Testimony from the last three 1/6 Committee hearings provided the shocking details of what we all already “knew” – that Trump and his sycophants all knew the claims of election fraud were a lie; that they all planned for January 6th to be violent; that Trump was intent on ensuring the armed and violent mob got to the Capitol; and that he was only too happy to see Pence and anyone else who might stand in the way of him staying in power get killed. They all knew they were committing crimes, and at least one of them, perhaps even Trump himself, was willing to engage in witness tampering on Trump’s behalf, just as happened repeatedly and openly during the Mueller investigation.
The details the Committee revealed may have been shocking, but this was always who Trump was. He is a man who colluded with (at least) one foreign power to win in 2016. He tried to blackmail another foreign power to help him win in 2020. And he coordinated and directed a violent coup when he lost. He was a lawless president whose entire focus during his presidency was self-dealing. His prior business career was littered with bankruptcies, lawsuits, and charged and uncharged crimes. He is a career criminal who only walks free today because America does not really prosecute white collar crime. And he is still the odds-on favorite to win the 2024 GOP primary because America’s political, electoral, and constitutional systems are fundamentally broken.
Everyone knew who Trump was from the beginning. Certainly, the major domos of the Republican party, – the Mercers, the Adelsons, Peter Thiel – knew he was a crook and incapable of actually doing the job of President. But he excited the base, would give them their tax cut (as long as he got his), would roll back the regulatory state (especially if it redounded to his benefit), and would probably be compliant to their wishes in other areas that didn’t concern him (as long as he got paid off). He was an inciteful incompetent criminal but, by God, he was their inciteful incompetent criminal.
The senior Republican party leadership knew all this too – that Trump was an incompetent but incendiary narcissistic buffoon and sexual predator. McConnell and Ryan clearly knew Trump was a traitor and colluding with Russia. They knew when Flynn sabotaged Obama’s Russian sanctions. The entire GOP caucus knew that as well when he outed an important spy in a private meeting with the Russians in the Oval Office; when an important asset had to be extricated from Russia by the CIA because they couldn’t trust Trump with the intelligence; and when he sided with Putin in Helsinki. Republicans all knew that Trump was a criminal who would sell this country down the river in a heartbeat when the Mueller report came out; when the Senate Intelligence Committee report came out; when he tried to extort Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; and when he fomented a violent coup in order to stay in power. They all had chances to renounce him; they all had chances to be rid of him once and for all, including two impeachments. And yet virtually every one of them stuck with him, even after his failed coup that would have resulted in death for at least some of them. But despite the occasional protestation, they all stuck with him because the rubes loved him, and it was their only path to staying in power.
Anyone who worked closely with him also knew that Trump was unfit for office. They all saw the stupidity, the boorishness, the bullying, the petulant anger, and the criminality. Economic adviser Gary Cohn thought Trump was “dumb as shit”. Secretary of State Tillerson called him a “moron” and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said he was an “idiot”. National Security Adviser McMaster described Trump as a “dope” and an “idiot”, with the intelligence of a “kindergartner”. Adviser Steve Bannon was a little more generous, saying that Trump was “like an eleven-year-old child”. Secretary of Defense Mathis felt similarly, saying the former president had the understanding of a “fifth or sixth grader”. According to Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony, Trump’s cheeseburger-throwing, china-smashing, and table-cloth-ripping expressions of anger and abuse of White House staff were not uncommon.
White House Counsels Don McGahn and Pat Cipollone both spent significant amounts of their time trying to block Trump’s criminal schemes. McGahn saw Trump fire Comey in order to derail the Russia investigation and was directly asked to commit crimes by Trump on his behalf. Cipollone, Pence, Meadows, and so many othrs saw Trump plan the coup in real time. Pence, Grenell, Pompeo and others participated in the Zelensky extortion effort and saw the retaliation against Marie Yovanovitch and the Vindmans in the wake of its failure. The top administrators in the GSA knew they were ignoring the Constitution and breaking laws when they allowed Trump to keep the lease on the Old Post Office. It seems highly likely that senior IRS and/or Treasury officials also broke the law on Trump’s behalf with the audits of Comey and McCabe. And Lindsay Graham even attempted to commit a crime on Trump’s behalf simply to keep his brown nose close to power.
