It’s easy to mistake Donald Trump for a nihilist. The mogul’s purported principles fluctuate so wildly, it’s tempting to conclude that he’s bereft of genuine principles at all. (Before the president championed “the biggest tax cuts in history,” he’d called for a $5.7 trillion tax on the wealth of the superrich; before he defended the “very fine” white supremacists in Charlottesville, he argued that “the central problem with contemporary politicians” was that “they cannot even find it in themselves to immediately denounce a man who winks at barbarism.”)
But beneath Trump’s ever-shifting imitations of belief lies a thin foundation of true conviction. There are a few precepts to which Trump has remained faithful from one era and rebrand to the next. Chief among them: Winners don’t let abstract precepts or legal niceties constrain their fidelity to a cause, or their aggression toward that cause’s enemies.
Trump has never been a fan of China or communism. But when the Chinese Communist Party massacred protesters in Tiananmen Square, the real-estate magnate had to give Beijing its due. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump explained to Playboy in 1990. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”
Throughout the ensuing decades, the president expressed an ecumenical respect for governments that privilege their own power above the rule of law. In fact, Trump’s reverence for such despotism is so principled, he extends it to even the most odious and despotic of regimes: In his telling, the Obama administration may have criminally betrayed the American people — but one has to respect the ruthlessness with which it concealed those crimes. “I will say this: [Attorney General Eric] Holder protected President Obama,” Trump told the New York Times in 2017. “When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had, not made-up problems … and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
By the same token, nothing offends the president’s moral sensibilities (such as they are) than those who place adherence to the law above loyalty to their superiors. Trump has forgiven many of his appointees’ trespasses. But Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of the Trump campaign — and thus, to privilege his profession’s code of ethics above his president’s legal interests — was simply beyond the pale.
That the U.S. president venerates lawlessness in the pursuit (or maintenance) of power is alarming; that the party he leads increasingly shares that ideal is even more so.
Two recent news items put this point into sharp relief. One is this New York Times piece on the Navy SEALs who reported their Special Operations chief’s alleged war crimes. The other is a Washington Post story on the administration’s efforts to intimidate or oust civil servants who complied with the House’s impeachment investigation.
The former tells us little we did not already know. The fact that several Navy SEALs had accused SOC Edward Gallagher of murdering women, children, and prisoners of war in Iraq has long been public knowledge. And the fact that those SEALs suffered from a sense of profound moral injury and helplessness as they witnessed their chief’s (alleged) war crimes has also been publicly aired. But the Times’s curation of those soldiers’ tearful video interviews and anxious text messages makes the truth of Gallagher’s presidential pardon viscerally clear: In pardoning Gallagher, Trump did not put support for the troops above fidelity to the Geneva Convention, but rather, support for a war criminal above respect for the law-abiding service members he tormented.
As the Times reports:
In cramped interview rooms in San Diego, SEALs who spoke to Navy investigators painted a picture of a platoon driven to despair by a chief who seemed to care primarily about racking up kills. They described how their chief targeted women and children and boasted that “burqas were flying.”
… Some of the SEALs said they came to believe that the chief was purposefully exposing them to enemy fire to bait ISIS fighters into revealing their positions. They said the chief thought that casualties in the platoon would increase his chances for a Silver Star.
Special Operator Vriens told investigators he had wanted to confront the chief in Iraq but had worried that if he did, he would be cut from missions and no longer be present to protect other SEALs from the chief. As he spoke, he struggled to keep his composure.
“I can speak up, stand my ground,” he said in the interview. “He’s just going to do this to a new guy who he can manipulate. So I was like, I’m going to be his right-hand man, so — so no one else got hurt.”
He pressed his forehead into his fists and started to cry. Then he took several deep breaths, rubbed his hands together and tried to continue.
“So I worked for him and I kept my mouth shut,” he said.
Few will be surprised by this president’s indifference to the (alleged, though not legally proven) wanton slaughter of Iraqi civilians. Trump’s belief that unconstrained viciousness toward one’s enemies is the definition of “strength” has led him to publicly champion such slaughter on multiple occasions. “We’re fighting a very politically correct war,” Trump told Fox & Friends in December 2015. “And the other thing with the terrorists — you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families! They care about their lives, don’t kid yourselves. They say they don’t care about their lives. But you have to take out their families.” Later in the campaign, the GOP candidate praised the mass murder of Muslim prisoners of war with bullets dripped in pig’s blood as a uniquely effective method of counterinsurgency.
