Monday, November 26, 2018

BTRTN: Welcome to Syco-Fantasy Island

We hope you all had a Happy Thanksgiving, commemorating the celebration of immigrants who arrived on our shores in a sea-faring caravan, successfully penetrated border security, and then plundered the natives. Make America Puritan Again! But now it is Monday, and we return to contemporary reality and investigate the mystery of the vanishing spines in Donald Trump’s White House.

Some men are born sycophants, some men become sycophants, and some men have the mantle of sycophant thrust upon them.

What they all seem to have in common, however, is that they all are Republicans, and they all work for Donald Trump.

From the get-go, the slam on Donald Trump’s hiring practices has been that he demands unstinting and absolute personal loyalty from all who would work for him. It turns out, however, that this assessment actually misrepresents the underlying and far more grave issue. Trump, it turns out, does not search for mere loyalists, he demands sycophants. The implications of that distinction are real.

A loyalist, you see, can be the kind of person why stands by you in the face of public criticism, but who  -- behind closed doors -- will tell you the hard, cold realities that no one else will tell you. A loyalist can be terrific in service to a leader. Bobby Kennedy was ferociously loyal to his brother Jack, unflinching in his public support, yet unsparing in his ruthlessly candid appraisals of the realpolitik. He saved that invaluable advice for the privacy of one-on-one meetings. 

Sycophants are different. They don’t push back, ever. They suck up and suck hard. They tell the big man exactly what he wants to hear. Not simply yes men, they seize every opportunity to add a thick wad of obsequiousness to their head-nodding. 

At this White House, there are more of them every day. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Welcome to Sycophantasy Island.
In the past ten days, we have witnessed an array of events that in aggregate put a microscope on the degree to which this administration in increasingly powered by born sycophants, converted sycophants, and men that Donald Trump has intimidating into becoming sycophants.  

A mid-level flunkie in the DOJ regularly appears on Fox News, acknowledging off-camera to their staffers that his goal in appearing on their network is to catch the eye of the President. His plan is crude, simple, and shockingly effective: he will go on television and publicly shill for the most extreme of Trump’s positions regarding the President’s power over the Judiciary and the Department of Justice. On the strength of his passionate agreement with Trump – and absent any legitimate qualification – Matt Whitaker is elevated to Acting Attorney General with authority over the Mueller investigation. Some men are born sycophants, and use their adult life to raise their natural gift to a fine art.

Our intelligence community has concluded that a journalist for the Washington Post living in the United States was murdered and dismembered under direct orders from the de facto head of state of a supposed ally. Once again, as with Russian interference in our elections, Donald Trump refuses to accept the verdict of his intelligence community and condemn the man who is responsible. This is cold-blooded murder of an innocent journalist – something we expect from a thug like Putin, but we would find profoundly stunning -- indeed, unimaginable -- were it to have been carried out by a real ally like England or France. And yet no voice in Trump’s cabinet dares challenge Trump’s stunning free pass to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Some men become sycophants.

The President of the United States orders a military build-up along our southern border for what is nakedly a political ploy to incite the xenophobic fury of his base prior to the crucial mid-term election. The Secretary of Defense flies to Texas to meet with the troops. In failing to condemn the President’s gross perversion of executive authority and taxpayer money, the Secretary implicitly endorses the use of military personnel for political gain. Some men have the stamp of sycophant thrust upon them.

These are not isolated examples of such behavior, but merely the most egregious examples that occurred in a ten day period in November, 2018. 

Matt Whitaker is not the only person hired specifically because his extreme views on executive authority seem tailored to please the President. The soon-to-be-former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, literally went to the White House to take orders on how to defend Trump’s famous allegation that Barack Obama had wiretapped phones in Trump Tower. And our newest sexual predator on the Supreme Court was selected by Trump precisely because he espoused a legal philosophy that affords the President virtually unlimited power.

Then there are the brazen opportunists who sucked up to Trump for personal gain. Former EPA head Scott Pruitt treated department funds like a PayPal account. Ryan Zinke, who as head of the Environmental Protection Agency has been shilling for Donald Trump while lining his own pocket, triggering 17 different investigations for malfeasance in office.

