by Katherine Cross
This op-ed is a not-so-subtle plea to do the very thing we must never do: blame Trump’s proto-fascism entirely on the personal failings and quirks of one man.
I almost hesitate to contribute to the flurry of commentary around the now infamous New York Times op-ed.
The Kavanaugh hearings demand the disinfecting sunlight of an O-type star — burning very hot and very bright — after all. But the subtext of the op-ed points to two of the most alarming things about Trumpism. First, the fact that most of its opponents — especially on the right — condemn Trump’s style rather than his substance; second, that as a result of this, the groundwork is already being laid for Trumpism sans Trump.
The op-ed is a not-so-subtle plea to do the very thing we must never do: blame Trump’s proto-fascism entirely on the personal failings and quirks of one man:
“We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous. But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”
The editorial is, in truth, the confession of an enabler and — despite its nearly unprecedented nature as a devastatingly public betrayal from within — a very traditionally Washington attempt by the author to position themselves for future jobs.
As scathing as the press has been about Trump and his omnishambolic government, there remain two glowing bright spots where even they must buckle and fawn in praise: American military strikes (let us recall Brian Williams’ woeful misunderstanding of Leonard Cohen’s music when the anchor said he was “guided by the beauty of our weapons”), and the mythic “adults in the room” of the Trump White House. These are the “men of honour,” mostly ex-military, who are supposedly sacrificing themselves to be close to Trump, and thus are able to restrain him.
The op-ed author made sure they eagerly claimed the “adult” title, and with good reason: Their audience was not ordinary Americans, but the country’s intelligentsia — political operatives, the non-profit world, academics, and journalists. It was a lullaby meant to reassure them that the “adults in the room” were real, implicitly noble conservatives who put “country first.” In that vein of media-friendly mythologizing, the coup de grace was shamelessly grabbing onto the coattails of the late John McCain’s newly sewn, saint-like hagiography.
The editorial is the confession of an enabler and a very traditionally Washington attempt by the author to position themselves for future jobs.
Why? Remember that this administration has been uniquely radioactive for its employees and officials. Normally a White House stint is a golden ticket to plum jobs worldwide. That’s not proven true for Trump’s feckless adjutants, however. There’s a skin-deep stain of association with things like Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, where he praised neo-Nazis, insisting there were “good people on both sides” of a one-sided assault — acts which culminated in a terror attack that cost a young socialist counterprotester her life and injured many others.
“Out, damned spot!” cry Trump’s staffers and murderous ministers. They scrub feverishly in hopes of removing the mark that might keep them from a lifetime of corporate boards and preselection for safe seats. Painting themselves as the “adults in the room” media darlings — snatching the halo unworthily bestowed on Chief of Staff John Kelly or Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — is the only way they might cleanse themselves.
We shouldn’t allow this to work. The true thesis of the op-ed is “Trump is horrible, we know, but we’re good people, really.” The signal is sent up, particularly to other conservatives and the baleful number of credulous liberals who still desperately need to believe in the “compassionate conservative”:
“Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”
Take them at their word. Don’t get them wrong. They’re right wing and fine with the continual looting of our country and its imperialist ambitions. They just don’t want to be as uncouth and “anti-trade” as Trump. But for malingering as they have, like a long lasting cold, they deserve no mercy or sympathy.
As this is the umpteen-thousandth take on the op-ed I’ll only delve into one more issue, which I feel hasn’t received its due attention. The op-ed is deliberately designed to instill complacency. The last section, which invokes the ghost of Senator McCain in an unintentionally apposite way, is a call to lay down arms.
“The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us. We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility. Senator John McCain put it best in his farewell letter. All Americans should heed his words and break free of the tribalism trap, with the high aim of uniting through our shared values and love of this great nation.”
The author blames us all for our fate. We allowed ourselves to sink low with Trump, and even our opposition to him is darkened by his long shadow. Aside from the fact that one should always beware anyone peddling “no labels” as a solution to social problems — even the Bible begins with a parable about the importance and power of naming things — this is the bit of the op-ed where you see the oil leaking.
The allegations in the op-ed are deadly serious, and yet that merely indicts the author further for their craven complicity. Even now Republicans are lamenting that the op-ed has backfired because it will make it harder to “contain” Trump. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) went so far as to validate the piece’s major claims about Trump, yet still laments its publication. They represent a perverse GOP consensus with the author: although Trump can be removed, they’d rather control him. No matter who gets hurt.
There’s something slick about it all; it’s all Trump’s fault, but it’s also the nation’s fault. Whose not at fault? The author, and their cadre of “resistive” but polite proto-fascists.
This sly nonsense should be met with resistance worthy of that name; it is how we’ll deal with the immediate crisis of Trump and the aftermath of rebuilding a shattered society. Resistance must not be limited to opposing one man; it must address itself to the conditions that made him possible — such as the venality of operatives like this anonymous official. We must dispense with the comforting myth that these “adults in the room” are anything but efficient enablers.
In a word: fight. Treacly unity smothered by the flag is precisely the sort of sleepwalking that led us into Trump’s fever dream. To get out of it, we’ll have to dare to call things what they are, disobey — and horror of horrors — break decorum.
The author wants to tamp down on this as it might upend their plush boardroom chair. No more or less.
The author soft-pedals the “adults in the room” line as “cold comfort.” It’s no comfort at all to know that an administrative coup — with repercussions that will far outlast this presidency — is taking place and lies in the hands of such cowardly people that they’d sacrifice us all to Trump’s furies for a tax cut.
There is but one ice-bath of cold comfort in this mess: the knowledge that Trump himself is absolutely tormented by the question of who wrote the op-ed, and that its author is equally tormented by their tell-tale-heart beating beneath the White House floorboards.
When the two finally meet, each will see the other and find himself; they’ll know, silently, that they deserve each other.