Remember the events that seemed to bookend George W. Bush’s presidency? They were the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the failed federal response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the post-storm flood in 2005. One was a boon for Bush and the other a boondoggle.
Bush’s boom and bust bookends came to mind recently after Donald Trump tweeted several variations on a theme that President Obama ordered a “tapp” (sic) on his phones at Trump Tower “during the very sacred election process.”
Trump’s accusation that his predecessor, the nation’s first black president, is guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors” cannot be dismissed. It is a spurious charge. New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who has become one of the most eloquent and sharp-minded Trump critics, called the tweets “specious, libelous and reckless,” and said the divider-in-chief owes Obama AND the American people an apology.
Blow’s call for an apology was a rhetorical move in order to get to his main point: first of all, that Trump of course won’t, and secondly, the act that he accuses Obama of having done, and Hillary Clinton of having done, pushes the country closer and closer to a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Trump’s tweets seemed the perfect (if not perverted) pairing with the first whopper which launched him into national politics: the “birther” movement.
In 2011, as Trump considered a presidential run, he jumped on the fringe birther fiction and took it mainstream. He told Bill O’Reilly on FOX News that Obama “doesn’t have a birth certificate. Now, he may have one, but there’s something on that, with maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim. I don’t know.” To the surprise of many, Trump became a successful huckster of hate. He became the pinup boy of the anti-Obama gathering and the savior of the seasoned anti-Clinton zealots. Eventually, he rode that bull into the Republican presidential rodeo and won.
Staying power of white supremacy
Birtherism draws its nefarious power from our nation’s foundations in slavery and colonial conquest, both phenomena based in the ideology of white supremacy. In Bill Moyer’s Lest We Forget: the Birther Lie, historian Nell Painter said, “The ground was very fertile for the birther lie, and in fact, if it hadn’t been, somebody could have said oh no, no, no, the president was not born in this country, he cannot be president – and it would have fallen to Earth. It never would have gone anywhere.”
But it did go somewhere. In fact, last summer, an NBC News/Survey Monkey poll of 1,700 registered voters found that a whopping 41 percent of Republicans disagreed with the statement “Barack Obama was born in the United States,” and 31 percent of the self-identified Republicans surveyed said they had doubts about the statement.
Cornell Belcher, author of A Black Man in the White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America’s Racial-Aversion Crisis, reported that based on his polling during the Obama presidency, “racial aversion” among whites grew. Belcher said he asked “affirmative action questions to government doing too much for people of color, to people of color not being as patriotic.”
“The answers, collected over the course of eight years, showed a hardening of white attitudes toward people of color. Belcher attributes that trend not just to Obama, but to the rising coalition of communities of color that elected Obama,” wrote Huffington Post’s Daniel Marans.
This “racial aversion” fueled the tea party movement and the 2010 Republican takeover of the House and their 2014 takeover of the Senate. In fact, it was the glue that held the Republican opposition to President Obama together. In explaining the Trump-Republican failure to repeal Obamacare, the editor of the conservative National Review, said as much.
“With Obama no longer being there, the emotional element of the opposition is drained away,” Rich Lowry told the New York Times.
“Emotional element”? So that’s what they are calling racism these days?
It’s from that toxic soil, or fertile ground, that a current, pervasive staple of racial oppression and its culture arises: profiling and criminalizing black and brown people. Obama being charged with high crimes and misdemeanors by Trump mirrors what happens daily to millions who are or have been wrongly incarcerated, pulled over, arrested, searched, abused, or even killed.
Hillary Clinton also represented a similar coalition of voters and policy direction and, had she won the Electoral College, a “gender aversion” was sure to develop alongside and intermingling with the “racial aversion,” as it had during the long election campaign.
Research suggests that racial biases are passed down through cultural and political beliefs and practices, stemming back to slavery, which seems to benefit Republicans at the polling booths.
“There are still a lot of people who think blacks are simply inferior to whites,” said Roger Ransom, an economic historian at the University of California, Riverside, to the Washington Post. “It is definitely there, and I don’t think it ever went away.”
