The Cult and the Cover-Up

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Donald Trump. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

How does this end?

I left D.C. Wednesday for a trip to Oxford, Mississippi, for a talk. The previous night I’d watched slack-jawed as the latest Trump saga unfolded on cable news, switching back from Fox to MSNBC and CNN. As has happened so often in the last few months, it was becoming a blur. What did we now know? The president had kept Mike Flynn on staff many days after learning he was a security risk. Trump had asked FBI Director Comey to give him his personal loyalty, then fired him because he was frustrated that the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government was continuing. Trump then lied repeatedly about this — and sent senior staffers out there to lie as well. He threatened the FBI director with alleged “tapes” of their conversations. We also discovered that Trump had carelessly betrayed a critical ISIS source while bragging to foreign minister Lavrov and Russian ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office. We were entering, it seemed to me, the Caligula phase of the collapse of the American republic. Pretty soon Trump would be announcing that the new FBI director would be a horse.

And then, on the little shuttle bus on the tarmac to the plane at Reagan National, I found myself sitting next to a recently retired pilot, who struck up a very pleasant conversation. He told me about a recent career change, retirement, his family, and his new neighbors who had left England to escape “the Muslims.” Okay, I thought. No need to make a scene. Just listen for a while. At one point, I gingerly indicated that I didn’t exactly share the views of his neighbors. “Oh I understand,” he said. “My wife is always telling me never to talk about religion or politics with strangers, but I can’t help myself.” No problem, I told him. I do it all the time too. Then he leaned in, pushed his wire eyeglasses up his nose, and looked straight into my eyes. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “This president will be the greatest president we have ever had in our entire history.”

Once in Mississippi, I did my daily scanning of the conservative media. The alternative story was now well-established. Trump had fired Comey because he had a right to (just like he had an “absolute” right to tell Moscow top-secret intel), and because Comey was incompetent and had screwed up the Clinton-email case. The intel gaffe was just a slip-up that wouldn’t matter much at all. There was no evidence of any connection between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — and so the investigation was hooey anyway. Comey’s memo couldn’t be talked about without the full context — so lets just wait and see. Comey was just interested in revenge anyway. The mainstream media and the “deep state” were busy trying to undermine a president who was accomplishing more than any president this early into his term.

These are, it seems to me, the two unstoppable narratives grinding our politics to a halt. The status quo in Washington — an unhinged, unfit, mentally disturbed narcissist as POTUS fast losing any faint credibility with even his own staffers — is utterly unsustainable. In a serious crisis, more than half the country won’t believe a word the president says. The White House is barely functioning; legislation is completely stalled; next week’s trip abroad will have everyone watching from behind a couch; the FBI and CIA are reeling; there’s almost no one in the State Department; no presidential due diligence is applied to military actions; the president only reads memos when his name is mentioned in them; a not-too-smart and apparently mute 35-year-old son-in-law is supposed to solve every problem in the country and world; and the press secretary is hiding in the bushes. No one has any confidence that the president couldn’t throw us into a war or a constitutional crisis at a moment’s notice. Nothing this scary has happened in my lifetime.

And yet around 35 percent of the country still somehow views every single catastrophe Trump perpetrates on America and the world as either a roaring triumph or a huge middle finger to the elites, and therefore fine. For them, everything is sustainable. When Republicans can shrug off giving top-secret Israeli intelligence to the Russians, there is nothing they cannot shrug off. We are not talking about support for various policies here. We are talking about the kind of following a cult leader has. In poll after poll, around 80 percent of Republicans still approve of the job Trump is doing. Still. That’s why the GOP leadership, even as their agenda evaporates, are leery of taking Trump on. His hold on their own voters is tighter than theirs is. It’s tighter than Nixon’s because Trump has built a reactionary movement from the ground up and taken over an entire party. He can communicate with them in ways no other Republican can. And there is no way on earth he is ever going to go quietly, if he agrees to go at all.

That’s why I have a hard time figuring out how this ends, even though it must end. Even if the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation hits some pay dirt, I can see Trump surviving if he cannot be proven to be directly implicated. He’s already setting up the case: He’s being subjected to an historically unprecedented witch hunt, remember? And there’s no institution or person he won’t blame or destroy in his bid to save himself. Just ask his former creditors. If he’s up against the wall, he will treat the Constitution the way he treated his banks. Or say the Dems manage to regain the House next year, and hold impeachment hearings. Wouldn’t that simply galvanize support for Trump as he fights back against the “deep state,” the “swamp,” the GOP, and what Hannity calls the propaganda media circus — and render 66 votes in the Senate to convict him a pipe dream? Part of me wonders if he’d quit even if he’s beaten in the next presidential election? Isn’t it always rigged when he loses?