There are the suck-ups who have abdicated any sense of personal responsibility while aggressively disseminating Donald Trump’s factually vacant alternative reality. Kellyanne Conway spins faster than a Peloton, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies more comfortably than a Tempur-Pedic. Rudy Giuliani and Sean Hannity are exempted from this category only because neither is drawing a tax-payer funded salary. 

Ah, but now we take the jump into the big leagues of sycophants. There are those who now kneel before Trump because their political agendas or even their political survival appears to depend on it. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have proven themselves flagrant cowards, as each tip-toe past the President’s xenophobia, misogyny, racism, and threats to democracy, all on the belief that Trump is crucial to delivering the Supreme Court justices and tax legislation that they hope will define their legislative legacies. Ever since John McCain shed his mortal coil, his former buddy Lindsey Graham has turned into an angry, snarling attack dog for the Big Orange Stupid. There is Sultan of Sleeze himself, Ted Cruz, who was so worried about Beto that he eagerly embraced the man who crudely insulted his wife’s appearance and accused his father of participating in the assassination of JFK. But hey, let’s face it: standing up for the honor of family just can’t compete with avoiding the humiliation of losing a Republican Senate seat in Texas.

Of course, there is the MVP in the big league of sycophants: God-fearing Mike Pence, whose fawning gaze is ever fixed on his boss, and yet he still manages to avoid seeing each and every one of Donald Trump’s decidedly un-Christian behaviors. Pence knows enough to shut up and suck it in: win, lose, or impeach, he’s next in line to lead the Republican Party.

Finally, there is group of individuals in the White House who we hesitate to slap such a pejorative upon: the alleged “adults in the room” who have the experience in government, intelligence, and the military to act as “guardrails” to contain this President and serve as a check on his wildest impulses. These people – Mattis, General Kelly, former White House Counsel Don McGahn, former U.N. Ambassador Nicki Haley, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats – are often characterized as the selfless, sacrificing patriots who have risked their own reputations and legacies to sit inside the White House and stand guard against the authoritarian aspirations of this President. The “anonymous” Op Ed writer in The New York Times claimed to be representing this faction of White House staffers. 

It is this group of people who represent one of the more fascinating ethical dramas to emerge from this White House. We sleep better knowing that the White House still has a few competent, experienced individuals who understand our government, the separation of powers, the vital importance of vigorously exerting moral leadership on the world stage, and the limitations and dangers of military intervention. But at what point, exactly, does their involvement in the Trump White House and their apparent public endorsement of many of his positions render them complicit? 

Mattis was given a gentle rebuke for his visit to the troops on the Texas border by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. Bruni expressed great appreciation of Mattis, praising him for serving as a critically important voice and gaiting force on Trump’s mad impulses. However, Bruni did softly tee up the core issue: “there’s a fine line between taming the president and enabling him – between tempering the way he governs and implicitly validating it.”

Not sure how “fine” that “line” really is, Frank.

Mattis sure appeared to be doing a lot more than “implicitly” validating Trump’s assertion of an “invading caravan” when he showed up for photo opps with the troops who had been sent to the border under that exact pretense. 

Far worse that merely “validating” it, Mattis actually became a highly visible prop in Trump’s war-theatre theater. Mattis allowed himself to be used by Trump to aide in a brazen attempt to influence the mid-term elections. In failing to publicly protest this gross misuse of his own military personnel, Mattis lent his own very authority, integrity, and expertise to Trump’s desperate deception. At a certain point, the failure to condemn is to become actively complicit. 

Yes, and then there are men who have the mantle of the sycophant thrust upon them. Some just do a better job than others of concealing it.

We have just learned that Don McGahn fought tooth and nail to prevent Donald Trump from ordering the Department of Justice to open investigations into Hillary Clinton and James Comey. In preventing this overt attempt to persecute political opponents from coming to light, McGahn may well have bought Donald Trump another year to smear the media as “fake news,” thereby blunting the impact that this story might have had earlier in Trump’s Presidency. 

