Throughout his presidency and beyond, Donald Trump has proven to be a public menace, quite possibly the most dangerous person in the world. His evident crimes and other acts of perfidy, both as president and subsequently, are almost too numerous to list: collusion with a hostile foreign power to subvert an election, conspiracy to obstruct justice, a coup attempt that involved a terrorist attack on the Capitol, incitements to political violence, fraudulent claims and conspiracy theories about election fraud, democide through willful negligence and corruption during the pandemic, using the office of the president to personally enrich himself, and extortion or blackmail against the leaders of Ukraine, possibly leading to the Russian invasion.
It's important to understand that Trump's followers and voters love him because of his wrongdoing and disregard for the rule of law and democracy, not despite those things.
Trump is at long last under investigation by the Department of Justice for a variety of offenses involving the highly classified documents he stored at Mar-a-Lago, including obstruction charges and violations of the Espionage Act. More than two weeks after the FBI searched Trump's residence and recovered numerous boxes of documents, the seriousness of these charges is coming into focus. At the Guardian, reporter Hugo Lowell writes: "The details contained in the affidavit used to secure a warrant to search Mar-a-Lago ... offered the clearest insight yet into the basis for the FBI's seeking permission to search the resort":
[T]he FBI needed to forcibly retrieve the United States government's most sensitive secrets, especially after it came to suspect Trump and his team were holding on to classified documents despite repeated efforts — including with a subpoena — to secure their return.
Most pressing, according to the affidavit, was that the FBI had identified probable cause that documents containing national defense information were scattered across Mar-a-Lago, potentially jeopardizing intelligence gathering and revealing the identities of human clandestine sources…. the affidavit ... also showed how Trump had previously retained government secrets at Mar-a-Lago after he was no longer president.
The FBI noted that after Trump finally returned around a dozen boxes of materials to the National Archives this year, an FBI triage found 184 unique classified documents, including 25 marked top secret, 92 marked secret, 67 marked confidential, and some with Trump's distinctive handwriting.
The documents also included some with markings like "SI" for special intelligence, "HCS" for intelligence from human clandestine sources, "NOFORN", for "Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals", "FISA" for the "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act", and "ORCON", which restricts non-US dissemination.
In a front-page story last Friday, the New York Times highlighted the potential life-and-death consequences of the kinds of documents described in the FBI's affidavit, noting that some of this information came from highly classified sources who risk "imprisonment or death stealing the secrets of their own governments":
Their identities are among the most closely protected information inside American intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Losing even one of them can set back American foreign intelligence operations for years.
Clandestine human sources are the lifeblood of any espionage service. This helps explain the grave concern within American agencies that information from undercover sources was included in some of the classified documents recently removed from Mar-a-Lago ... raising the prospect that the sources could be identified if the documents got into the wrong hands….
C.I.A. espionage operations inside numerous hostile countries have been compromised in recent years when the governments of those countries have arrested, jailed and even killed the agency's sources.
Last year, a top-secret memo sent to every C.I.A. station around the world warned about troubling numbers of informants being captured or killed, a stark reminder of how important human source networks are to the basic functions of the spy agency.
During the early part of last decade, the Chinese government dismantled the C.I.A.'s network of sources within China — crippling the agency's spying operations in the country for years. Source networks in Iran and Pakistan have also been compromised, prompting the agency to ask its case officers and analysts to redouble the efforts to protect the identities of spies and informants.
Even a single source, if well placed, can be of amazing importance to the spy agency. When one informant, critical to the intelligence assessment that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia favored the election of Mr. Trump, had to be extracted and resettled in Virginia, the C.I.A. was, for a time, left somewhat in the dark about senior levels of Kremlin decision-making.
Experts quoted by the Telegraph were even more explicit about the possible implications of Donald Trump's alleged crimes:
Steve Hall, former CIA chief of Russia operations, said: "That's basically information from human spies. 'HCS' stuff, basically, means there's information in those boxes in the basement in Mar-a-Lago that pertain to, or potentially came from, human sources, human spies.
