There is no critique — no matter how particular to him — that Donald Trump will not fire back against his opponents with shameless gusto.
Perhaps you remember the moment during the third and final presidential debate in October 2016, when Hilary Clinton charged that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would rather have Trump win because “he’d rather have a puppet as president.”
“No puppet! No puppet!” Trump insisted, talking over Clinton. “You’re the puppet! No, you’re the puppet!”
But even by that standard, Trump’s latest deflection is a doozy.
“The Democrats have become too extreme and too dangerous to govern,” he told hooting supporters at a political rally in Topeka on Saturday. “Republicans believe in the rule of law. Not the rule of the mob.”
So let’s take a step back.
The “rule of law” is generally accepted to mean that no one is above the law, and that the law protects all people equally.
Trump’s undermining of the rule of law is an almost daily phenomenon, from his tweets threatening to shut down the criminal investigation into his own campaign, to his using the Trump hotel in Washington as a tip jar, to abusing his pardon power, to his praise of despots, to actually being an unindicted coconspirator in the violation of campaign finance law.
A particularly compelling anecdote emerged just last week in an excerpt from Michael Lewis’s new book, The Fifth Risk. (More on that soon.)
It turns out that during the campaign, Trump was livid to find out that his transition team, which he considered unnecessary in the first place, was raising several million dollars to pay staff — money that might otherwise have gone to his campaign coffers.
When aides tried to explain that staffing a transition team is required by federal law, Lewis writes that Trump responded: “Fuck the law. I don’t give a fuck about the law. I want my fucking money.”
Trump’s rise and rule are clear indications that a future in which the United States remains a stable democracy under the rule of law is no longer inevitable – a topic that has been the subject of several high-profile books including “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It,” by Yasha Mounck and “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
New groups including Protect Democracy and American Oversight have sprung up to defend against attacks of self-government and fight the culture of illegally profiting from public service that Trump has led and fostered.
This column exists because of my concerns about the growing power of the executive branch and Trump’s particular abuses of that power that go even beyond the legal and ethical strictures observed by his predecessors.
So for Trump to say Republicans believe in the rule of law – and to decry as a mob the people exercising their free expression rights trying to defend it – is nonsensical, unless you see it as an attempt to coopt an adversarial message he fears..
And this was no slip of the tongue. Trump appeared to be reading that part off the TelePrompter, and his Twitter account called further attention to it later that night:
You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry left-wing mob. Democrats have become too EXTREME and TOO DANGEROUS to govern. Republicans believe in the rule of law – not the rule of the mob. VOTE REPUBLICAN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2018
Along a similar vein, Trump has recently been warning that Democrats want to turn the United States into Venezuela. Venezuela, of course, is one of the few places where Trump takes issue with a one-party state violating the rights of its citizens.
“If Democrats get control, they will raise your taxes, flood your streets with criminal aliens, weaken our military, outlaw private health insurance, and replace freedom with socialism,” he said at a rally in Mississippi last week.
“In a short period of time — of course, I’ll be doing lots of vetoes, just so don’t worry too much — they will turn America into Venezuela.”
He continued this line of attack on Monday, telling reporters that “The main base of the Democrats have shifted so far left that we’ll end up being Venezuela. This country would end up being Venezuela.”
It doesn’t take an eminent psychiatrist to see that what Trump is doing is projecting. (Although I admit I am influenced by Justin Frank’s extraordinary book, “Trump on the Couch,” which explains that and so much more; stay tuned for my interview with Frank later this week.)
That’s why simply quoting what Trump says and maybe explaining it a bit further down in the story is not acceptable journalism any more.
The big story about Trump is not whatever he just said, it’s whatever his new Big Lie is. And his latest involves projecting his own party’s reality onto Democrats, calling them an angry mob threatening authoritarianism.