The scene that struck me most in the Woodward/Costa tome, “Peril,” occurs on a plane. On a trip from DC to Seattle on January 7, Adam Smith, a 55-year-old centrist Democrat, finds himself surrounded by participants in the previous day’s violent assault on the Capitol. His ears prick up.
They’re despondent that their attempt to overthrow the election result failed; some are even planning on emigrating. One young revolutionary ponders out loud about going to South Korea, because he believed the place was 90 percent Christian (it isn’t).
“You should move to Idaho,” suggested one woman.
“I just don’t think they have decent seafood in Idaho,” the young man replied.
Smith thought that this young man wanted a fascist takeover of the United States, but at the end of the day, if he couldn’t get decent sushi, it just might not be worth it.
And that has long been the challenge in grappling with the meaning of Trump, hasn’t it? Peril or farce? The more I’ve struggled with this, the more it seems to me that that’s a false choice.
Trump is both. He is both farcical and deeply dangerous, as Ezra has noted, a mark of all fascists in history. Hitler — a failed artist in a silly costume and a ridiculous mustache — comes to mind, as Charlie Chaplin so brilliantly exposed. Mussolini, with his cockerel struts on balconies, is another example, jutting his chin up, as Trump does, when he wants to absorb the crowd as well as signal his authority over them.
But unlike the real fascists, Trump had and has no coherent agenda, no attention span, no managerial skill, no self-control, no discipline, no competence, and was hemmed in by a constitutional system that had lasted over two centuries. That deepens the sense of phoniness and farce. It helps writers such as Ross dismiss our ongoing constitutional crisis as a pile of overwrought panic.
And yet it is impossible to read the full narrative of “Peril” and not see a near-classic tale of a tyrant whose presidency profoundly corroded liberal democracy and every principle and institution attached to it. At the heart of it, as many of us insisted, is a psyche characterologically incapable of accepting reality if it didn’t align with his narcissistic needs, and just as incapable of relinquishing power. That always meant that whatever damage he did in his first term, he would never accept the 2020 election result if he were to lose. Never. It was merely a question of how this nightmare would play out. We now know much more about that from the moment the election results began to appear.
Trump first tried to bully Fox, after its Arizona call for Biden appeared on his TV screen. He then, with all his presidential authority, declared the election result nullified hours later: “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly we did win this election.” An unprecedented assault on the system.
He then set about pressuring GOP-led state legislatures not to send electors to the Electoral College, if they were for Biden. He tried to seize the voting machines under the National Emergencies Act. He pressured Georgia’s secretary-of-state to rig the numbers. Then he got nearly two-thirds of the Congressional GOP, including the House Minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, to support a legal brief asking the Supreme Court to block the results in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia from being counted for Biden.
He was certain he had won — because his psyche simply could not process anything else without a mental breakdown. No argument could convince him otherwise. No family member. No audit, even in Arizona. No recount. When Bill Barr casually talked of the Durham report possibly being issued in “the first part of the Biden administration,” Trump exploded in psychic pain:
“First part of the Biden administration!” Oh, shit, Barr thought. Trump was steaming. Barr had never seen Trump in such a fury. If a human being can have flames come out of his ears, this was it. Barr imagined the flames. He had never seen Trump madder. But Trump was obviously trying to control himself. Tamping himself down and then flaming.
And then, with the assistance of John Eastman, an upstanding member of the Federalist Society, Trump proposed misreading a clear part of the Constitution, so that the vice-president, on January 6, could simply refuse to count the votes from the states Trump was still contesting, on the grounds that they had rival slates of electors (while they only had cosplay versions of the same). The idea was that either Pence would simply declare Trump the 232 - 222 electoral votes winner, because the votes of the contested states would be nullified, or that he would turn the decision over to the House, which would keep Trump in power, because the GOP controlled 26 of the 50 state delegations.
And they put all this in writing! It’s an extraordinary document, legally and constitutionally absurd in its usurpation of the plain text — which clearly gave the veep only the authority to count the votes, period (which was done by tellers anyway). And in no way did the memo even disguise its goal to seize power at any price. Pence, mercifully, refused. Another veep — like the toady Trump will make his running mate in 2024 — might well not have.