"In the case of human sources, they usually get imprisoned, or if it's Russia or another authoritarian society they're oftentimes simply executed. That type of information is incredibly sensitive."
He added: "As a former CIA guy it sends chills up and down my spine that there's HCS information in somebody's basement. It's really, really bad."
Harry Litman, a former US attorney, said such documents were "radioactive". He told CNN: "The top secret stuff...can get people killed. it is completely alarming."
You heard me right: I believe Trump will actually be indicted for a criminal offense. Even with all its redactions, the probable cause affidavit published today by the magistrate judge in Florida makes clear to me three essential points:
(1) Trump was in unauthorized possession of national defense information, namely properly marked classified documents.
(2) He was put on notice by the U.S. Government that he was not permitted to retain those documents at Mar-a-Lago.
(3) He continued to maintain possession of the documents (and allegedly undertook efforts to conceal them in different places throughout the property) up until the FBI finally executed a search warrant earlier this month.
That is the ball game, folks. Absent some unforeseen change in factual or legal circumstances, I believe there is little left for the Justice Department to do but decide whether to wait until after the midterms to formally seek the indictment from the grand jury….
Get the popcorn ready either way.
Predictably, Trump continues to protest he did nothing wrong — and continues to incite acts of violence by his followers. Public opinion and other research shows that a majority of Republicans refuse to believe that Trump has committed any crimes — and also support his coup attempt, the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the Big Lie about the 2020 election.
Fascism at its core is unrestrained and corrupt power that manifests through violence, destruction, collective mental pathology and greed. As part of that dynamic, fascism and other forms of authoritarianism create a state of malignant normality in which right and wrong are inverted — if they are even understood to exist independent of the Great Leader and his movement's collective will and desires. In that political imaginary, good and bad, right and wrong, and ethics and morality more generally are a function of ideology and politics, not something outside them.
As such, in the alternate universe of MAGA and the larger right-wing echo chamber, it is categorically impossible to see Donald Trump as a criminal or law-breaker.
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For Trump's followers, anything and everything he does amounts to "fighting for people like them" and defending "their values" — those of "real America" — against the imagined enemy of the moment, whether that is "wokeness," the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ equality, Muslims, immigrants or something else.
Trump's followers and other neofascists do not simply reject the concept that rule of law should apply to all people equally; rather, they understand the law as a weapon they can use to impose their will on others. Such logic is a defining feature of fascism. In recent comments to Salon, historian Federico Finchelstein addressed this:
His [Trump's] threats of violence should be taken very seriously, because dictatorship and even fascism seem to be the endgame of Trumpism. In Nazi Germany, the "truth" of the leader was judicially constructed to the full extent as a replacement for more rational forms of law. Juridical truth was equated with the transcendental nature of the leader. Hitler famously represented himself as "the supreme judge of the Nation." The result was the destruction of legality.
[Pro-Nazi philosopher] Carl Schmitt ... fully understood the Nazi notion of truth when he stated that Hitler was "not subjected to justice" but rather constituted the highest form of justice.
It is clear that Trump conceives of himself as a supreme judge in that specific fascist sense, which replaces justice with the leader's corrupt and narcissistic sense of legality.
Trumpism, like fascist movements of the past, is a type of political personality cult. In such a relationship, followers identify with the leader in a deeply intimate way as an extension of their own ego, identity and self. The movement takes on its own type of collective energy and identity in which the individual is subsumed. Social psychologists and other experts have documented how that group dynamic works to diffuse individual responsibility and ultimately encourage antisocial and other destructive behavior, up to and including murder and genocide.
In the MAGA alternate universe, it is categorically impossible to see Donald Trump as a criminal or law-breaker. Anything and everything he does is understood as "fighting for people like us."
These feelings explain why Trumpists are willing to use violence to defend their leader. By extension, Trump's political enemies present an existential threat to members of the political cult. In that unhealthy relationship the leader's pathologies — in the case of Trump, sociopathy if not outright psychopathy — are mirrored by the followers in an escalating feedback loop.