When you combine long-held racial prejudices and big money, it becomes a perfect storm for widespread belief in fake news and conspiracies. And what bigger conspiracy and fraud could there be in the country than that of white supremacy, racial and gender inferiority, and ideologies based on hate?
Bookends in a presidential library of lies
Bookended lies. Could Trump’s two big lies be his alpha and omega? One lie began his political career; might this latest one mark its decline? This is the tweet that has launched 1,000 investigations, speculations, refutations, and rationalizations. Its recklessness could very well be the president’s undoing.
The tweet became part of the House Intelligence Committee investigation, which depending on what side of the aisle you sit, has a bifurcated purpose.
According to Democrats, the committee’s emphasis should be looking into Russian influence in the elections, including to what extent, if any, the Trump campaign cooperated with the Russian government in influencing the “very sacred election process.”
The GOP, meanwhile, says its focus should be to investigate leakers, the media, and their disclosing of what Republicans claim is classified information.
Testifying in front of a March 20 hearing, FBI Director James Comey told the committee that he cannot corroborate the president’s tweets. “I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully,” he said.
In short, the president lied.
Comey dropped another bomb that shook Republicans and the White House. He publicly confirmed the existence of an open and ongoing FBI counterintelligence investigation into Russian government interference, the “nature of any links between” Trump campaign associates and the Russian government and “whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
“[T]his will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” he said.
The consequences of that tweet are far-reaching. It adds to Trump’s already well-established pattern of lying and misleading. The Washington Post reports that as of March 24, Trump has made 317 false and misleading claims since he took office. He has also been opaque about his financial interests, refusing to release his tax forms. Within days of taking his oath of office, a group called the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit against Trump based on the foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution, which prohibits any president from receiving anything of value from foreign governments, including foreign government-owned businesses, without the approval of Congress.
Writing in Lawfare, a blog covering law and national security, Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic of the Brookings Institution argued that the constitutionally-mandated presidential oath of office rests on believing that the individual taking it will “solemnly” and “faithfully” serve as president and protect the Constitution. There are far-reaching consequences when an individual like Trump comports himself in such a way that people – especially those in public service, from judges to government workers – have no belief that he will follow through on his oath. Lies matter, although the authors cite a philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, who differentiates liars from “bullshitters.” A bullshitter, they write, has no relationship to the truth as opposed to a liar who may acknowledge there are inconvenient facts that one covers up.
“Bullshit … glibly rejects the value and even existence of knowable facts. Trump’s bullshit raised questions of its own when he was in the running for the presidency. But now that he has sworn the oath of office, we are forced to confront what it means for a bullshitter to have promised to faithfully execute the office of President and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the country’s larger legal system. Bullshit, after all, is kind of the opposite of law, which is an organized system of meaning,” wrote Wittes and Quinta.
Can a tweet rise to level of “high crimes and misdemeanors”?
Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, writing for Bloomberg, pushes further the question of what it means for a “bullshitter” to take the oath. He argues that Trump’s abusive tweet could lead to impeachment because as the nation’s most powerful government official, who made a serious criminal allegation against a former president, it is incumbent to show evidence to back up the allegation. If none is forthcoming, the government is ruling by innuendo.
“Shadowy dictatorships can do that because there is no need for proof,” he wrote. “Democracies can’t.”
Feldman said accusing a past president of an impeachable offense “is every bit as harmful to democracy, assuming it isn’t true.” Therefore, he continues, “If the alleged action would be impeachable if true, so must be the allegation if false. Anything else would give the president the power to distort democracy by calling his opponents criminals without ever having to prove it.”
To paraphrase the words of the late, great Johnnie Cochran, “If the tweet is a breach, you must impeach.”
While both of Trump’s lies are steeped in brazen bigotry against the nation’s first black president, one was made and promoted as a politician, the other as president, which carries bigger consequences. Yet both, along with the big lie about Hillary Clinton being a criminal, are often glossed over, as business as usual from a pathological BSer. But like lipstick on a pig, gloss on big lies doesn’t change their nature, or in this case, the danger they pose to democracy for all.