interesting times

Portrait of the President As a Con Man

Donald Trump. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The leaked tape recording of Michael Cohen and Donald Trump discussing how to handle the payoff to silence yet another extracurricular paramour, Karen McDougal, is more important, it seems to me, than has been generally acknowledged.

It’s only a shade under three minutes long. But unlike the Billy Bush tape, Trump is not performing or bragging or trying to charm someone he doesn’t know that well. He’s at work, with an intimate, trusted wingman, every single guard down. It really feels like the actual Trump, the man behind the curtain. And this Trump is quite clearly in charge. He’s not some addled 70-something, delegating large swathes of responsibility for day-to-day operations to underlings. He’s clearly aware of everything that’s going on: “Let me know what’s happening, okay?” he says to someone — Pam (Bondi)? — on the phone at first. He talks about how some issue will blow over: “I think this goes away quickly … in two weeks; it’s fine.” He then asks Cohen, “Can we use him anymore?” referring to an Evangelical pastor, and Cohen says absolutely.

Then they briefly discuss “the financing” for the National Enquirer’s capture and withholding of the McDougal story. “So, what do we got to pay for this? $150?” Trump asks at one point, meaning $150,000. The question of “cash” is raised by Trump (the precise wording is hard to make out from the audio), and Cohen strongly rules it out: “No, no, no.”

What this tiny glimpse into reality reveals is something quite simple. It’s not that it’s a shock that Trump has been lying about this incident from the very beginning. That has long been clear. But there’s something about listening to his voice acknowledging this in such a breezy, matter-of-fact tone that exposes the purity of the cynicism behind the lies. “We have no knowledge of any of this,” Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks, had, after all, originally told The Wall Street Journal when it broke the story days before the 2016 election. The idea that Trump had had an affair at all, let alone organized hush money to the National Enquirer, was “totally untrue.” And yet here, as the curtain is pulled back, we hear Trump himself figuring out how to finance its cover-up.

This is not a man embarrassed by something unusual in his private life, lying defensively in a panic. It’s a world-weary operator in sleaze and outright deception, dealing with an item of everyday business. The euphemisms — “info,” “financing,” “our friend David,” etc. — are those of people who know they’re doing something shady. He even talks of “using” a religious-right figure. It’s the tape of a con man, discussing the con with an underling in a kind of consigliere code. And this revelation is therefore dangerous. It demonstrates that Trump is, in fact, just another crooked pol — and does so in his own voice.

I suspect that this was what was worrying even Franklin Graham this week, as he tweeted: “Everyone in the media is talking about the just-released tape & what the President said or didn’t say, what he meant or didn’t mean. It is a good moment to point out that everyone should realize that every word that is spoken or thought is recorded by God … We won’t be judged by media spin masters or forensic audio analysts, but you will be judged by truth & righteousness — by God Himself.” Is Graham telling his followers simply to banish the evidence of the tape from their minds and stop gossiping? Or is he actually condemning Trump for his secret shadiness? Neither is good news for the White House.

Con men usually know that a con has a life span, and not a long one. At some point, it will collapse because it is, in fact, bullshit. By then, the best con men have made the sale — think of “Trump University” — and moved on. They also know that keeping the suckers sealed off from other sources of contrary information is essential until the deal is done. You have to maintain a fiction relentlessly, dismiss or delegitimize external information that might get your marks to think differently, and constantly make the sale. You have to humor and flatter and bullshit all the time, until you’ve sealed the deal.

And Trump is really, really good at this. In fact, it’s his chief skill, along with his instinct for the easy mark and another human being’s vulnerable spot. It has worked many times before. It’s at the root of his entire shady business career. His problem now, however, is that this is the biggest of all cons, if you’re playing at a presidential level, and is also the longest. It has to be sustainable for at least four years. And that’s an extremely long time to keep it alive.

This is why, it seems to me, Trump tweets so often and so aggressively. It’s his chief mechanism for keeping his dupes under his spell, for sustaining the narrative of the con while reality tugs at it. He’s making the sale every news cycle of every day because the alternative is the whole thing crashing to the ground. It’s also why he keeps holding rallies. You need that kind of mass crowd hysteria to sustain a con — “America Is Great Again!” — that might otherwise be fraying at the edges. It’s why he lambastes the media. Their role in undercutting the con — in presenting the arguments against it, in raising suspicions about the con man himself — is deeply destabilizing to the project. And it’s why he has to lie, and lie with greater and greater intensity and frequency.

And sure enough, the rate of Trump’s lies is accelerating, as the con ages. All six of the last six weeks rank in the top ten most dishonest of his presidency, as the indefatigable Daniel Dale has noted. Last Tuesday, Trump actually made the subtext text, in a speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention: “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening … Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.” Some have analogized this to Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism. But it is not as sophisticated as that. It’s just a con man getting a little rattled, as his trade war is beginning to wreak havoc in the Midwest.