And here is a chilling part of the conversation where Trump tried to pressure Pence into submission. Pence said he had no authority to send the election to the House:
“Well, what if these people say you do?” Trump asked, gesturing beyond the White House to the crowds outside. Raucous cheering and blasting bullhorns could be heard through the Oval Office windows. “If these people say you had the power, wouldn’t you want to?” Trump asked.
“I wouldn’t want any one person to have that authority,” Pence said.
“But wouldn’t it almost be cool to have that power?” Trump asked … “Mike, you can do this. I’m counting on you to do it.”
This is a president using the threat and thrill of a violent mob to pressure his vice-president into subverting the Constitution. If that doesn’t capture the essence of fascism, what does? If that wouldn’t put someone beyond the pale of democratic politics for ever, what would?
It was, of course, just a prelude to the sacking of the Capitol the next day, the next tactic to overturn the election. Trump knew what the rally was for, promised it would be “wild,” and had been consulting with Steve Bannon, who had declared that “we’re going to bury Biden on January 6th, fucking bury him. We’re going to kill it in the crib. Kill the Biden presidency in the crib.” Trump subsequently told the mob that day: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.” And he urged them on to the Capitol where they chanted “Hang Mike Pence.”
As the violence intensified, another chilling moment: Trump watched the mayhem with passivity, waiting to see what might happen; he refused to text to tell the mob to call it off; when McCarthy pleaded with him to stop the mob, Trump replied, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Even in the taped message he was pressured to make later that day, Trump reiterated: “This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people.” At 6.01 pm, Trump tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.” There is no precedent for this kind of executive branch madness in American history, and no precedent in any functioning Western democracy. In any healthy democracy, Trump would already be an untouchable, despicable pariah — Nixon in 1974 with more public contempt.
And yet … this man remains the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP nomination in 2024; and, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, two-thirds of Republicans believe the election was stolen. And the methods Trump innovated to discredit the 2020 result are the model for the next assault. Last year was a dress rehearsal. Sixteen states have now shifted electoral powers away from the governor and secretaries of state to legislatures, run by Trump loyalists, as Robert Kagan has noted. And those few in power — like Esper or Pence — who put the constitution before Trump will be absent next time. A commitment to Trump over the Constitution will be a litmus test for a career in GOP politics.
As was the case with the Roman republic, the violations of procedures, the discrediting of elections, the power of mobs and the ferocity of the tribal politics have slowly rendered the system weaker and weaker. The question, pace Ross, is not whether Trump has the competence to build a de facto dictatorship, it is whether he has so eroded core democratic values within one of our major parties that this country is likely to enter a period of civil conflict over the very legitimacy of our system in future elections, a period of violence and mayhem and rule-breaking that could so easily lead to the rapid unraveling of the entire system of liberal democracy. Out of that chaos, who knows what rough monster will emerge?
One precedent has already been set: the use of violence to prevent a transfer of power. The lesson being learned in the GOP is not that this was an eternally shameful endeavor; but that it was tragically insufficient. Next time, they’ll do it right.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my gobsmacked reaction to the ACLU’s censorship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg; a deep conversation about religion and the Great Awokening with Antonio García Martínez — the dude hired and quickly fired by Apple because of a woke tantrum; my response to dissenting readers over the question of Biden’s boldness; a throwback to 1988 and 2002 where C-SPAN callers spew anti-gay bigotry; a picturesque window view from Kiawah Island and a street scene from Madrid; eleven recommended pieces from other substackers on a wide array of topics; three notable quotes related to race relations; a beautiful inter-racial and inter-sexual cover song for our Mental Health Break; and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new, more difficult challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
Back When “Queer” Was A Slur
Above is a screenshot from a C-SPAN call-in show I did back in 1988, when I was an associate editor at The New Republic who had just edited a cover story by Michael Fumento, “The Political Uses of an Epidemic: The Conservative Movement and The Tragedy of AIDS.” (The video is part of a massive YouTube compilation just uploaded by The Film Archives, a fantastic channel where you can get lost for hours. Its timing is great: think of it as a video form of “Out On a Limb.”)
Among the many callers was one from San Diego who compared AIDS patients to “rabid dogs” who should be relocated to “unpopulated deserts” or “Liberty ships.” The caller also insisted that people should “stop using this word ‘gay,’ which applies to AIDS in the liberal language. These people are not ‘gay’ — they’re morose, they’re sick, they’re queer.” You can listen to the five-minute exchange starting at the 42:00 mark (click here — that custom link is easier than an embed).
