This column, which appears in the July print edition, was written before former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony to the Jan. 6 committee on June 28.
It has been firmly established for a long time now — five years, to be exact — that Donald Trump is the most corrupt and thoroughly amoral leader in American history, not just among presidents, but all political leaders. No one comes close to him — not Richard Nixon or John Mitchell, not Albert Fall, not even Aaron Burr. Benedict Arnold maybe, but he was not a leader — only a greedy soldier who sold out his commander, George Washington, and his country to King George. Trump would have understood Arnold perfectly. He just wanted the money, and he saw no sense in fighting for your country.
The January 6 congressional committee’s formal hearings have cemented beyond a reasonable doubt the fact that Trump organized an insurrection against the United States to keep himself as the nation’s ruler. They also showcased the rarest of all American political phenomena — an endless stream of aides, advisers, cabinet members, military leaders and even family members jumping at the chance to expose their leader’s lies and treachery. It didn’t start in June with Attorney General Bill Barr, or with a revered retired Republican appellate judge, or with so many others — such as daughter Ivanka Trump, or running mate Mike Pence, or even Pence’s staff — all of whom had covered up Trump’s treacheries and seditious acts for nearly four years until they realized that they had to repair their place in history, for the sake of their own souls and for their families, before it was too late.
The real process started with the first Russia investigation of 2016 and 2017 and the scandals that it produced almost daily. That investigation led to firings, resignations, trials and sometimes prison for Trump’s men — followed by Twitter recriminations, would-be bestselling books and television interviews where they revealed their boss’ lies, corruption and frequent imbecilities to those Americans who might care. That first investigation was not fruitless, for it proved the Russian-Trump plan to undermine the 2016 election. It will be remembered that Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, never denied calling the president “a fucking moron” after one crazy session with him. A global oil baron who got the job because he was supposed to be a pal of Vladimir Putin, Tillerson criticized Putin for poisoning one of his own former spies and, within a few hours, was fired by Trump. But Tillerson hasn’t (yet) hired someone to write a tell-all memoir for him, and hasn’t (yet) consented to be interviewed about Trump’s deceits and crimes — unlike everyone else.
OK, maybe not everyone. John Eastman isn’t doing it. Mark Meadows isn’t doing it. Ginni Thomas, the wife of a Supreme Court justice and Trump protector, isn’t doing it. Let’s see, who else? Anyone close to home?
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for one. Sen. John Boozman, for another — and, really, the whole Arkansas congressional delegation, with some deference allowed U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Northwest Arkansas. Womack furiously attacked Rep. Kevin McCarthy, his party’s leader in the House — but not Trump himself — for going along with the Trump lie that his giant loss in the 2020 election (he trailed his foes by 10 million votes) was the result of fraud in a few states where the election, ironically, happened to have been run by the dominant Republican Party. You’ve got to forgive Womack for not going all the way; he needed those dyed-in-the-wool Trump voters to get reelected.
You might give some deference also to Governor Hutchinson, who said that Trump really did lose the election. Hutchinson has let it be known that he probably will run for president in 2024. For more than four years, Hutchinson always said Trump should not be impeached for any of his many transgressions with the Russians or for his violations of the Constitution (and of federal statutes, including the emoluments clause). You may remember that, as the House prosecutor of President Bill Clinton at the Senate trial in 1999, U.S. Rep. Hutchinson demanded that Clinton be convicted and removed from office for his Oval Office dalliance with a female aide. The dalliance was not illegal, only disgraceful, but Hutchinson maintained (with his own brother sitting as a member of the Senate jury) that Clinton was so cagey in his sworn testimony about Monica Lewinsky that he might have committed perjury, or perhaps obstructed justice, by coyly encouraging the woman or others not to rat out his embarrassing conduct. In Hutchinson’s mind, Trump’s multiple seditious acts — and his unmistakable act of treason on Jan. 6, 2021 — apparently pale beside Clinton’s smutty behavior. (Clinton, unlike Trump, apologized.)
If he does indeed run for president, Hutchinson will surely have a chance in the next two years to clarify his contrasting behavior toward those two impeached presidents — or perhaps to formulate his own Clintonesque apology. None of Hutchinson’s many hosts on national TV has yet put him on the spot about it.
Once the criminal and civil proceedings commence, as they are certain to do, let it be established that the events of the past five or six years have confirmed the great fear historians have long had for American democracy: that even this citadel could fall prey to a fascist and nationalist movement, that the nation could be captured by a cult leader like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin or Putin. Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the world’s leading scholar on authoritarianism, wrote a while back about the recurrence and growing seriousness of the old conspiracy theories, which were once limited to a few crackpots and cult followers like the Jim Jones flakes who poisoned themselves, or the Branch Davidians. “It’s more striking,” Ben-Ghiat said, “what hasn’t changed — the hyper-nationalism, the leader cult, the idea that this is a leader who is going to save us, the fear of white-population decline, anti-feminism, anti-left, things like that. None of those things have changed.”