When you have brazenly declared that such wars are easy to win, and agriculture in the heartland is nonetheless reeling, and manufacturing is increasingly jittery about the cost of imported steel, what else are you going to do? Well, you can bribe the farmers with some $12 billion. Or ask companies and their workers to be patient. But some in the middle of the country will still start doubting — and his polling in three Midwest swing states that gave him the presidency is now slipping. He’s at 36 percent approval in Wisconsin and Michigan in the latest NBC poll, and 38 percent in Minnesota. That VFW appeal — and his visit to Illinois and Dubuque, Iowa, yesterday — is a sign, it seems to me, of a little desperation.

Desperate is insisting that what is clearly the word would — from the tape and the tone and the sentence structure of his Helsinki press conference — is actually the word wouldn’t. Desperate is responding to the Carter Page FISA documents by insisting that they say the opposite of what they actually say. Desperate is insisting that when the president said no directly to a reporter asking whether he believed that the Russians were still meddling in American democracy, he was actually not answering the question, even as he was looking at the journalist when he said it.

Desperate is banning a CNN reporter from a press conference because she had previously asked difficult reality-based questions about Michael Cohen — and then quibbling over the term ban. Desperate is a sudden Obama-like truce with the E.U. on trade. Desperate is the attempt by some House Republicans to impeach Rod Rosenstein, a move that has not even been cheered by the far-right media, and that is swiftly deflating. Desperate is doubling down on the “witch-hunt hoax,” while the chief money guy for the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, gets a subpoena, and Michael Cohen’s lawyer says of his client, who knows far too much, “He has hit the reset button; he’s made a turn — to be on his own, speaking the truth.” More desperate still is Rudy Giuliani saying of Michael Cohen last night, after Cohen told CNN that Trump did indeed know in advance of the meeting in Trump Tower with an agent of the Russian government: “He’s been lying all week; he’s been lying for years.”

No, this is not an unraveling. But the con is definitely fraying badly. And it is not going to get easier to keep patching it up as time goes steadily by.

The Cardinal Abuser

How surprised am I about the all too credible allegations of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of Cardinal McCarrick, the latest Catholic prelate to be exposed in what seems like an endless cycle? The truth is — as someone who long attended Mass under McCarrick’s direct auspices, in the Cathedral of Saint Matthew in D.C. — not very. Every now and again, his name might pop up and some insidery, gay Catholic friends would roll their eyes, and switch the genders on him. He was obviously gay, I gleaned from this. I assumed that he had made some kind of discreet arrangement to stay sane as a celibate. A secret boyfriend, perhaps? A devoted companion? Since he never railed against homosexuality from the pulpit, I felt no need to inquire much further. And I always found queeny church gossip to be unseemly. These gay priests and hierarchs were obviously in pain, it seemed to me, or in denial, or so fucked up sexually and emotionally that the most appropriate response was pity and mercy rather than censoriousness and contempt.

But abuse, of course, is another matter entirely. And it did not occur to me, in all honesty, that McCarrick would have sexually assaulted a 16-year-old or used the deep trust of another teen in a family that called him “Uncle Teddy” to conduct a sexually abusive relationship for a full 20 years. This boy was the first human being that McCarrick, as a newly ordained priest, baptized as an infant. And this special connection made it okay, apparently, to violate that boy’s and young man’s soul, body, and integrity, after he came into puberty: “When he was 13, he said, the priest first touched his penis. At 14, he said, Father McCarrick masturbated him in a beach parking lot. When he was 15, James said, Father McCarrick took him to a restaurant in San Francisco, the Tonga Room, and poured vodka in his drinks. He then brought him back to his hotel room and masturbated him and brought himself to orgasm, James said. ‘I was absolutely disgusted, afraid,’ James said. ‘I felt fear. What have I done?’”

This is not pedophilia. It’s pederasty, but more accurately, since it continued well into the man’s adulthood, it’s homosexual abuse. McCarrick, we now know, abused and harassed grown men under his clerical authority or control for decades. This is different in kind from a gay priest finding some way to seek solace with another willing adult, even though that, too, of course, violates the rule of celibacy. That’s a human thing, a failing, not an outrage. What McCarrick did was evil. And it is simply impossible to believe that others in the hierarchy didn’t fully know about it, even as they let it happen. The best expression of disgust and anger at this complicity that I’ve read is by the wonderfully gifted Michael Brendan Dougherty, in National Review. Scanning the responses of McCormick’s fellow muckety-mucks in the hierarchy, Dougherty lambastes their “bloodless bureaucrat-ese.” They’ve denied any knowledge of any of this, even though settlements were made in the 2000s, and even though letters had been sent outlining the sexual-abuse complaints.