Below is another clip from the annals of C-SPAN callers, this time alongside Hitch in 2002, in a segment on Christianity and gays. One fundamentalist caller equates my sex life with bestiality, while Hitch dings me amusingly from the atheist left. Good times.
A couple of points: you can see how in 1988, the word “queer” was about as vile a term as you could use against gay men. That’s in my adult lifetime. Only the far right and the far left are fond of it — and yet the mainstream media now deploys it routinely for all of us, including those who insist they are not “queer” at all.
It’s also worth noticing the different universe of debate about gay people in 1988. I was bombarded constantly by people telling me I would go to hell, or that I deserved AIDS, or that I was a potential murderer, and so on. And I took it on the chin, and kept making the arguments. Sometimes I wish the Gen Z true-believers who are traumatized by the wrong pronoun could spend just a day in our shoes back then. They might learn a thing or two about how real change is actually made.
New On The Dishcast: Antonio García Martínez
Antonio is quite the Renaissance man: child of Cuban exiles, journalist, PhD student in physics, Wall Street ace, entrepreneur, Facebook ad pioneer, and Silicon Valley apostate. His NYT bestselling memoir Chaos Monkeys got rave reviews until five years later it got him fired from Apple a few weeks into his job because of a woke revolt. Now he has a brilliant substack. In this episode we dive deep into our Catholic backgrounds, Antonio’s break toward Judaism, and the new Woke religion.
To listen to two excerpts from my conversation with Antonio — on how he thinks Christianity is flawed compared to his chosen religion of Judaism, and on how the Great Awokening is very Puritan in nature — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to some excellent, varied commentary from readers about our religious episode with Ross Douthat, the “majority-minority” myth, Oakeshott, and the ongoing debate over Covid policy.
“I Am Person: Hear Me Roar”
Can’t you just see Helen Reddy belting out that lyric?
I bring that up because the ACLU sure can. This week the organization that once defended freedom of speech tweeted out a famous quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with some, er, editing:
The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a [person’s] life, to [their] wellbeing and dignity... When the government controls that decision for [people], [they are] being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for [their] own choices.
(Read my full reaction to that tweet here)
Dissents Of The Week: Biden The Timid
A reader disagrees with me that President Biden acted boldly on Afghanistan:
Trump made the decision to leave, he drew down the troops at a rapid rate, and he clearly would have gotten out completely had he stayed in office. Biden had the option to reverse Trump, which he’s done in so many areas, but he chose not to. He simply implemented Trump’s decision. Democrat rhetoric will never admit that fact.
Also, Biden’s decision to partner with Australia and the UK on submarines might prove important, but wasn’t a central aspect the US gaining a commercial advantage over the French? You even say the Australians initiated the switch. How politically courageous is it to agree to a multi-billion dollar deal (even if it comes at the expense of a sometimes ally)?
Biden has his strengths, but cutting against the political grain isn’t one of them. You’re way off the mark this week.
Read my response to that dissent, along with three others, here. Thanks as always for the pushback, and keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (don’t forget part of the window frame): firstname.lastname@example.org.
In The ‘Stacks
In case you’re new to the Dish, “In the ‘Stacks” is a feature in the paid version of our newsletter that highlights about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other substackers that week. This week’s selection covers topics such as climate change, Trump’s cult following among white Evangelicals, and Facebook’s terrible press lately. Here’s one example from an Alabama-based journalist named Ryan Zickgraf:
A compelling look at the politics of the late great Michael K. Williams. Money quote: “I’ve come to realize the race thing is a smokescreen.”
If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s contest are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. But here’s a sneak peek of the window in question, chased down by a reader’s son in person:
Sweet Nirvana shirt. This next reader had a close encounter of a different sort, related to our contest from a few weeks ago:
I had high hopes of finding the 9/11 VFYW on foot, since my wife and I were celebrating our 25th anniversary in NYC during that contest. We had been there for our 5th anniversary as well, and when your solution was revealed, it brought up this photo we bought at an art fair one week before 9/11/2001:
We bought the photo because we just liked the water towers … we didn’t even notice the ghostly twin towers until they were gone …
See you next Friday.