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The Orange Man is bad
Cringe but true
The central political fact of our era is that Donald Trump is a total piece of shit and scumbag. It long ago became “cringe” to center one’s politics on this point, but it remains fundamentally true.
That, more than anything else, is what his recent indictment by Special Counsel Jack Smith reminds us. When the matter of the missing classified documents improperly stored at Mar-a-Lago first came to light, it raised the specter of a politically motivated inquiry or an effort to hang charges on Trump that others had been allowed to slide on. In particular, it raised the question of whether other former high-ranking officials of the United States government had brought documents home and never returned them. And the answer turned out to be yes — both former vice president Mike Pence and current president Joe Biden (though, as I understand it, in his capacity as a former vice president) did something structurally similar on a smaller scale. But they both said sorry, they cooperated fully with investigators, they returned the documents promptly, and that was that.
In an earlier iteration of Trump scandals, I would have leapt to the conclusion that his refusal to follow the Pence/Biden model is a clear sign that he’s guilty of something darker and more nefarious.
Which he might be. But having seen a few of these play out now, I’m open to the possibility that he’s just a piece of shit scumbag. He’s stubborn, he doesn’t think the rules apply to him, he doesn’t like other people telling him what to do, and he thinks that being charged helps him stay at the center of attention and neuter his intraparty rivals, so fuck it. Trump simply stands head and shoulders above the average American politician in his willingness to take things to the edge, to flout the law, and to act with reckless disdain for the consequences his actions will have for anyone. The law is important, and the fact that this particular act of scumbaggery is apparently illegal gives it a special significance. But for my money, the most morally shocking thing about Trump’s post-presidency is still the extent to which he sullenly refused to be a constructive player in promoting Covid vaccination in 2021.
A very large number of people — Trump voters — got sicker than they might have because of this, and a bunch of them died. And I think that’s a crucial fact about Trump that tends to be overlooked despite the volume of coverage he attracts. His efforts to supposedly owns the libs mostly involve deceiving and betraying his own supporters.
Trump markets himself as a down-and-dirty fighter who champions the right’s causes through his refusal to play the game with kid gloves. In truth, he’s a sub-par politician who’s not good at winning elections or advancing a legislative agenda or convincing people of conservative ideas.
He’s a con man, and conservatives are the marks.
You can’t con an honest man
I used to enjoy a BBC show called “Hustle” about a team of high-end con artists. One of the structural challenges of a series like that is how to make a gang of criminals seem sympathetic. Scamming lonely and confused old people out of their meager savings wouldn’t make for a very entertaining show.
So they introduce the idea that you see in this clip, that the best marks are people who are themselves shady and dishonest. The mark’s own dishonesty makes them less likely to go to the authorities and less likely to ask questions about why the setup they’re involved in is so unorthodox. The whole premise is that you are participating in a shady scheme, so when it starts to seem like you’re enmeshed in a shady scheme, you don’t notice that you are the victim.
And that, to me, is Trump.
His con is not that he’s convinced conservatives that he’s honest. It’s that he’s convinced conservatives that his lying and shamelessness is a superpower that he deploys on behalf of their issues and causes. And it is true that he has at times deployed dishonesty and shamelessness to advance conservative causes. But much more frequently, he deploys dishonesty and shamelessness to advance himself, often at the expense of conservative causes.
The awful events of January 6, 2021, remain the core example of this.
What happened that day was less a real effort to seize power in a putsch than a bit of kayfabe that got out of hand because the crowd took the shoot too seriously. The election denial bit has been nothing but a disaster for GOP candidates and conservative politics. But it’s served the particular aim of keeping Donald J. Trump at the top ranks of the 2024 primary polling extremely well. Conservatives have never managed to adopt as conventional wisdom the much simpler explanation that in 2020, a really disorganized and incompetent president blew a very winnable election, even though this level of chaos was typical of his whole presidency.
And because the authentic conservative position is that 2020 was somehow “rigged,” Ron DeSantis even years later only dares allude vaguely to the idea that maybe actually what happened is Trump fucked up.
The key thing, as Jonathan Chait writes, is that Trump has managed to convince huge numbers of conservatives that all of his negative attributes are actually positive because they signal ruthlessness, and ruthlessness is what Republicans need.
In recent years, the Republican Party’s long rightward march on policy has ground to a halt, and it has instead radicalized on a different dimension: ruthlessness. Attributing their political travails to weakness, Republicans converged on the belief that their only chance to pull back from the precipice of final defeat is to discard their scruples. A willingness to do or say anything to win was the essence of Trump’s appeal, an amorality some Republicans embraced gleefully and others reluctantly.