The stench of bullshit coming from the American hierarchy right now in response to this is staggering. Check this out from Cardinal O’Malley: “These cases … raise up that fact that when charges are brought regarding a bishop or a cardinal, a major gap still exists in the Church’s policies on sexual conduct and sexual abuse. While the Church in the United States has adopted a zero tolerance policy regarding the sexual abuse of minors by priests we must have clearer procedures for cases involving bishops.” I mean, seriously. Since the formal zero-tolerance guidelines for priests did not explicitly include bishops or cardinals, they were in a bind about what to do!

With any luck, we may get a #MeToo moment for sexual abuse in seminaries and elsewhere in the priesthood, many years after the revelation of shockingly widespread child abuse. We should definitely get a full investigation, focusing as much on those complicit in this abuse, as on those who committed it. This is clearly not an exclusively American problem either. There’s a massive scandal emerging from Honduras, where nearly 50 seminarians have written a letter complaining about systematic sexual harassment and abuse, permitted and enabled from the very top: “We are living and experiencing a time of tension in our house because of gravely immoral situations, above all of an active homosexuality inside the seminary that has been a taboo all this time, and by covering up and penalizing this situation, the problem has grown in strength, turning into, as one priest said not so long ago, an ‘epidemic in the seminary.’”

It seems to me that a thorough investigation into this abuse should try hard not to be motivated by either faction, left or right, in the church. McCarrick was and is a liberal, and promoted other liberals. But other abusers have been conservatives. What matters here is not their theology but their actions and their inaction. If the investigation becomes a way to purge the church of all gay priests, or demonize them as a group, it will lose its credibility. This is about abuse of power, and it can be and has been perpetrated by heterosexuals as well as homosexuals in all sorts of hierarchies in every field of life. It would be deeply unfair to many good gay priests and seminarians to tar them all with the brush of abuse. Many may well have been victims of it. McCarrick, after all, was a critical figure for anyone who wanted to advance through the ranks of the church. And he used that power to get sex, in the same way that Harvey Weinstein did. That’s the issue here. The difference, of course, is that Weinstein never pretended to be an instrument of God’s grace.

But one small note about this particular scandal: McCarrick was described by many as “Uncle Teddy.” But he had another nickname among his associates: “Blanche.” In that single appellation, you get a glimpse not of a church culture in which tortured homosexuals are struggling with love, intimacy, and celibacy, but one in which a fully developed subculture of camp was thriving, internally unapologetic, and psychologically warped. The cynicism and hypocrisy behind that kind of culture is a function of Catholic homophobia, of course. But it’s also reflective of a protective, insular, closeted clerical subculture in which sexual abuse was obviously able to flourish, and was clearly enabled. It has to end. And at some point, the core questions of homosexuality and celibacy in the priesthood need to be discussed openly, fully, in the plain light of day. I’ve been trying to enlarge that conversation for some time, along with many others. It’s now up to Pope Francis to untangle this knot that has long been strangling his church. There is no ducking it now.

Where the Immigrants Are

One of the talking points for some who support continued mass immigration is the notion that the places where immigration is least popular are the places with the fewest number of immigrants. That’s how irrational xenophobia is, they suggest. And when you look at the big cities, you can see the point. They’re jammed with new immigrants and the rest of us are pretty fine with it. But some new data from the Migration Policy Institute complicates the picture a bit. While it finds that the number of immigrants increased by 9 percent between 2010 and 2016, it also notes that it had risen by 15 percent or more in 15 states. And among those states, most are red ones: North Dakota, West Virginia, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Alaska, Indiana, and Iowa among them. Yes, the total numbers are nowhere near where they are in, say, California, but the pace of change really has increased in those states where opposition — especially to immigrants who entered the country illegally — is high. I don’t find this surprising.

One other small thing to note: More than a fifth of Americans, according to this survey, now speak a language other than English at home. In Nevada and Florida, nearly a third of residents don’t speak English at home. I wonder how this compares with the past. Of course, first-generation immigrants have often spoken their native tongues at home, and this usually declines as the generations succeed one another. But very few previous waves of immigrants have been so homogeneous for as long as the Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Central America currently are; their numbers are higher than any other previous wave; and few have been so thoroughly dispersed. And ask yourself: In what other developed country does a fifth of the population speak a different language? (Answer: Luxembourg and Singapore.)

Just to be clear: I have no problem with this, and America is unique in its immigration-centric identity. I assume the linguistic divide will dissipate over time. I have faith in the great American churn. But the sheer scale of the cultural transformation of the last couple of decades — the CDC predicts that close to a quarter of Americans will be Hispanic by 2035 — is undeniable. And the emphasis today on multiculturalism over the melting-pot model does not make assimilation any easier.

If you ignore that, or insist that worrying about too fast a pace of cultural change is inherently racist, it’s relatively easy to insist that there is no immigration crisis. But if you believe that nations require some continuity and cultural unity to cohere and endure, then the picture is somewhat different. There is a reason this issue has become so prominent in this country. And it isn’t entirely bigotry.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Portrait of the President As a Con Man