I had a friend who was a pathological liar. I do not use that term lightly; he really was. We met in college and then through an odd set of circumstances wound up working for the same television station in New York—in fact, our offices were right next door to each other.
As the widowed Caitlin Thomas said of her poet husband Dylan, “He’d lie about what he had for breakfast.” My friend was the same way—it didn’t matter what. Small example: he’d tell you all the incredible things that he read in a new book and when you read it for yourself, you discovered that he had made everything up. None of it was there.
From time to time, his serial dishonesty caught up with him and there was trouble. And once it even caught up with me—at his funeral. Speaking with his mother—and for the life of me, I don’t remember why I said anything but there must have been a reason—I mentioned that he told me he was adopted and that they had been excellent parents. He often spoke of it. She looked at me in horror. It was completely untrue, of course, one last gotcha from the grave.
While alive, he usually got away with all of this because he was funny, smart, entertaining, charming, tall, and good-looking. He had the charisma one sometimes experiences with the truly psychotic.
Which brings one, as it must, to one Donald J. Trump. Not charming, funny or smart, but sufficiently charismatic to the many who continue to find appealing the brute, bludgeoning force of his bullying character and the entertainment value of his obnoxious reality television persona. He speaks for me, they claim, not realizing that he’s simply leading them astray while lining his pockets with their hard-earned cash. They feel a need to be led, and he leads them, right by the nose.
In his new book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost,” The Wall Street Journal’s Michael C. Bender writes about the “Front Row Joes,” the fanatics who even today slavishly attend Trump rallies in the manner of Deadheads following the remnants of The Grateful Dead on tour after tour. He writes:
They were mostly older White men and women who lived paycheck to paycheck with plenty of time on their hands—retired or close to it, estranged from their families or otherwise without children—and Trump had, in a surprising way, made their lives richer. The president himself almost always spent the night in his own bed and kept few close friends. But his rallies gave the Joes a reason to travel the country, staying at one another’s homes, sharing hotel rooms and carpooling. Two had married—and later divorced—by Trump’s second year in office.
He tells a story about one of the Joes:
When Randal Thom, a 60-year-old ex-Marine with a long gray mustache, fell severely ill with a high fever and debilitating congestion, he refused to go to the hospital. He was a heavy smoker who was significantly overweight and knew he faced an increased risk of severe effects from covid-19. Still, he refused to take a coronavirus test and potentially increase the caseload on Trump’s watch: “I’m not going to add to the numbers,” he told me. Thom survived the scare, but died months later in a car accident while returning home to Minnesota from a Trump boat parade in Florida.
Yet, Bender notes, such cult-like devotion “wasn’t reciprocated. Trump was careless with his supporters’ innocence, as he turned coronavirus tests into political scorecards and painted civil rights protests as a breeding ground for antifa. His last campaign-style event as president, the “Save America” rally on Jan. 6 in Washington, helped fuel a deadly riot at the Capitol that has resulted in the arrests of more than 500 Americans.”
Trump’s disdain for his own supporters is backed up by another in the flurry of new books just released about the 2020 campaign and its aftermath. In “Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency,” Michael Wolff claims that a little more than three weeks before January 6, watching a crowd gathering in Washington for yet another Stop the Steal rally, Trump said, “Seems like quite a lot of crazies.” He compared them to contestants on Let’s Make a Deal dressing up in goofy outfits to gain the emcee’s attention:
The president often expressed puzzlement over who these people were with their low-rent “trailer camp” bearing and their “get-ups,” once joking that he should have invested in a chain of tattoo parlors and shaking his head about “the great unwashed.”
And yet their fierce devotion appears undiminished. Curiously, it extends to the belief of many of them—egged on by politicians and right-wing media—that COVID inoculations are a government plot, even though their Fearless Leader persists in taking credit for the development of the vaccines, received the most advanced medicine available for his own bout with the virus and had himself and wife Melania vaccinated, albeit behind closed doors. Same goes for Trump tool Tucker Carlson at Fox News, who refuses to admit having had his shots while simultaneously giving airtime to every crackpot conspiracy theory about the disease and its cure.
They think they’re invulnerable to COVID. Virtually no one or nothing has been able to convince them otherwise. Nor do they seem to understand that from the beginning if masks had been worn and social distancing rules observed, we’d probably be past this pandemic by now and there would have been many fewer deaths and less chance for mutations to take charge—as they have now with the Delta variant burning through the unvaccinated.