In some ways, I think the best analogy for Trump is O.J. Simpson. Even if we all know he’s guilty as sin, even if his own supporters see the flimflam behind the claptrap, even if the evidence is staring us in the face, he’ll never lose his core support. For 35 percent of the country, he’ll never be guiltier than the system he’s challenging. The best we can hope for is a Democratic House in 2018 and a grinding, grueling attempt to minimize the already enormous harm Trump has done in the meantime. We can pursue that outcome while hoping our cold civil war doesn’t get hot — because this is beginning to feel like the 1850s.

What exactly is wrong with cultural appropriation? That was the deliberately provocative point in a recent issue of the magazine Write, the official journal for the Canadian Writers’ Union. Here’s a flavor of the piece by Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of the mag: “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” Niedzviecki went on to lament that Canadian literature was still “exhaustingly white and middle class” because of this aversion to reaching beyond one’s own experience.

Well you know where this is going, don’t you? The man had to resign in ignominy and write a groveling apology. Another member of the editorial board quit in shame: “I can’t, should not, and will not speak for any indigenous writer, but what I do attempt to do, in my life and in my work, is to listen to others who do not move through the world with my level of privilege.” The somewhat glaring irony is that the entire issue of the magazine Niedzviecki edited (and committed heresy in) was devoted entirely to indigenous writers! In the offending piece, Niedzviecki had even written that “indigenous writing is the most vital and compelling force in Canadian writing and publishing today.” Nonetheless, the Equity Task Force of the Writers’ Union accused the editor of promoting “cultural genocide,” and “a long-debunked false universalism.” They demanded a formal retraction of the essay and an apology, anti-racist seminars for everyone on staff, handing the next three issues entirely to indigenous and “racialized” editors and writers, and a criterion for appointing the next editor: that he or she be “active and respected in indigenous sovereignty and anti-racist cultural movements for at least three years.” And this is a union for writers! Yes, I understand that crude or malign stereotyping of others is lame and lazy and often offensive. But that’s obviously not what this super-liberal editor of a super-liberal magazine was doing. And yet still he had to go.

I love the phrase “long-debunked universalism” by the way. Debunked by whom? Universalism — the idea that human beings can exist as individuals, rather than as members of assigned groups — is far from debunked. It is, in fact, one core premise of liberal society. It is, to my mind, a core reason for being a writer at all.

What’s increasingly fascinating to me about the SJW left is its solipsism. If no one is allowed to write about someone with another life experience, or from another race or culture or gender, we are all doomed to write merely about ourselves. The possibility of expressing empathy, of exploring another world, and, yes, even misreading it at times, becomes a form of “harm.” Better, our new PC overlords insist, not to understand and never to embrace the other — because engagement could, at some moment, hurt someone’s feelings. This means the end of literature, not its rebirth, and of the kind of society in which it thrives.

A few weeks ago, I meant to include a link to a recent podcast by Sam Harris with Charles Murray that explored all the arguments in The Bell Curve in a calm and methodical way. Here it is. If you haven’t read the book — and you haven’t, have you? — it’s a pretty painless and lucid guide to it. Sam hadn’t read it before the podcast and simply didn’t recognize the book he’d been taught to hate. I also recommend Vox’s just-published critique of the interview. It begins with the headline: “Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ” and this subhead: “And Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it.” Wow, you think, we’re in for a fantastic demolition.

And then you read the piece. The authors list five separate premises made in the interview and then says of the first four: “none of the premises is completely incorrect.” Another way of saying this is that four of five Murray premises are largely correct. Here they are (my paraphrase): (1) IQ is a meaningful way to measure intelligence; (2) individual intelligence is partly heritable; (3) racial groups differ in their IQ scores; (4) “discoveries about genetic ancestry have validated commonly used racial groupings.” I quoted that last one verbatim because it debunks the most common response I get from people not expert in the subject: that race is only a social construct. Sure, it is a social construct; but there are clear genetic differences between human subpopulations that roughly correspond to those social constructions. That is: race has genetic origins. Of course it does. Just spit in a cup and find out where you come from genetically. You can do it by mail.

As for the fifth premise they discuss, well … I’ll leave you to see if they convince.

See you next Friday.

The Cult and the Cover-Up