Why Republicans are turning a blind eye to Trump

by Paul Thomas / 11 February, 2018
Donald Trump is said  to be as self-aggrandising on the golf course as he is in other settings. Photo/Getty Images

Donald Trump is said to be as self-aggrandising on the golf course as he is in other settings. Photo/Getty Images

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Republicans have abandoned principles and beliefs held sacred by their party forebears in order to defend their amoral President. 

On one hand, there’s F Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first- rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” In psychology, on the other hand, “cognitive dissonance” is the stress or discomfort that results from holding contradictory ideas or beliefs simultaneously.

So, what are we to make of the Jekyll-and- Hyde ability of President Donald Trump’s supporters to adopt positions at odds with everything they supposedly hold dear? Why aren’t evangelical Christians, who believe in the devil as earnestly as they believe in God and measure people by the staunchness of their resistance to temptation, outraged by Trump’s many offences against their morality?

How can the Republican Party, which has traditionally wrapped itself in the flag and venerated the national security apparatus, mount a deceitful and damaging campaign against the FBI and Department of Justice (DoJ)? Why are Republicans, with their hawkish world view and long-standing distrust of the Soviet Union/Russia, untroubled by Russia’s brazen attempt to white-ant American democracy?

As Steve Schmidt, a strategist on the presidential campaigns of George W Bush and John McCain, says: “The [Republican] party has become completely unmoored from things that it held as close to sacred until very recently, including a fidelity to the country’s security institutions.”

We’ll have to wait and see whether Trump’s defenders exhibit symptoms of cognitive dissonance. It’s safe to assume, though, that, had Fitzgerald been granted a sneak preview of Trump’s America, he would have revised his theory.

Tony Perkins. Photo/Getty Images

Hush money

After it was reported that Trump had an affair with an adult-entertainment star within months of wife Melania’s having given birth to their son and that the other woman – who goes by the nom de porn Stormy Daniels – had been paid hush money, a prominent evangelical activist announced the movement was giving Trump a “mulligan”. (In golf, a mulligan is the unlawful practice of hitting another ball, without penalty, after the first shot has gone awry. It’s appropriate in this context given that, by many accounts, Trump is as amoral and self-aggrandising on the golf course as he is in other settings.)

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian lobbying group, explained that the mulligan was a quid pro quo for Trump’s policies and rhetoric: appointing ultra-conservative judges, fostering an anti-choice, anti-gay climate and promoting the laughable notion that American Christians are under assault from the godless, progressive tyranny-in-waiting.

In other words, the party of God is now just another political outfit prepared to soft-pedal its supposedly fundamental principles in order to advance its agenda. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: the ardent moralisers of the religious right have a sordid history of operating on the basis of “do as I say, not as I do”.

The much-hyped memo generated by Devin Nunes, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, purporting to show that senior FBI and DoJ officials conducted illicit, politically motivated surveillance of a Trump campaign operative was perhaps the starkest illustration to that point of America’s polarisation and the degradation of its political discourse. (Arguably, it was thereupon trumped by the President’s suggestion that Democrats who didn’t applaud his State of the Union address were “treasonous”.)

For Trump, the memo represents “total vindication” and reveals “an American disgrace”. For his Fox News mouthpiece Sean Hannity, it’s “Watergate times a thousand”. Here, supposedly, in all its subterranean sinisterness, is the “deep state conspiracy” to thwart the people’s will.

Among the various incendiary analogies the memo inspired was, ironically, that of “McCarthyism”. The conspiracy-theory-driven witch-hunt of the late 1940s and early 1950s, presided over by Senator Joseph McCarthy, ostensibly sought to identify and neutralise government employees who were collaborating with, if not actively working for, a hostile foreign power – the Soviet Union – to undermine America. Now the US President and his party are accusing government employees trying to identify and neutralise collaborators working with a hostile foreign power – Russia – to undermine America of “McCarthyism”.

Senator Joseph McCarthy. Photo/Getty Images

Senator Joseph McCarthy. Photo/Getty Imaegs

‘Doing Putin's job for him’

The 81-year-old McCain interrupted brain-cancer treatment to condemn his fellow congressional Republicans over the release of the Nunes memo and their extrapolations from it: “If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s job for him.” Indeed: if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is able to run its course, we might yet find that certain people within the Trump campaign and administration were “doing Putin’s job” all along.

In fact, the Nunes memo is none of the above. It is misinformation that in a less febrile atmosphere would be dismissed out of hand since it offers no evidence to back up the claims made on its behalf but does provide talking points to be deployed in rebuttal.

The memo claims the FBI’s October 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for authorisation to keep Trump campaign adviser Carter Page under surveillance was predominantly based on the so-called “pee tape” dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and – mostly – paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, but the court wasn’t made aware of its provenance. (It turns out there was a footnote to that effect.)

However, the memo confirms that the FBI investigation got under way in July 2016 and was based on information provided by former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who late last year pleaded guilty to making false statements to FBI agents about his contacts with the Russian Government. And as has been pointed out, Page was a person of interest to US intelligence well before the Steele dossier was commissioned: the FBI came to the view that the Russians were trying to recruit Page as far back as 2013, at which time, as Time recently revealed, he was boasting of his contacts in the Kremlin.

Devin Nunes. Photo/Getty Images

But by echoing the White House message of a “tainted” FBI conducting a partisan fishing expedition, the Nunes memo contributes to the pretext, now under construction, for circumscribing or shutting down the Mueller investigation. The propaganda campaign is having an effect: recent polls show most Republican voters now have an unfavourable view of the FBI, a state of affairs that would have been unthinkable pre-Trump.

In the opening sequence of Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel Mao II, a father watches through binoculars as his daughter takes part in a Moonie-style mass wedding at New York’s Yankee Stadium. Cultists, he thinks, are people who, having shed the beliefs they were brought up with, need a focus for their “unexpended faith ... They follow the man because he gives them what they need. He answers their yearning, unburdens them of free will and independent thought.”

Republicans have abandoned long-held policies such as free trade and collective security, along with notions of propriety in public affairs and expectations of presidential behaviour on the part of the president. Traditional conservatism has degenerated into a populist, nativist cult of personality; the dreadnought has been mothballed, replaced by a ship of fools who have jettisoned their beliefs to make room for Trump’s ego and baggage and, on his command, set sail for uncharted, murky waters.

This article was first published in the February 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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