So we’ve been having the usual go-around with the White House about what Trump knew and when he knew it regarding the allegations that Russian intelligence was offering bounties on US troops.
There are some things we should bear in mind.
One is that Trump’s base among the voting populace (and the much larger theoretically voting populace) is absolutely not going to care both about what Trump does and what Trump or anybody in his regime says about it.
There can be at any moment three or more official stories, encompassing what Donald Trump, what his press secretary and other PR proxies are saying, and what “the White House” says, with each of the three having some direct contradiction to the other two.
To Trump and his base, the purpose of these statements is to score points, block points on the other side, win the moment and “own the libs”. Whether it’s true or makes sense is immaterial. The more stories there are, the better! Because that means when coming across a criticism of the infallible God-Emperor, there are more cards in your hand and you can play the one that best fits the situation.
The other is that no matter how uncomfortable the Lindsey Grahams of the world may get with Trump’s conduct, no matter how many strong words they may offer that something is wrong in the abstract, they will not turn on him or break with him in any meaningful way so long as he is in power and their route to holding onto power seems to run through his Oval Office.
So leaving aside the question if this will be the thing that breaks his support among his supporters inside the circles of power or outside of them, let’s talk about the fact that AP reported that Trump was not only briefed on the bounties but was presented with a range of options for how to respond and chose to do nothing.
There is an obvious PR move here for Trump if we lay aside all questions of loyalty and personal priorities and just take it as a given that he’s loyal to himself first, Russia second, and the United States only as a matter of convenience.
That would be to lean on Moscow’s predictable denial and admit that yes, he was aware of it (because no matter how convenient a Sergeant Schultz impression might be for a corrupt CEO, it is not in keeping with the illusion that he is the Leader of the Free World to plead ignorance) but owing to the extreme seriousness of the matter he chose to hold off on a public statement or reaction until it had been verified beyond a shadow of a doubt and Russia had a chance to respond.
Here’s where I’m glad I have this newsletter as an outlet for these thoughts because if I tried to tweet this one out, some of this part here would wind up being read as tweets in isolation and inevitably be mistaken for me saying that actually doing this – sitting on the info and saying nothing out of a sense of seriousness – would be something the Trump regime would do or that an actual functioning administration should do.
It isn’t either of those things.
But as a story to explain the thing he did want to do and got caught doing, it’s better than anything they’ve tried.
As I was writing this, it crossed my timeline that the press secretary tried out a variation of this: that Trump didn’t know because the IC was awaiting verification before bringing it to his attention.
Which has the advantage of sounding like a good idea on the surface if you don’t know anything about how the government works and don’t think too hard or too deeply. It makes sense in some contexts!
If you find out something explosive, something that if it’s true it demands immediate and sharp action, then yes absolutely you might well want to make dang sure you’ve got your ducks in a row and all the various crossed-and-dotted letters dotted and crossed before you bring it to the boss’s attention.
But that specific kind of caution is more about making sure that you don’t make a mistake and that your backside is covered than it is about protecting the boss, which is the first and last priority of the office of the press secretary under the inauspices of Donald J. Trump.
In today’s modern Know-Nothing Republican Party, all the politicians who hang on Trump’s every word somehow never find time to listen to his speeches or interviews or read his tweets, even as they take their marching orders from them. And the man himself is capable of not knowing anything that would be inconvenient for him to know. He can retweet a video of someone shouting “White power!” and claim ignorance of it.
Even laying aside the value of ignorance in his political movement, Trump has another reason for not making the stories good, though. If you know your supporters will go along with a bad story as easily as a good story, it’s better – assuming dictatorship is your goal – to give them bad stories. Offering a reasonable explanation for his behavior in this case would set an expectation that his actions have reasonable explanations.
Offering transparently false and terrible ones, though, sets the opposite expectation. Anybody who goes along with his nonsensical alibis in these cases signals that they’ll go along with anything, implicitly making a pledge that Trump has tested again and again throughout his term in office.
The sky-high approval ratings within his party that Trump keeps boasting and posting may be cherry-picked at best and utterly fanciful at worst, but the underlying trend for most of his so-called presidency has been an intraparty approval rating that creeps up over time. I wouldn’t be the first person to note that this is what happens when you repeatedly drive away all but the most fanatical loyalists, but it’s not just the people leaving who skew his approval upwards. The people who stay tend to become more loyal to him, less willing to question or object, because they reached what could have been a breaking point and chose to side with him.
The audacity of the lies is functional. The inherent contradiction between them serves a purpose. However much Trump would like to be loved universally, what he really wants is the most unconditional loyalty possible. Anybody who won’t swallow what he puts in front of them is not someone he finds reliable. Anybody who needs to be convinced through a compelling argument is not worth the energy it takes to convince them.
You know those scam emails that you read through and you immediately think, “How could anybody fall for these?” Or the pick-up artist dating tips that self-evidently would turn more women off than not. If your goal is not to fool any specific person and it’s not to fool everybody but only to find enough foolish people for you to make a decent score, there is an advantage to not putting energy into convincing the skeptical or discerning.
And if your goal is to inflate your own ego by surrounding yourself with followers whose loyalty to you is complete and total, then you absolutely will not waste any time or energy offering convincing arguments.
To put it simply: the lies are a loyalty test. The test is pass/fail, and people who pass it graduate to a more advanced class of loyalty.