By Kenneth Tiven
India has a long fascination with snake charmers and magicians. The legends of jadoowallahs, tamashawallahs, jadugars, madaris, mayakaris, maslets, qalandars, sapwallahs, saperas, katputliwallahs, bahurupis, peep-showwallahs, are not limited by creed or caste. America’s political situation is no different.
Ex-President Donald Trump consistently demonstrates his affinity for the skill of 19th-century barkers—snake oil salesmen as we call them. Today, they sell medical cures on television and the Internet, morphing into shameless peddlers of conspiracy theories. Nothing is new. Everything is recycled. Performative politicians have turned the courts and Congress into theatre that mimics Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Thunder. Enter the three Witches. Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. The mistress of the witches says: O well done! I commend your pains; And every one shall share i’ the gains; And now about the cauldron sing, Live elves and fairies in a ring, Enchanting all that you put in.
Before selling himself to American voters as an intelligent businessman, Trump managed himself into bankruptcy six times in casinos, airlines, steaks, wine, universities, and real estate. His 2016 election required voters to ignore reality or feign amnesia. Understanding this makes Trump less a phenomenon or role model than the ultimate realization of a tradition as old as the nation itself. His bravado at the defense table in a trial where the judge has already ruled him a fraud is his way of reflecting his own hype: Penalties? What’s $250 million to a man like me, his behaviour demonstrates. Despite facing 91 felony counts in four separate criminal cases, he was determined to make the civil suit in New York into a carnival to help his 2024 campaign for US president. There was no jury of his peers to impress in this civil “bench trial” as Trump’s lawyers forgot to ask for one as required by New York state law. State prosecutors were unfazed by his behaviour as a man facing the end of his namesake business. Consider his constant vitriol towards New York State Attorney General Letitia James, a black woman who brought the case against him. His racist manners signify a call-out to supporters rather than bravery.
Donald Trump is his own best creation, more than any building with his name on it. In the 1970’s, fresh out of college with a questionable business degree, he appeared on the Manhattan real estate scene. The son of a rich, but unpleasant racist Long Island real estate developer, he was determined to show the “city boys” how to do business. He flaunted his skills, primarily with self-promotion and a consistent stream of disinformation. Understanding the readership value of stories about celebrities, real and imagined, New York’s tabloid newspapers could not stay away from Trump items. Whenever challenged by authorities, he fell back on traits and tactics that continue to this day—denial, defamation, distraction, and, most of all, delay and disruption. His long-time lawyer, Roy Cohn, amplified the lessons from his Dad. Cohn was famous for using these tactics to keep his mobster clients out of jail by beating a criminal complaint to its lowest possible punishment. Trump even used these tactics to cheat one of his siblings from getting an equal family inheritance.
Judge Arthur Engoron issued a gag order after Trump, sitting in court, posted social media messages claiming Engoron’s law clerk was the girlfriend of a New York politician, among other spurious claims. Yet, Trump continued telling assembled media outside the courtroom that the trial was a political vendetta. Media believing in the American tradition of “he said-she said” reporting, then passed it along to readers and viewers.
There was a parallel sideshow in the House of Representatives with Trump’s fingerprints all over it. The majority political party elects the Speaker as the overall leader. It took 15 ballots to elect Kevin McCarthy, a journeyman politician from California. Yet, after nine months of inept leadership, firing him took only one roll call ballot. Eight of the most radical anti-federal government Republicans used backing from Democrats to prevent him from winning a majority vote for retention. McCarthy had consistently blamed Democrats, not his MAGA sub-caucus, for the impasses in the House, thereby killing any voting help from them. The MAGA radicals do not want to legislate. Their “policy” desire is to roadblock the federal government back to its pre-civil war behaviour as subservient to state’s rights on most matters of law and political rights. In the basketball sense of the word, this is a full-court press: The radicals want Jim Jordan, an Ohio congressman, as the new Speaker of the House. The controversial and combative Jordan seems temperamentally unsuited to the position. Conversely, his MAGA manners are perfect.
Criticism quickly came from former Congresswoman Liz Cheney; she was Republican co-chair of the January 6 committee that highlighted Jordan’s assistance to Trump in the failed insurrection. Jordan ignored a Congressional subpoena to testify. She, on the other hand, was punished by Wyoming voters who did not re-elect her for her honesty. In a speech, she said: “Jim Jordan knew more about what Donald Trump had planned for January 6 than any other member of the House of Representatives. Jim Jordan was involved, was part of the conspiracy in which Donald Trump was engaged as he attempted to overturn the election… There was a handful of people, of which he was the leader, who knew what Donald Trump had planned. Now, somebody needs to ask Jim Jordan, ‘Why didn’t you report to the Capitol Police what you knew Donald Trump had planned? You were in those meetings at the White House. If the Republicans decide that Jim Jordan should be the Speaker of the House…there would no longer be any possible way to argue that a group of elected Republicans could be counted on to defend the Constitution.”
Trump is the most sincerely transactional person ever to be US President. Others have been dishonest and duplicitous, but none have ever been as nakedly “what is in it for me” on everything. All of this matters because both the House and Senate must agree for legislation to become law with a presidential signature. All money bills must originate in the House to pay government bills.
Nearly 25 years ago, conservative economist Grover Norquist coined the phrase:“to drown government in the bathtub”. If he had been a better economist, he would have known it was easier to do that in Congress. Much of what went on in New York and Washington fell far short of any truthfulness test, but in keeping with increasingly outdated self-imposed rules, media houses report what people say. An increasing number of new ideology-driven media organizations are not subtle in attracting the gullible while ignoring fact-driven voters. The irony is palpable. Yes, that 2021 January mob failed to stop the certification of Joe Biden as the 46th US president. Yes, many of the same Republicans defending Trump hid in basement rooms to avoid violence from MAGA-rioters determined to destroy democracy and hang Vice President Mike Pence. Yes, they are now committed to proving that, working as a small mob of ideologues inside the Capitol, they can create an autocracy. Their promise appears to be less immediate physical damage, which most dictatorial governments always promise while using psychological violence, or worse, to accomplish their aims. More than a thousand arrests have occurred for involvement in 2021, with half awaiting trial. The 2024 election might punish those members of Congress who backed the insurrection, but so far have been roaming free.
—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels