The wraiths, continued

Congress Holds Joint Session To Ratify 2020 Presidential Election

Sometimes I pine for the days of the 2016 primaries, when the Republican Party’s peculiar talent for cruelty was directed inwardly instead of outwardly. Marco Rubio talked about Trump’s small hands; Chris Christie derided Rubio as an automaton, a rote reciter of nonsensical talking points; and Donald Trump attacked Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi Cruz, for looking unattractive and deranged compared to his Melania, a picture of (airbrushed) beauty and calm.

Christie committed a murder-suicide, of sorts: he tanked Rubio’s candidacy and then dropped out himself shortly afterwards. And, perhaps seeing Trump as his ticket to political relevancy, he endorsed him and became one of his (few) prominent surrogates. (Trump, if you recall, did not have much backing from the Republican political establishment, at least initially.) Joining the Trump orbit meant interacting with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, was a wealthy real-estate developer and influential figure in New Jersey Democratic politics. He got in a feud with his brother, Murray, over Murray’s claim that Charles had made illegal campaign contributions; Murray’s account was later confirmed by an “accountant turned whistleblower”. Then, some truly bizarre things began to happen:

In an attempt to retaliate against the family members he believed were out to get him, Charles arranged for a sex worker to be paid $10,000 to seduce his brother-in-law Bill and secretly taped the encounter. He then sent the tape and photographs to his sister Esther, Bill’s wife. (He also tried to pay a sex worker to seduce the accountant, but the accountant turned the woman down.)

Christie, at the time the attorney general of New Jersey, prosecuted Charles Kushner for the original crime (tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions) and the coverup (witness tampering). Jared never forgave Christie for the prosecution, particularly the fact that Charles spent 14 months in prison (which, of course, is rare for a white collar criminal).

Vox tells the story well of what happened after Christie was tapped for a position on Trump’s transition team:

Christie writes in his book that Kushner had a “meltdown” when he heard this news. He writes that Kushner tried to keep Trump from bringing him on. Subsequently, he writes, the pair agreed to put the past behind them — but the president’s son-in-law kept working against him behind the scenes. Christie writes that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort told him Kushner tried to push him out of the transition as well.

Eventually, Kushner’s efforts were successful: Christie was fired from the Trump transition team just a few days after the election. According to Christie’s book, Steve Bannon told him “the kid” — as in, Jared — was the reason he was forced out: “The kid’s been taking an ax to your head with the boss ever since I got here,” he blurted out. “It’s been constant. He never stops. Ancient bitterness, I guess.”

I quoted a passage from Josh Marshall in an essay I wrote almost three years ago, in which Marshall coined the term “dignity wraith” to refer to those GOP officials, like Christie, who had traded their dignity for power:

Look at Chris Christie, a once strong-arming figure now reduced to being the iconic symbol of a shudder-inducing, oddly voluntary and seemingly perpetual cycle of abject humiliation. In addition to all the ‘hostage Christie’ memes we saw over recent months, Trump forces made sure to tell numerous reporters that as recently as Thursday night – last night – Christie was literally pitching himself to Trump on the phone, again begging to be picked for Veep even after the decision for Pence had apparently already been made. As recently as Friday morning, according to the Times, Christie still thought he was still in the running. It seems quite likely Christie only finally learned his fate from Trump’s twitter. As the Times put it with some understatement in a separate article dedicated entirely to Christie’s public humiliation, “Mr. Trump appeared to relish poking fun at his effusive booster.”

It may not surprise you to learn that Christie has yet to fully turn on Trump, even to this day. He was interviewed by Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker, who asked him whether Trump should be punished and “sent a message”, for the riot he incited on Wednesday. Christie replied,

I think that message has been sent. And I think the reaction you saw from the President in the speech he gave last night shows that message has been sent, by members of Congress in their comments on their floor and by the many resignations that have happened, and some that I think are still about to happen.

You are asking whether someone needs to know that there are ramifications. The ramifications are that he is being publicly humiliated by members of his own team resigning on him and allies in Congress like Lindsey Graham saying, “Enough is enough.” I think he gets it.