They all knew what Trump was and yet none of them ever really publicly repudiated him. Some pretended they were doing the right thing by staying in their positions, remaining quiet, and trying to restrain the worst of Trump. Some resigned or were forced out and then stayed silent or held their stories for a book in 2020. Some stayed long enough to see their pet projects through to completion and then moved on with nary a peep. McGahn got his two Federalist Society justices confirmed to SCOTUS, ensuring a continued conservative majority on the Court. Cohn got his tax cut for business, the wealthy, and Wall Street. Mnuchin and Kushner lined up Arab money for their new ventures. Meadows helped Trump plan the coup and got a million for his non-profit and silence. Even Hutchinson herself remained quiet about Trump’s coup efforts until just now. Similarly, Georgia Secretary of State Raffensberger, who is a fact witness to Trump’s efforts at electoral fraud and a “legal” coup, still says he would consider voting for Trump in 2024. Pence, the most loyal and sycophantic foot soldier of them all, may have had Trump try to get the mob to kill him for his one brief moment of doing the right thing, but he still protects the former president in order to keep his own presidential delusions alive.
The media knew as well. Certainly the New York media knew who Trump was. Wayne Barrett detailed Trump’s poisonous personality and criminal conduct for the Village Voice all the way back in 1979. New York’s tabloids continually dealt with Trump’s puerile impersonation of a PR guy bragging about Trump. The mainstream media all knew about his serial bankruptcies, the shady self-dealing, and his criminal connections. But it was far more lucrative to focus on the spectacle, with every Trump appearance heavy with the possibility of a last-lap NASCAR crash. An Australian reporter, sent to cover Trump’s 2016 campaign, soon realized that the US media’s reporting “mask[ed] and normalise[d] his full and alarming incoherence”. Jeff Zucker literally forged the reality show version of Trump, creating the impression of fabulous success for millions of Americans out of a person who was, in reality, a serial failure. Zucker took that reality show to politics, knowing he could boost CNN ratings by filling panels with budding fascists, airing empty podiums breathlessly waiting for Trump’s arrival, and then letting his lies stand when he did show up. Les Moonves, the head of CBS, played the game as well, saying, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”. Even as the newspaper industry as a whole was getting destroyed by private equity in this country, the New York Times and the Washington Post were actually adding readership. In order to feed that subscription beast, effort had to be made to both-sides the clear unfitness of Trump with “scandals” of the Clinton campaign. So we ended up with “but her emails”. (In retrospect, you would have to go back to the yellow journalism of the Hearst era to come up with two more bogus and ginned up right-wing faux scandals that the Times and Post bought hook, line, and sinker than Whitewater and email server management issues, both with devastating effects for our country’s future.)
Our country’s business leaders also understood everything they needed to about Trump. Like the GOP donors and leadership, they all knew he was unfit, but he would give them their tax cuts and deregulation. If they didn’t know, it became readily apparent before he even officially took office when he tanked Boeing stock in retaliation for the CEO’s support for free trade. As Trump took an axe to free trade and undermined the laws that undergirded success for American business for decades, the winners supported him and the losers worked in silence to get exemptions from Trump’s tariffs by using their connections within the administration or a timely campaign donation. Even Trump’s economically disastrous management of the pandemic and an attempted coup failed to sway business leaders from still writing checks to Trump and the insurrectionists in the Republican party. It seems that many of those leaders truly believe they can work within an autocratic political system and would actually prefer it.
The legal system never had any interest in holding Trump to account, despite his lengthy rap sheet of serial white-collar crime, including multiple instances of fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. They allowed Trump to settle the housing discrimination case in the 1970s which he quickly violated. They allowed him to destroy and withhold evidence and lie to courts in multiple cases from the 1970s onward, even during his presidency, with no real penalty. Chickenshit prosecutors like Cy Vance and Pam Bondi were easily persuaded from pursuing cases against Trump with some timely campaign donations. Others, like Alvin Bragg and (at least so far) Merrick Garland, are apparently simply too chicken to try and perhaps fail. Their inaction is ironically encouraging Trump to run again in 2024 simply to further avoid accountability. But perhaps even worse than the abject failure of prosecutors are the lawyers who willingly abetted Trump’s crimes. Barr lied about the results of the Mueller report in order to protect Trump. There was the parade of lawyers and even judges, apparently including one on the highest court in the land, who desperately provided absurd legal bases for Trump to attempt a coup in order to remain in power, few of whom have been sanctioned in any way.
