President Donald Trump has been bending and breaking laws all of his life. Michael Cohen, his longtime personal lawyer, stated under oath that Trump directed him to violate federal campaign finance law; the state of New York has evidence that Trump and his family have been cheating on their taxes for years; the Trump family’s “persistently illegal conduct” and “repeated and willful self-dealing transactions” have led the New York attorney general to file a lawsuit against the Trump Foundation. The list goes on.
Trump is open about his disdain for law. In April, he told an audience in Michigan that “our laws are so corrupt and stupid.”
Trump is also clear about why he is breaking these laws. The entire point of Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” is to lead us back to a time before the civil rights movement, before laws against insider trading, before the New Deal and federal agencies that regulate the commerce of plutocrats. This was an era of white male supremacy. The rich paid no income taxes and there was no minimum wage, so the wealthy lived like royalty. His thinking is akin to the way past activists viewed sit-down strikes. Like these past civil dissenters, Trump views himself as breaking the laws that he doesn’t believe should exist, which includes most of the laws and regulations put in place since the 1930s.
Indeed, instead of preparing a traditional legal defense, Trump is confounding legal observers by doing things that, by all objective standards, should make matters worse. He obstructs justice openly. In fact, in vowing to “fight back” against the Mueller investigation, he announced his intention to continue obstructing the probe. He also continually changes his story. First, he denies everything (“I have nothing to do with Russia”), then he says there would be nothing wrong if he had accepted help from Russia.
Obviously, a person who keeps changing his story is not a credible witness. Moreover, you can’t devise a legal defense while you are committing crimes, and Trump’s continuing efforts to obstruct justice suggest ongoing criminal behavior.
It’s easy to conclude that Trump has lost his mind and his lawyers are asleep at the switch. In fact, there’s a method to what appears to be Trump’s madness: The president intends to beat Mueller and his would-be interlocutors in Congress by torpedoing factuality and the rule of law itself.
Robert O. Paxton, in his classic work The Anatomy of Fascism, defines a cult of leadership as one in which the followers believe the leader’s instincts are better than the logic used by elites. The followers are willing to give up their individuality and freedom in exchange for the leader’s “protection.” And what is Trump protecting his followers from? Scholars Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt offer an explanation. In their essay “Authoritarianism Is Not a Momentary Madness but an Eternal Dynamic Within Liberal Democracies,” Stenner and Haidt describe the psychology behind the fervor of the embrace of authoritarians. A certain percentage of the population has “bias against different others” including racial and other minority out-groups. The authoritarian leader stokes their fears, creating a normative threat. These people then turn to the leader as something of a savior. The leader embraces the mythic destiny of the nation. He doesn’t follow laws. He is the law.
When Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s lies by arguing that his false statements actually point to something true, she offered an explanation for why Trump supporters embrace transparent lies. “President Obama was born in Africa,” for example, is a provable lie, but it points toward what to Trump’s supporters see as a deeper truth: President Obama is black, and therefore, isn’t really a real American.
Sanders’ argument is psychologically sound. Scholars Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim, and Ezra W. Zickerman Sivan, in “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue,” explain that those who want to destroy the “political establishment” willingly embrace a liar because they understand that the lies themselves serve a destructive purpose. The people who want to destroy the political establishment today are those who are threatened by growing diversity. Trump’s lies work toward that end.
In a totalitarian regime, state-controlled media normalizes the leader’s constantly changing stories, which serves to further obliterate any notion of a shared truth. Trump’s favorite news outlets similarly normalize his changing stories, thereby undermining factuality. When people can no longer sort out what is factual and what was invented, they conclude that the truth is unknowable. It’s the ultimate in relativism and skepticism. Without facts and a shared reality, jury verdicts have no meaning, and the results of law enforcement investigations are easily manipulated or even dismissed.
Look at what happened when Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court was nearly derailed by credible accusations of sexual assault. While the confirmation was in doubt, Trump protested that Kavanaugh was “innocent until proven guilty.” He then ordered an extremely limited investigation of the charges that interviewed a small number of witnesses and didn’t even speak with the accuser or the alleged culprit. Ultimately, he falsely declared that Kavanaugh had been “proven innocent” by the whole charade. This false fact—Kavanaugh was exonerated—now becomes reality to all of his followers.
The same exact dynamic is playing out with the apparent murder by Saudi Arabia of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump has applied the “innocent until proven guilty” notion to the Saudi state, even directly comparing the case to Kavanaugh’s. Despite the reported audio evidence of Khashoggi’s brutal dismemberment at the hands of Saudi officials, physical evidence of an attempted cover-up, and the plain fact that Khashoggi entered a Saudi Consulate never to be seen again, Trump is treating the case as a stone-cold whodunit. Don’t be surprised when, in spite of all this evidence, whatever cover story is eventually manufactured for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, or any other probable culprits, is ultimately accepted as fact by Trump and then by his followers. Once again, the lie will then become the fact.
Steve Bannon explained a broader administration strategy for dispensing with facts. “The real opposition is the media,” he has said. “And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Yale professor Timothy Snyder, in his groundbreaking book The Road to Unfreedom, explains in detail how leaders like Vladimir Putin and Trump undermine factuality by flooding the zone in this way. Putin dominates Russia by propagating grand lies that take the entire society off balance. For example, when Ukrainians protested against Putin’s puppet ruler, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin’s press reported that the protesters were organized by an LGBTQ group attempting a “homodictatorship.” Enough people believe the lie—or pretend to believe the lie—that a shared reality becomes impossible.
Part of Trump’s defense against his various investigatory pursuers is to persuade his followers that all politicians are corrupt liars, which is one reason the “Lock her up” chant has been so devastating. If people believe all politicians are corrupt, going after Trump becomes political persecution, or a “witch hunt.”
Trump’s final aim isn’t simply to escape accountability for his crimes. The final aim is to replace democracy itself with a form of autocracy, under which he and his cronies are forever unaccountable for criminal actions. Normalizing lies and flooding the zone shatters the public sphere upon which democracy depends. Without that shared reality, Mueller poses no threat to Trump. Similarly, without a shared public sphere, Trump doesn’t have to worry about resistance. As Yale professor Jason Stanley says, without truth it is impossible to speak truth to power, so there is only power.
The United States is on a steep learning curve. Because truth, factuality, and our very public sphere are under attack, our democracy (and republic) is in danger. The attack is devastatingly effective, partly because we have never experienced anything like this and thus are largely unprepared. Our task now is to save our public sphere. The way to do this was demonstrated by how the Chileans got out of the far more extreme Pinochet regime and reinstated democracy: All sides opposed to authoritarianism and committed to democracy worked together. That means they started actually talking, and listening, to one another. In the United States, this would mean that all groups that claim to be committed to continuing our democratic republic, from supporters of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Never Trump Republicans, would need to join forces. We will likely soon find out if the nation is up to the task.