(Set aside, for now, the fact that the narcissistic baby who runs this country has never “gotten” it and never will, primarily because there are no real “ramifications” for his misconduct.)

It’s astounding to me that Chris Christie, the guy who made a career out of shouting at constituents he disagreed with, is so weak, callow, and unprincipled that he cannot bring himself to speak honestly about a man who has repeatedly and publicly humiliated him (and whose son-in-law has done the same). This is the duality of right-wing thought. Their commitment to bigotry requires, on the one hand, dispensing hatred and violence towards “the other”, but their commitment to hierarchy and order also requires, on the other hand, ritual and serial debasement in front of their betters. They are at once punching down and being punched.

In the aftermath of the riot, it came out that we were much closer to catastrophe than initial reports may have led us to believe. Some of the rioters were heavily armed. One was stocked with handcuffs for taking hostages. One scrawled “Kill the media” on the Capitol walls. One New York Times reporter was thrown to the floor and thought she might be killed. The Republican Party’s brownshirts came within minutes, apparently, of finding the politicians they were looking for: Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Mike Pence.

That last name might surprise you. The Vice President, in American politics, presides over the certification of the results of the Electoral College. Trump therefore got the impression (which is legally dubious, but no matter) that Pence could, single-handedly, overturn those results. He tweeted before the riot, “States want to correct their votes, which they now know were based on irregularities and fraud, plus corrupt process never received legislative approval. All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!” CNN reported that “The vice president’s chief of staff, Marc Short, was banned by Trump from entering the West Wing, the source said, as the President repeatedly warned with ‘thinly veiled threats’ to Pence that he would suffer major political consequences if he refused to cooperate.”

And when Trump’s belligerent tweeting and mafia-style extortion failed to bear fruit, he turned to his army on the ground, the ones he told to “stand back and stand by” a few months ago. At the rally on the Capitol, he explained to the crowd, “I hope Mike is going to do the right thing. I hope so. I hope so, because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. … And I actually — I just spoke to Mike. I said: ‘Mike, that doesn’t take courage. What takes courage is to do nothing. That takes courage.’”

They took him both seriously and literally. According to one journalist,

I heard at least 3 different rioters at the Capitol say that they hoped to find Vice President Mike Pence and execute him by hanging him from a Capitol Hill tree as a traitor. It was a common line being repeated. Many more were just talking about how the VP should be executed.”

And when the Capitol was in lockdown, and Pence was being secreted away to a secure, private location, Trump tweeted disapprovingly, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify,”

It is easy to look at these tweets and quotes with numbness. Trump is always awful, you might say; what is different about this time? In short, Trump came this close to getting Mike Pence killed. He painted an apocalyptic picture of what would happen if he did not win his second term, and he drew a direct connection between that outcome and Mike Pence’s betrayal. What should a MAGA patriot, particularly a well-armed one, conclude from that information? Lin Wood, Trump’s erstwhile lawyer, got the message. He wrote on Parler (parleyed?) the day after, “Get the firing squads ready. Pence goes FIRST.” The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants, as they say.

How has Mike Pence responded to the threat on his life? First by muttering, in that milquetoast and pathetic way of his, that he could not fathom Trump’s conduct, “after all the things I’ve done for [him].” (Pence truly thought that Trump believed in loyalty!) He has also fumed privately, being quoted by secondary sources as being “angry” and “apoplectic” about what happened Wednesday. He has not talked to Trump, apparently, since the event.

But he has also responded, like Chris Christie, by not committing to a complete and final public break with the man who directed his near assassination. He is not willing to remove the president from office using the 25th amendment. He has not come out in favor of impeachment, either. He has not uttered even the most timorous public criticism of the president. Perhaps he, like other Republican politicians, is afraid of what might happen if he does.

I know David Brooks and other pundits are talking, yet again, about the Republican “fever” finally breaking. This, they claim, will be the moment that causes the Republican Party to repudiate Trump and Trumpism. I simply don’t see it. The Republican Party’s fever cannot break because it has become fever alone. It is a death cult. What leaves me in an odd mix of horror and awe is how many of its members, even at the highest levels, were and still are willing to sacrifice themselves for it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s