She could have added a couple of other elements of this terrible brew. For example, she might have cited the transformation of the Second Amendment, which once was James Madison’s way of allowing Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas to tamp down slave rebellions (like the one Napoleon was trying to crush in Haiti) but which became, starting with the civil rights movement, a literal worship of guns as God’s gift to good Christian people to solve all their problems, whether those be rude classmates, spouses, parents or co-workers, or more sinister threats, such as socialists or dark-skinned people. (Ben-Ghiat could also have cited Arkansas’s own long history of regulating guns with the help of the NRA, partly to keep arms out of the hands of Blacks; see the legislature’s firearms act of 1923 and gun-regulation decisions of the Arkansas Supreme Court.)
History will recall that, in the 1980s, then-Prosecutor Asa Hutchinson shut down some of these armed nationalist and white-supremacist groups quite emphatically. But history will also show that these sentiments, and the dangers they present, exploded nationally with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and have culminated (so far) with several of our most horrific mass shootings — and, of course, with January 6. Ben-Ghiat’s prescription came so very close to fruition on that day that the old retired Republican federal judge (and hardcore Reagan disciple) J. Michael Luttig testified at a congressional hearing in June that the insurrection will almost certainly happen again if his party nominates Trump or his anointed successor for president in 2024. They aren’t likely to win, Luttig said, but that would make no difference. The cult of fanatics developed by Trump, which still controls the Republican Party, will unleash so much violence and discord that none of the branches of government will function again, he asserted grimly.
It was a terrifying proclamation from a sage so revered by generations of Republican leaders. But much of the country, including most of Arkansas, was tuned out. Many, though not all, of the Trump cult’s millions knew generally but sort of admired his sordid past — a psychopath who had dissipated much of his father’s ill-gotten fortune and a serial adulterer who promoted himself in the tabloids as a ladies’ man pursued by all the sexy models in New York and who would be described by two of his opponents for president in 2016, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, as a man morally unfit to be president.
So Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is hopelessly reliant on Donald Trump (or otherwise she would have had strong opponents in the GOP primary), will have no problems for a spell, at least until she starts to govern. The same is true for French Hill and everyone else on the ticket. But what happens to their plans, their future, their legacies, after the real legal proceedings finally begin in both civil and criminal courts, this year or next?
Grim as it seems, the Justice Department will finally have to bring criminal charges, as every real or acting attorney general since Jeff Sessions — including Rod Rosenstein, Bill Barr, and the others — always knew would be required by the Constitution if the nation’s commitment to the rule of law were to be maintained. Barr is at the end of his career, and his final act of repentance will not remove the disgrace that history will record of him. (And history might not even remember Barr’s own role in the Clinton prosecutions of the 1990s, which wasn’t insubstantial, or his efforts to save the presidency of George H.W. Bush by pardoning the Iran-Contra criminals.) Many others are in that same boat; Mike Pence hopes Americans, including some of the Trump cult, will give him another chance. I promise you that Hutchinson, Boozman and most other Republican congresspersons all hope, privately, that Trump will disappear from the political landscape and that they will have a chance to leave a legacy their grandchildren can be proud of.
As for Huckabee Sanders, what can she do? She has no record of public service or legislative policy; she has only her talent for using her daddy’s connections to land political jobs. Her defining achievement has been her time as a White House spokeswoman, explaining away Trump’s lies and camouflaging his failures with the media — which she, presumably like her boss, considers to be “the enemy of the people.”
She certainly can’t emulate her daddy’s legacy. In his nearly three terms as governor of Arkansas, he embraced what his party had already come to call “socialized medicine” by adopting Hillary Clinton’s plan to provide health insurance for all the state’s children; he bragged at the time that it was his proudest achievement. Donald Trump says such Christian behavior is socialism, something to be repealed instead of emulated, and Sanders seems to have adopted his stance on that matter — as well as on issues regarding Black people, immigrants, planetary carbon reduction, rich people’s tax burdens, the Democratic Party and everything else. Her only real campaign commitment is that she has promised war against all of them.
Her father raised more taxes, including income taxes, than any governor in Arkansas history — although in 2008, when he was running for president and was attacked by a club of rich men for his policy achievements, he would proclaim that he never raised a single tax. When he says (or his daughter says) that it ain’t so, I will happily provide the detailed record. History will confirm Mike Huckabee as one of Arkansas’s five most liberal (and, in those terms, successful) governors since the state’s founding in 1836. His daughter seems to be swearing not to emulate him but, instead, the nation’s most conspicuously failed president.
What will she do when she discovers, probably in her first month in office, that the state’s fiscal system is totally dependent on revenue sources she’s sworn to eliminate? Remember that she first promised to totally end personal and corporate income taxes in Arkansas, which would shut down Arkansas’s schools and colleges — unless, of course, she dramatically raised other taxes that land most heavily on the poor and working people. If she unwinds the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid reforms, as she seems to expect to do, she will face the biggest budget crisis since the governor of Kansas’ fiscal catastrophe a decade ago. You’ll recall that this colossal misjudgment sent him fleeing from office.
Would Sanders suffer a similar fate? Probably not. Her most valuable political skill, and perhaps her only one, is to vociferously blame all challenges and mistakes on the “radical left.” It’s an excuse Arkansas voters seem happy to accept.
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