Trump's followers therefore identify with his lawbreaking and other antisocial behavior, while also being compelled to rationalize it as both necessary and good. Love for Donald Trump and what he represents becomes the means and medium through which his followers resolve that cognitive dissonance.
By email, Shawn Rosenberg, a professor of political science and psychology at UC Irvine, wrote that the desire for an "anti-democratic strongman and disregard for rule of law are very strongly associated with: 1) populism, 2) seeing a homogeneous people as desirable or necessary, 3) being anti-Black, antisemitic and anti-immigrant, 4) having a simple dualistic, black/white view of political issues and morality and 5) being anti-elite."
Too many liberals, progressives, Democrats, centrists, and others outside of the MAGAverse love to accuse Trump and the right-wing movement of being hypocrites or applying a double standard for their own behavior. This is an absurd claim: In reality, the Trumpists and Republican fascists do not hold any norms or standards beyond winning at all costs. To call them hypocrites assumes that they care and might somehow change their behavior. It is a waste of time and energy.
Reece Peck, a professor of media culture at College of Staten Island and the author of "Fox Populism: Branding Conservatism as Working Class," offered these insights about the role of the right-wing propaganda machine in creating our "post-truth" political battlefield:
Rupert Murdoch's Fox News did more to partisanize American journalism than any other news organization in the 21st century. Within the hyper-partisan news market Fox did so much to create, the choice being offered is not one between disinterested, unbiased news versus interested, biased news as was the case in the past. Rather the choice now is between two types of interested styles of journalism, one that helps "our" side and one that helps "their" side. Following this partisan-tribal logic, Fox's top opinion hosts strive to show how their news analyses are indeed biased, precisely because they support the interest of Donald Trump, who serves as a proxy for the conservative base.
Like Trump, conservative media endows journalistic interpretations with the capability to determine the nation's destiny, a media power so menacing that Fox hosts deemed countering the negative press Trump was receiving for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis more important than the physical threat of the outbreak itself.
Once a news audience begins to conceptualize journalism as a winner-take-all, political-ideological war, pointing out the hypocrisies and intellectual inconsistencies (e.g., Blue Lives Matter vs. Defund the FBI) of their favorite politicians and media personalities becomes a fruitless endeavor. If leftists have any chance of capturing segments of the conservative coalition — namely the ones that respond to anti-elitist framing over ethno-nationalist messaging — it will be because they devised more compelling moral narratives and aesthetic news styles, not better fact-sheets and info-graphics.
Unfortunately, even after six years, too many Democrats and others who are supposedly fighting to defend American democracy still do not understand the fundamental nature of Trump, the Republican-fascists and their movement -- and what must be done to defeat it for all time. Shouting "hypocrites!" at fascists and other authoritarians is the behavior of those who know that they are doomed. It is akin to the desperation felt by those who scream "History will judge!" as they are being ground under.
The fascist fever-dream is intoxicating for Trump's followers, who thrill to his lawlessness and his crimes against democracy and human decency. Very few of them realize that the fascist fever-dream and its fumes is ultimately toxic to them as well.
At Donald Trump's rallies, he has many times recited a poem about a poisonous snake that a woman invites into her home when she finds it freezing outside on a cold night. Once revived, the snake bites her. "Why would you do that," she wails, "when I just saved your life?" The snake replies, "You knew what I was when you took me in."
Trump uses this fable to serve his own purposes, but its real meaning is clear: He is that snake. Like other demagogues and would-be tyrants, Trump has no use for anyone but himself. If we know anything about him, we know that at some point he will turn against even his most adoring followers and most loyal members of his inner circle. Whenever Trump believes it convenient or necessary, they will become the new enemy.
It is a small, faint comfort of history that those who support fascism and other forms of political evil are eventually devoured by the machine and madness they helped to feed, nurture and protect. Unfortunately, that fascist beast, be it here in America or in other parts of the world at other times, consumes the innocent and the good before it feasts on its own people and caretakers.