interesting times

We Are Trump’s Hostages

If the author believes Trump is dangerously unhinged, why provoke him unnecessarily? Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Is there anything we know now that we didn’t know, say, a month ago? Or a year ago? Or two years ago?

The Bob Woodward book has some astounding details — including evidence of outright insubordination by senior officials — but in its essence, it’s just a much more reliable confirmation of the basic thrust of Michael Wolff’s picture of complete chaos and near-insanity in the cockpit of the world’s most powerful nation. The New York Times’ anonymous op-ed falls into the same camp. From the moment very early on when we learned about the content of the deranged conversation between the president and Malcolm Turnbull, then prime minister of Australia, we knew that people in the White House had leaked it, in both an astonishing betrayal of confidence, and a clear attempt to warn the country of the unique danger this unfit president poses. Almost all the excellent reporting of the last year and a half has also been fed by constant distress signals from within the White House, where grown-ups have had to contend with a psychologically disturbed, delusional, and hugely ignorant president, who has no capacity or willingness to learn.

We also know that the president is unfocused, inarticulate, prone to tantrums like a 5-year-old, incapable of reading a memo that doesn’t have big pictures or graphics on it, that he insults everyone, often explosively, as his mood fits, spends hours watching cable news, tweets like a distracted animal, and has lied and lied so much fact-checkers are close to exhaustion. And we know he is incapable of admitting a lie, issuing a correction, or adjusting to reality. We know he just makes things up all the time. We know all this because we have eyes and ears. You could see he was mentally unwell from his first day in office, when he made those surreal assertions about the size of his Inaugural crowd. (We now find out he actually had the photographs doctored subsequently to fit his own reality — that’s how deranged he is.) This emperor has had absolutely no clothes from the very beginning. The only thing in doubt all along has been the Republican Party’s complicity.

And that complicity remains. If anything, it is intensifying. As Jim Fallows constantly points out, any single Republican senator — Sasse, Corker, Collins, Graham, Paul, Murkowski — could check this president by voting against him, on any number of issues, including the protection of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Instead, they are now happily supporting a Supreme Court nominee whose deference to executive power is near-total, whose partisanship is profound, and who will reliably back Trump in any constitutional crisis the Supreme Court may find itself having to resolve in the near-future. In the looming conflict between Trump and the rule of law, the GOP has already told us whose side it is on. For good measure, it is now openly preparing to acquiesce in the appointment after the midterms of a new attorney general whose primary goal will be the complete politicization of the Justice Department, as an instrument for the president to punish his enemies, real and imagined, and, more importantly, to protect his criminal friends and allies. And in this situation, Kavanaugh won’t even commit on a president’s ability to pardon himself!

The Times’ Mr. (or Ms.) Anonymous is part of that complicity, knowing full well what a nightmare this president is, and yet sticking with him for policy gains he prefers. For that, he is part of the problem rather than the solution. But, in his defense, he is in a very tough spot. The shrinking GOP base is more committed to this mad king than to any other Republican president at this point in his term. Almost every Republican senator knows that the president is profoundly unfit, a danger to the republic and the world, a madman child in charge of Crazytown … and does absolutely nothing at all.

“If left to his own accord, our country would look somewhat like Venezuela,” Senator Bob Corker said this week. “It shocks me, some of the things — as if you treat your friends in one way and your political enemies in another way. Most presidents understand their role is different than this one does. He’s remarkable in his lack of appreciation for democratic values and institutions. And I think that’s where some of the greatest damage is being done to this country.” If this is true — as it manifestly is — and Corker will nonetheless do nothing within his constitutional power to stop it, even though he’s fricking retiring this year and has nothing to lose, what is a patriotic public servant supposed to do?

If Anonymous quits, he will only empower the president’s worst anti-democratic instincts, and make way for someone else who will likely enable authoritarianism. If he stays, he is undermining the very democracy he is trying to protect, by conducting what is effectively a soft coup on behalf of the “steady state” and that part of the GOP that decisively lost to Trump in the primaries. It’s lose-lose, and some of the condemnations of the op-ed’s author seem blind to what is a real dilemma. If you know the president is amoral and dictatorial, there is a real and defensible case for staying. When a president reacts to a chemical attack in Syria by ordering the assassination of Assad and screaming “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in! Let’s kill the fucking lot of them!” you can see why a patriot may want to restrain him from the inside, as Mattis reportedly did.

Unfortunately, there is no case for publicizing any of this anonymously in the New York Times. Far from helping his cause, Anonymous has undermined it. Worse, he has triggered this president — which was completely predictable — into exactly the kind of unhinged behavior Anonymous is so worried about. Maybe the op-ed was designed to buttress Woodward’s portrayal of a dangerous two-track administration. Maybe it was a way of salving his own conscience in the wake of McCain’s death. Maybe it was a misbegotten attempt to calm those of us horrified by what Trump is doing to the office and liberal democracy. But as a political act, it was indeed gutless as well as pointless.