There was a Cold War cliché about the various rightist dictators the U.S. government supported: “he may be a sonofabitch but he’s our sonofabitch.”
But the idea that Trump’s ruthless sonofabitch qualities are important to his electoral success is a wild misperception. The genuinely savvy thing Trump did was stop talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare. Pretty much any political party anywhere in the world could gain votes by ditching its most-unpopular stances. Mitt Romney could have done this in 2012 and he probably would’ve won. Some non-Trump nominee could have done it in 2020 and probably could have won. Joe Biden’s original debt ceiling strategy was premised on the idea that Kevin McCarthy was going to demand entitlement cuts and Biden could hammer him. But McCarthy just… didn’t.
I like to think of this kind of popularism as true ruthlessness and am constantly imploring various Democrats to give some ground on policy, win elections, and make Republicans pay for being so nutty.
Trump did a version of that and it worked. But he also ran this other bizarre con where he got Republicans to go along with the idea that it was fine if he ran a sleazy hotel where corporate lobbyists and foreign governments could make direct cash payments to the president of the United States. Or that he could discuss affairs of state with private club members. Or steal secret government documents with impunity. Because he sold them all on the idea that Donald Trump personally breaking all kinds of legal and ethics rules for his own personal gain is a form of ruthless partisanship.
But it’s obviously the opposite. Hunter Biden was ruthlessly trying to make money for himself, but his dad and the Democratic Party would be better off if that weren’t the case. The way you practice ruthless partisanship is to conduct yourself with a lot of integrity because that helps your allies. The Republicans, though, are essentially led by their grifter figure, who has talked them into idolizing him rather than feeling embarrassed by him.
Grifts inside grifts
As soon as Trump’s indictment was announced, Rep. Elise Stefanik hit up her email list to raise money for an Official Trump Defense Fund.
Except as Jennifer Bendery reports, she’s basically running a scam.
If you click the link, you get a prompt to donate money. If you read the fine print on the prompt, you’ll see that it defaults to a split where Stefanik gets 99% of the money and just 1% goes to Trump. It’s also set up, by default, as a recurring monthly donation. So you could think you’re giving $100 to Trump but actually donate nearly $1,200 a year to Elise Stefanik.
There are absolutely shady players operating in the Democratic Party ecosystem, just as there are in any system with lots of money flying around. But the cons are much closer to the seats of power on the GOP side. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the core reason is Trump himself and his distortionary impact: he brings grifters and opportunists in his wake, he drives out people of character and integrity, and he forces everyone else to twist around his presence. A guy like McCarthy now has to deal with the reality that a huge part of his job is managing his relationship with a colleague who doesn’t seem to have any principled commitment to the political party they are trying to lead together. Someone like J.D. Vance who’s sincere but also ambitious sees that the way forward is to become this absurd make-believe Trump acolyte.
It’s the Republicans’ problem
The worst-kept secret in Washington is that a significant fraction of Democratic Party professionals are hoping Trump will re-secure the nomination in 2024, even though their official position is that Trump is a unique menace to American democracy.
I’ll just say that I, personally, think it’s extremely amusing that Trump has the dominant position in the primary, even though that’s clearly a huge gift to Biden, and it’s especially amusing that the specific means by which this came about is that Trump has persuaded Republicans that he’s some crusading lib-killer. Fundamentally, what happens in the GOP primary is up to GOP primary voters, and I don’t know that my expressing an opinion about it one way or another is relevant.
But I do think it’s good for people to acknowledge reality.
And I wish more Republicans could see that nobody will be less owned by Trump Redux than the libs. He was great for subscriptions and ratings. He was great for fundraising. He was like Miracle-Gro for the mainstreaming of far-left ideas. Think Republicans have some good ideas about civil service or permitting reform? There is literally nobody on earth less likely to secure bipartisan cooperation for any kind of meaningful policy change on any topic.
To me, this seems like a bad situation. Trump is corrupt. He’s incompetent. He acknowledges no responsibilities or laws or anything above his self-interest. And he’s managed to convince the conservative movement in America that this is good and that somehow the “real issue” is some kind of half-imagined petty hypocrisy on the other side. But the only way out of it is for Republicans to wake up and realize that Trump is bad for them, too. Maybe this prosecution will somehow fix everything, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that Trump (especially given a friendly judge) will be able to drag this out through Election Day. And while the specific details we’re learning are hilarious and shocking, nobody is really surprised at this point. He’s a bad person. But it’s Republicans who need to do something about it.