on his, combining the worst traits of the school yard bully, the thin-skinned nastiness that mimics confidence; the strut and sneer that substitute for actual strength, vindictive smash mouth attacks have replaced civil engagement. …Think of it as trickle down boorishness

Now comes Ben Shapiro, with an insightful analysis of how conservatives have come to fully embrace Trump’s character and its most loathsome manifestations. A year ago, many conservatives rationalized their support for Trump because the “ends justified means — and that the end was the implementation of conservative policies.” And, indeed, there have been some significant wins, most notably the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and some of his environmental policies.

But, writes Shapiro, “now that Trump isn’t actually implementing conservative policies, the truth is coming out: For most conservatives, the ends don’t just justify the means, the means are the ends. All that matters is the punching, even if the punching is both counterproductive and immoral.” 

For many conservatives, Trump's character is no longer a glitch… it’s what they love. “Trump’s character is now a thoroughly accepted positive good,” writes Shapiro.

All of which suggests that Trump isn’t the engine, he’s the hood ornament for a certain movement that now feels liberated from traditional rules of decent behavior. Trump allows us to indulge our id and feel righteous while doing it. We grew up believing that decent behavior made you a decent person — but then we realized that breaking the rules not only makes victory easier, it’s more fun than having to struggle with the moral qualms of using moral means to achieve moral ends.

Shapiro describes the “backwards logic” that many on the Right now use “to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility.”

 The first premise: The other side, which wants bad things, cheats and lies and acts in egregious ways.

The second premise: It requires cheating to defeat them.

The third premise: If they are not defeated, the country will be destroyed.

 Conclusion: It is morally required to cheat and lie and act in egregious ways.

In other words, we have become precisely what he hated and claimed to stand against. Add in the ways the Right has succumbed to cult of personality politics and you have the toxic stew in which we now find ourselves marinating.

All of this is a logical extension of the binary politics that drove many conservatives to embrace Trump last year. In a piece I wrote for The New York Times earlier this year, I described it this way: 

In this binary tribal world, where everything is at stake, everything is in play, there is no room for quibbles about character, or truth, or principles. If everything — the Supreme Court, the fate of Western civilization, the survival of the planet — depends on tribal victory, then neither individuals nor ideas can be determinative.

So it is perhaps not surprising to see how many conservatives have been corrupted by the need to keep pace with the vertiginous reversals, rationalizations, outrages, and deceptions of Trumpism. Jonah Goldberg writes:

 Put on your hip boots and wade into the swampier recesses of Twitter, Facebook, online comment sections, or Sean Hannity’s oeuvre and you’ll see riots of rationalization. Trump’s lying is celebrated. His petty vindictiveness is redefined as leadership. Cheating is strength.

Trump will not, of course, always be with us. But he will leave a mark on the culture and character of conservativism for a very long time.