Woodward’s Mattis quotes — particularly the defense secretary’s assessment of Trump’s intelligence as that of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” — will likely mean the end of Mattis as a stabilizing force in foreign and military policy. If Sessions and Kelly are also purged after the midterms, as seems likely, it will mean the last vestiges of adulthood will disappear from the administration, just as it nears its constitutional moment of truth in the inevitable showdown with the special counsel. It will also doubtless intensify the president’s paranoia and willingness to violate more democratic norms. And indeed Trump’s response has been deranged. “TREASON?” he tweeted. And: “If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!” In his public comments on the matter, he went delusional again: “The poll numbers are through the roof!” More fatally, it will embolden Trump to ignore advice from those with experience in government, overrule his Cabinet members, and increase his already perilous reliance on his gut instincts, which bear a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin’s.

Sometimes I think it’s useful to think of this presidency as a hostage-taking situation. We have a president holding liberal democracy hostage, empowered by a cult following. The goal is to get through this without killing any hostages, i.e., without irreparable breaches in our democratic system. Come at him too directly and you might provoke the very thing you are trying to avoid. Somehow, we have to get the nut job to put the gun down and let the hostages go, without giving in to any of his demands. From the moment Trump took office, we were in this emergency. All that we now know, in a way we didn’t, say, a year ago, is that the chances of a successful resolution are close to zero.

Pope Francis’s Unacceptable Silence

There was something quite poignant about Pope Francis’s release of some white doves in the Vatican four years ago. It’s a familiar ritual symbolizing peace and hope — rooted in the Bible’s account of Noah’s Ark. (A dove appeared bringing an olive branch to Noah in the flood, a sign that the inundation was receding.) Almost immediately, the doves were attacked by a giant seagull and a hooded crow, and they were chased violently from Saint Peter’s Square, feathers flying. The giant, mutant seagulls, the New York Times informed us this week, now rule the roost in Rome.

If you think of Francis’s papacy as those white doves, it’s a pretty good analogy to the reactionaries seeking, from the very beginning, to destroy it. I have to say I’ve been a little shocked by the viciousness of the onslaught. (If you want to get a flavor of the bigotry, check out this Rod Dreher post and the responses of his commenters below.) Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s open letter, accusing Francis of knowingly bringing sex abuser and child rapist Cardinal McCarrick back into the limelight from which Benedict XVI had banished him, was a doozy. It portrayed Francis as an abetter of a lavender mafia at the Vatican and the upper echelons of the church, allied with sinful clerics in a willful attack on the Church’s teachings on sexuality.

Its factual basis is, however, somewhat strained. The key charge — the one that leads Viganò to demand Francis’s resignation — is that McCarrick’s crimes and sins were well known in the Vatican long before the recent revelations, and that because of this, Benedict XVI had “canonically sanctioned” McCarrick, and ordered him to stay out of the public eye. Francis, in contrast, in order to advance his liberal agenda, reversed this sanction, despite knowing of McCarrick’s abuse, and made liberal McCarrick a close adviser.

The trouble with this story is that the public record contradicts it. Commonweal’s editors lay out the facts:

Journalists uncovered ample evidence that from 2009 or 2010, when Viganò claims such sanctions were imposed (he cannot remember the exact year), until Benedict’s resignation in 2013, McCarrick continued to … maintain a robust public profile that included television appearances, trips to an array of countries, and participation in ordinations. He was photographed being greeted warmly by Benedict at the Vatican. At a 2012 gala dinner honoring McCarrick, Viganò himself lauded the former cardinal as being “loved by us all.”

As even Viganò’s allies concede, there were no formal sanctions of McCarrick by Benedict, and the only actual measure that punished McCarrick was Francis’s recent order that stripped him of his position as cardinal and told him to spend the rest of his days in silence, penance, and prayer.

Still, Viganò does have a broader point. He insists that he had warned the last three popes of McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians, and they did next to nothing. He says he specifically told Francis of a thick dossier on McCarrick’s abuse in 2013 and yet Francis elevated McCarrick into his circle of advisers. It’s perfectly clear that Viganò and his allies are profoundly homophobic, as are so many of his supporters. But it’s also true that homophobes can sometimes be telling the truth. And Francis’s response has been, well, pathetic, if not outrageous. He refused to dignify the accusations with any rebuttal on his flight back from Ireland. In a homily since, he has spoken of the virtues of silence: “With people lacking goodwill, with people who only seek scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within the family: silence, prayer.” To put it mildly, this is not a denial of the very serious charges made by a papal nuncio who had every reason to know what was going on. Viganò may have an ax to grind — he was fired as nuncio by Francis, after all — but that doesn’t disprove his more general point about the Vatican’s knowledge of sexual abuse by one of its cardinals and its refusal to remove him from his position.