“I admit that I’m struggling to come up with an analogy that would shed some light on the sheer insanity of this moment,” conservative commentator and Never Trumper Charlie Sykes wrote at The Bulwark:
Try to imagine, for example, a campaign to mock attempts to improve airline safety in the wake of a crash that killed hundreds. Or try to envision a political class that would ridicule and undermine engineers who were trying to shore up the foundations of condominiums in Florida in the days after a horrific building collapse there.
None of that, however, even comes close to the genuine depravity of the current burst of performative anti-vax demagoguery we are seeing right now… Faced with all of this, much of the right’s reaction has ranged from the puerile to the criminally reckless.
Sykes describes it using the legal term “depraved indifference to human life” and so it is. Yet, Republican leadership in Congress falls in lockstep with the former guy and his followers’ mass hysteria (although you can bet most of the legislators jumped the line to get their own COVID jabs). They continue to promote the Big Lie that the election was stolen and have added to that massive con job their claims that the January 6 insurrection was peaceful—despite the massive video evidence and the first criminal sentencing on Monday of one of those arrested for the assault on the Capitol.
Look, too, at their defeat of a bipartisan commission to investigate that day and their opposition to Nancy Pelosi’s select committee, which shortly will begin hearings. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy named his five members of the committee on Monday—three of whom voted in January to overturn the election results and one of whom is Jim Jordan, the notorious Trump troll who lives to roil cauldrons of anger and distrust.
(UPDATE: On Wednesday, House Speaker Pelosi vetoed McCarthy’s choice of Jordan for the committee and also gave thumbs down to Republican Jim Banks of Indiana. McCarthy responded by pulling all five of his recommendations for committee membership.)
Not only do GOP honchos fear for their job security—that Trump’s motley crew of voters will do whatever Trump tells them to do, accepting every one of his tens of thousands of pathological lies—they also think his grip on those devotees increases the power of the Republican Party’s attempts at a de facto minority government pledged to obstruction. Their deluded devotion to Trump allows Republicans to continue pushing their decades-old agenda of tax cuts, conservative judges, and culture wars.
This in the face of President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s substantive if imperfect proposals that actually would help people—massive infrastructure funding and voting rights, among others. But show the Trump gang streets destroyed by floods, arteries clogged with mud—they’ll insist there’s no climate change. Immigration reform? The so-called “browning of America” sends them into paroxysms of panic. Progress is anathema.
They play on the racist fears and economic anxieties of uninformed, conspiracy-driven, and easily manipulated white voters. It works far more effectively than it should, allowing Trump and his Republican cronies to further consolidate control from the state level up and fill their personal and party coffers with the graft and grift of campaign contributions and other illicit payoffs.
I know this sounds as if I still think Donald Trump is president. Believe me, I light candles on the half hour giving thanks that he’s not. But far too many of the mob really think that he is, that the election was fake and that January 6 was the Lexington and Concord of a new civil war.
Every attempt at bipartisanship is undermined at every turn. Here’s minority leader Mitch McConnell, speaking at an event in Kentucky earlier this month:
The era of bipartisanship on this stuff is over… This is not going to be done on a bipartisan basis. This is going to be a hell of a fight over what this country ought to look like in the future and it’s going to unfold here in the next few weeks. I don’t think we’ve had a bigger difference of opinion between the two parties.
They will not play by the rules. Democratic leadership should wake up. Drop the filibuster—it’s a tradition not a statute and foolish at a time when our democracy is being doused in gasoline, a lit match at the ready. Work harder than ever toward next year’s midterms and taking more seats in the House and Senate—forget the popular wisdom that the party in the White House loses seats during the midterms.
What’s more, refute every single one of their falsehoods every single time. Let none pass unchallenged — see Dr. Anthony Fauci confront Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul on Tuesday and learn. As per The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent, “Frame everything around the basic goal of ensuring that Republicans are the ones on the defensive.
This might include asking anti-critical race theory Republicans why they think our cadets are such snowflakes that they must be shielded from hard truths about their country’s past. Or asking why Republicans are doing far too little to encourage GOP voters to endure a little pinprick to protect their friends, relatives and neighbors from dying of a deadly disease. Or why they’re trying to bury the truth about their own party’s complicity in an effort to sack the U.S. government with mob violence.
Nothing gets done otherwise. Nothing. Worse, the mob takes back control. Trump officially returns with all his pathological lies, scorn, ineptitude, prejudice, rage, and yearnings for revenge intact and made worse. The authoritarian nightmare becomes reality. And that’s no lie.
Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East.