We must pause and reflect on this: if Mattis, Kelly, McGahn and others are clinging to their posts and working feverishly behind that scenes to prevent even more carnage to our democracy and our rule of law, what they are also preventing is for the citizenry to see first-hand just how big a threat Donald Trump really is. By buffering and softening the extremism and woeful ignorance of the President, they actually make Donald Trump appear more palatable and competent than he really is.

And now, all that propping up, covering up, and back-room maneuvering is about to blow up in everyone’s face. Because it has now become clear that Trump is determined to eliminate all of those “guardrails” from his administration.

Jeff Sessions, in his own pathetic way, was running in the crowd with Mattis, Kelly, and McGahn. Despite being ridiculed and belittled (ok, that was cheap) by Trump, Sessions refused to surrender his post for eighteen months after Trump began his personal savagery… effectively putting his body in front of Rosenstein, Mueller, and the entire special prosecutor investigation. When the history of this era is finally written, Jeff Sessions may well be considered a patriot in the model of Eliot Richardson. 

But now Sessions is gone, and a full-on sycophant is in his place. McGahn is gone. Kelly is the subject of daily rumors, which are often accompanied by crib notes on the likely candidates to succeed him. And then there is Mattis himself, who Trump recently labeled a “Democrat,” shortly before off-handedly and yet ominously noting that sooner or later, everyone leaves the  White House. The only Republicans with any moral compass in Congress? Now Flake, Corker, and McCain are all gone.  

Mueller is hanging on by a thread, and SycoPhantastic Mitch McConnell refuses to allow legislation that will protect the Special Investigation to even reach the Senate floor.

Soon, perhaps, there will be no guardrails left.

All that will remain is the impression that Donald Trump has been running the country for two years and has not yet triggered a nuclear war.  It will still appear that we have three branches of government. And all that talk that Donald Trump is an authoritarian bent on subverting the rule of law? It hasn’t happened yet, right? Why would it happen now?

Beware, always, of the law of intended consequences.

Mattis, McGahn, Kelly, Sessions… you all seem to think that it was so damn important that you were there in the room where it happens, so you could protect all of us from him.

Is it possible that all you really accomplished was preventing so many Americans from seeing just how terrible a President this man really will be when none of you  are around to muzzle him?

Is it possible that you contemplate a zillion-dollar book deal in a few years in which you get to tell the world the many ways that you saved it by stopping Donald Trump from being Donald Trump?

Is it possible that your rationale for the role you have taken is that it provides you good cover for serving in Donald Trump’s White House, when the truth is simply that you have always wanted the power that comes with it?

Is it possible that you should have leveraged all of your power, credibility, independence, and integrity to walk up to a microphone and tell the world that the President of the United States is an utterly contemptible, corrupt, and self-involved human being who is manipulating the vast powers of the Presidency simply to keep himself and his family out of jail?

And is it now too late, your credibility too compromised? 

The answer is that it may well be. Were Mattis to leave the administration (or be fired) and suddenly begin the rounds of media interviews to publicly bash Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders would simply dismiss his outburst as the bitter rants of a former employee. “If he felt that way, why didn’t he say so while he was here?” And, in so saying, for once in her life, she would be telling the truth. 

In failing to speak the truth while they had the platform and credibility to do so, these “human guardrails” look to all the world like people who support Trump 100%.  Therefore the entire alleged premise of their view of their own service is shattered and achieving the exact opposite of their intent. Beware, indeed, of the law of unintended consequences.

Therefore, in the end, they are no different from Mark Whitaker, Devin Nunes, and all chorus of suck-ups who grovel, adulate, and prostrate themselves before Trump.

Stand up. Speak the truth. Now, before it is too late.

How perfect it is that a cheesy tv series from the 1970s seemed to grasp lessons in morality more firmly than the losers in Trump's toady farm. At least Ricardo Montalbán knew that when your fantasies become real, the outcome is rarely what you hoped it would be.

As for the rest of us? Ze plane, ze plane is about to land, HervĂ©! Once that last guardrail is gone, we will all be living on Donald Trump's Sycophantasy Island, where the fantasies of sycophants all come true. 

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