I began with high hopes for Francis on the question of rooting out sexual abuse in the church. They are much lower now. His initial response to horrific accusations of sex abuse in Chile was to accuse the victims of being liars. Only later did he apologize for this callous response and acknowledge the abuse. Now he refuses to rebut the charge that he tolerated McCarrick’s abuse, despite knowing about it. Now it’s possible that Francis had heard rumors of McCarrick’s seminary shenanigans, but never knew of the child abuse, and attributed the rumors to clerical infighting or the homophobia of McCarrick’s enemies. He may have been prepared to live with McCarrick’s homosexuality, and misunderstood the nature of the case. But if that’s what happened, he should tell us. Equally, if Viganò has actual evidence, proof, documentation of his charges, he should also provide them.

What’s intolerable is the blatant dismissal of credible claims of corruption. I don’t think Francis should resign if he did know about McCarrick. But I do think, given what we now know about the extent of Catholicism’s sex abuse crisis, that if he did know, he should confess to ignoring it, apologize (as he did in the Chile case), and pledge a real purge of abusers and their enablers in the church hierarchy. Personally, I suspect the corruption around sexual abuse and the clericalism that empowers it is profound. It implicates Benedict XVI and John Paul II as well. It suggests that the stain of abuse — with its countless victims — was facilitated and enabled by the papacy itself. And if Francis believes that is something lay Catholics are prepared to just keep silent about, he’s very much mistaken.

The Joy and Hope in India’s Gay-Rights Ruling

To read India’s media on the decriminalization of gay sex in that country this week is to re-experience a revolution. For 158 years — barring a four-year period in which the law was temporarily overturned — Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which imported a colonial Victorian ban on sodomy, had loomed over India. It had even been upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 2013. And then, in one ruling on Wednesday, nearly a fifth of all the gay people in the world were liberated from being deemed criminals by the state. The impact took many of them by surprise.

“Section 377, we told ourselves, was outdated anyway. It had not prevented us from living, loving and marching,” one activist wrote. “Gay life is stubborn. It exists despite a Section 377. I was over the angst. I was done with the coming out stories. But when the news finally came, I felt a lump in my throat. I am what I am said the judge. This simple truth is something profound, something so many of us have struggled with all our lives, trying desperately to be what we are not, to fit into boxes that we were never meant to inhabit.”

There was dancing in the streets.

The ruling was expected after the way the hearings had gone and after the government had said it wouldn’t oppose decriminalization. What wasn’t expected was the scale and rhetoric of the decision.

“We thought the Chief Justice would write a narrow verdict with a couple of other judges concurring, and the remaining two, who we knew were likely to be supportive, writing much more expansive judgements that would send nice signals, but that was it,” an Indian activist emailed me. “Instead the Chief Justice has written a very strong judgment, striking down the earlier Supreme Court verdict that re-criminalised homosexuality and essentially restoring the wonderful Naz verdict of 2009 that had first struck the sodomy ban down (and given us rights beyond that). One justice concurred with him and the remaining three wrote verdicts that highlighted other aspects of the harm caused by 377. One judge said there should be police sensitization courses. Another said that LGBT people and their families deserve an apology from history. And a third wrote strongly about the need for dissent and alternative views — a hardly very coded signal to a government that doesn’t seem to want to hear dissent.”

And indeed when you read the judges’ comments, they’re quite something. Here’s how they begin: “Not for nothing, the great German thinker, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, had said, ‘I am what I am, so take me as I am. And similarly, Arthur Schopenhauer had pronounced ‘No one can escape from their individuality’ … The emphasis on the unique being of an individual is the salt of his/her life. Denial of self-expression is inviting death.” In that last sentiment, you could almost feel the impact of the countless suicides of the past, including the joint suicide of two lesbian women this past June in Gujarat, with the note: “We have left this world to live with each other. The world did not allow us to stay together.” Now, perhaps it will, for others.

There are now 73 countries in the world that criminalize homosexuality, along with a few non-countries, like Gaza, and the recently diminished Islamic State. The Indian precedent matters because in 35 of these countries, especially in Africa, it’s the same British colonial law that still governs gay sex. For a country as big as India to take this step means others might follow, and repudiate the Victorian legacy. And it says something about the resilience of liberalism in this illiberal age that a court in a still-developing country cited John Stuart Mill as one of its inspirations. Yes, it’s not all grim out there, is it?

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: We Are Trump’s Hostages