But Iraqi civilians and prisoners of war weren’t Gallagher’s only alleged victims. As the videos published by the Times make clear, his actions also terrorized many of the Americans who served beside him. Those conscientious servicemen did not command Trump’s sympathies; only the alleged slayer of innocents did. Which means that the impulse behind Gallagher’s pardon is even more nefarious than blind nationalism. In the Trumpist worldview, Gallagher is not a hero in spite of his alleged atrocities, but because of them; and his platoon mates’ scrupulous reporting of their chief’s lawlessness is not a testament to their patriotism, but an indictment of it. The war criminal is Trumpism’s perfect patriot; the whistle-blower, it’s quintessential villain.
Crucially, this authoritarian ethos is not unique to Trump. The Republican Party didn’t end up with an authoritarian standard-bearer by happenstance. Trump won the GOP nomination because his despotic impulses were coincident with the party’s own. The president did not instigate the campaign for Gallagher’s pardon. Conservative media outlets and members of Congress did. Trump’s deep-seated admiration for human-rights violators empowered the conservative movement’s most barbarous factions. But he is not the source of his party’s authoritarianism so much as an accelerant of it.
The Post’s story — “In the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, a climate of mistrust and fear” — speaks to this reality and its disconcerting implications. The president has waged war on the national security bureaucracy for largely self-interested reasons. But the conservative movement has long harbored an ideological hostility to the independent civil service. Thus, Trump’s flailing, defensive efforts to discredit and cleanse federal agencies that threaten to hold him legally accountable are conducive to the right’s broader aims.
As the Post reports:
An entire roster of public servants has been disparaged, bullied and in some cases banished for standing in Trump’s path as he sought to pressure Ukraine for political favors, or for testifying about his conduct afterward.
… “We’re fighting for the country here,” said Stephen K. Bannon, who called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” while advising Trump in the early months of his presidency. “This all started in the transition,” Bannon said in an interview, adding that the attacks on those who “actively worked against [Trump’s] policies on Ukraine” or defied his wishes on Ukraine should serve as “a warning that if you go against the president, there is going to be a price to be paid.”
Critically, the officials in question did not work against Trump’s “policies on Ukraine”; the president dutifully signed off on Congress’s appropriation of lethal aid to Kiev. Rather, members of the administration sounded alarms about what they believed to be an unlawful attempt to withhold duly appropriated funds so as to generate legal problems for the president’s domestic opposition. The dispute here is not about whether the elected president should have the right to pursue a foreign policy that the civil service does not like; it is about whether the civil service is duty bound to prioritize the elected president’s wishes above the rule of law.
Bannon is no longer a figure of real import in American politics. But his diatribes against the “administrative state” — and those within it who believe their first loyalty is to the Constitution rather than the president — are indicative of broader sentiments within the GOP. Attorney General William Barr has championed the same principles in more ornate, legalistic language. According to Barr’s theory of the “unitary executive,” the fact that the president does not have absolute authority over all officials within the executive branch is an affront to America’s “founding principles.”
Congressional Republicans, for their part, are gamely participating in Trump’s campaign of intimidation against administration officials who complied with the House’s investigation. Even as Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, still the White House’s top adviser on Ukraine, faces death threats — and the CIA whistle-blower requires an armed escort to get to and from work — Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn has seen fit to tweet, “Vindictive Vindman is the ‘whistleblower’s handler.”
Traditionally, the right’s assaults on the civil service have been motivated by contempt for constraints on corporate avarice. But today, it is indicative of a broader hostility toward liberal democracy itself. As America’s once-dominant white Christian conservatives have found themselves increasingly alienated from their nation’s mainstream culture — and politically threatened by its demographic changes — their party has grown more open to entrenching its own power through illiberal means. George W. Bush’s Justice Department attempted to gin up evidence of a voter-fraud crisis so as to facilitate the enactment of new voting restrictions — and then fired U.S. attorneys who did not evince sufficient enthusiasm for their scheme. Now, Trump and his party are attempting to purge officials who undermined an attempt to conscript a vulnerable foreign government into the president’s reelection campaign.
To be sure, not all factions of the contemporary GOP are equally authoritarian. And the party’s willingness to subordinate democratic norms to the preservation of power is neither uniform nor absolute. But the authoritarians are in ascendence.
For now, the Trumpist right still recognizes a sharp distinction between (“real”) America’s foreign and internal enemies. Some congressional Republicans may tacitly encourage death threats against excessively law-abiding civil servants through relentless defamation, but none would call for “taking out” the whistle-blower’s family. And yet, when one considers Trump’s advocacy for police brutality, pardon of a tyrannical sheriff, and reflections on Tiananmen, it is hard not to suspect that — at least for our president — this distinction is more pragmatic than principled.