Finally, the feckless leaders of the Democratic party were another group of Trump enablers. They did their best to ignore the rampant corruption within the Trump administration. They offered little pushback on Barr’s deceptive summary of the Mueller report other than letting “the report speak for itself” and even less further investigation other than trotting out a sadly long-past-his-prime Mueller. Sure, Pelosi’s prediction that Trump would self-impeach may have been absolutely accurate, but all it did was embolden Trump to engage in traitorous activity with Ukraine and launch a violent coup. The Ukraine extortion impeachment was rushed and severely limited in scope, with one senior Democratic leader excitedly asking, “Wouldn’t that be a great Christmas gift for it to all wrap up by Christmas?” as though the point was a specific end date rather than exposing the truth or at least imposing some sustained political damage on Trump. The 1/6 impeachment was run similarly as Democrats decided not to call any witnesses and inexplicably pressed to finish before Valentine’s Day. (As the 1/6 Committee has finally illustrated, when you run a serious investigation, people begin to talk, and new facts and crimes are uncovered.) Lastly, Democratic leaders provide no sense of urgency as we confront the two existential crises of rising authoritarianism with its destruction of our democracy and rollback of fundamental rights as well as climate change.
Trump, Trumpism, a nearly successful violent coup, and the rapid erosion of our rights and our democracy are the result of what has been a decades-long epic failure of the American elite. Republican elites have been feeding resentment to their ever-dwindling base for decades in order to get/maintain power so that they could funnel ever more money and power to themselves. Now the extremists the elites themselves created have taken over the party and are determined to not only enshrine an autocratic minority rule but also establish a white Christian nationalist government. The geriatric Democratic elites reflexively defend the interests of the institutions they have inhabited for decades without understanding or acknowledging the collapse and corruption of those very institutions, especially by unrestrained corporate power. The legal system works only to shield those very elites from any accountability. The judicial system has also been similarly gamed to ensure elite impunity while also enabling the rise of autocracy, especially as an ideological, corrupt Supreme Court seizes even more power for itself. The elite education system, which is largely made up of hedge funds with an educational arm, manages to regularly produce a prodigious number of budding fascists.
Our institutions, corrupted by corporate power, have created an economy where virtually every major American industry is dominated by a small cartel that wields enormous pricing power, establishes high barriers to entry, stifles innovation, and foils any political attempt at reform or restraint. The prime example of this is the American medical system, which essentially consists of layers upon layers of government-sanctioned legalized theft while producing the worst outcomes for the dollar than any other industrialized country. It is an economy built on impoverishing American workers by replacing them with cheap overseas labor, which required also building a global supply chain. That chain was, again, purposely constructed to have multiple single points of failure, little redundancy and/or extra capacity, and multiple opportunities for exploitation and profit-taking. It is an economy that is overly reliant on one commodity where any small disruption to supply creates a global economic crisis. All of it was designed to shovel even more money and power to the elites and their corporate cohorts. The result is inequality not seen in modern times, a severely shrunken American middle class, and an inability to respond to external shocks like war in Ukraine, Covid in China, or drought and disaster caused by climate change.
This kind of widespread elite corruption and incompetence, both petty and grievous, is typical for a fading empire, as defending partisan parochial interests become subservient to any idea of the common good. It is why Trump and the Republicans sabotage efforts to control the pandemic. It is why we are unable to deal with the climate crisis, despite having been warned for decades, with every Republican and Joe Manchin scuttling Biden’s climate efforts today. It is why we are constantly forced to focus on the deficit or inflation when the real problem for decades has been underinvestment. It is why the Federal Reserve will force a recession that will do nothing to address the real problems of reliance on fossil fuels and supply chain disruptions that drive the current temporary inflation. It is why we have been unable to make the rich pay their fair share, with every Republican and Kyrsten Sinema combining to block Biden’s current efforts. It is why Joe Manchin and every Republican found it acceptable that the child poverty rate would skyrocket by not renewing the child tax credit. It is why our democracy is eroding, because Republicans at all levels restrict the franchise of those they believe will vote against them. It is why Republicans must fuel a more and more extreme culture war in order to distract and blame others for the decline their actual policies created as well as their assault on democracy. It is why Democratic leaders supported the only anti-abortion Democrat running for re-election over a more progressive alternative. It is why some Democrats are supporting even more extreme Republicans in primaries in the hopes of beating them in November. It is why we faced a decades-long inability to move beyond the status quo and perceived loss of prestige with the endless and futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that wasted trillions and accomplished little. All of it is typical of the elite failure associated with a dying empire and democratic collapse.
Nowhere is elite failure more evident, more complete, and more dangerous than the transformation of the Republican party into an openly autocratic, yes, fascist party that literally has no policy platform other than the expansion and continuation of its own power. That, too, is another indicator of end stage empire. If and when the party moves beyond Trump, it will not move beyond Trumpism. It will move to more competent fascism, to the Thiels and DeSantises, not to the Cheneys and Kinzingers. The pace of our downward spiral is ever-increasing, and the time needed to stop the damage is getting shorter or even passed. And still the elites fiddle. Because, from the point of view of a vast majority of them, it’s all been a rousing success — they’ve gotten everything they’ve wanted.