Hunter Biden traded on his father’s name to get positions on boards of directors that paid him millions, but there is no evidence he ever harmed American foreign policy or American interests. Jared Kushner, though, appears to have been paid $2 billion by the Saudis for steering his father-in-law’s administration away from the Khashoggi murder and toward millions in congressionally banned weaponry to further destroy Yemen.
Now the Saudis, apparently still collaborating with the Trump family, are refusing to increase oil production so that high prices at the pump will politically damage President Biden and Democrats in the elections this fall.
There is not even proportionality here. Three million versus 2 billion dollars and massive political sabotage? And another billion from the Saudis for Steve Mnuchin, and who knows how much more went into one of Donald’s untraceable offshore money bins? We’ll probably never know, as there’s not a single congressional investigation into Jared, and the DOJ appears to have no interest in Trump family corruption.
So why is it that Republicans tolerate breathtaking levels of corruption and criminality among their elected representatives and cronies, but Democrats won’t?
Al Franken is famously no longer a senator: he posed for a gag picture with his hands six inches above the chest of a woman who was in on the joke, but who then took the picture to rightwing media which manufactured a scandal. During the short media lifetime of the Franken scandal, Donald Trump probably raped or purchased sex with two more women or teenage models.
It seems that Democratic leadership is suffering from a serious deficiency of outrage.
If Joe Biden were to betray American values by letting his son-in-law, who was so compromised that he couldn’t get a security clearance, run U.S. foreign policy and then take $2 billion from the main beneficiaries of his decisions, how many years of hearings would we have? Can you spell “Benghazi” or “But her emails?”
But this goes way beyond selective outrage: conservatives live in an entirely different space from regular Americans, both politically and psychologically. It is all about the mindset of authoritarian leaders and followers. The way authoritarian-inclined people understand politics and reality.
Today’s Republican Party is committed to the one single principle that animated popes and kings for the past 2000 years:
“There are rules for thee, and there are different rules for me. I claim they are the same, but use my power to make sure they are very different in practice.”
This has always been the core principle of strongman oligarchies like Hungary, Russia, and the nation conservatives want America to become:
“Some of us are above the law because we administer the law.”
It is the absolute antithesis of democracy, which explicitly says that the law must bind everybody equally or it becomes meaningless. And its ultimate expression today is in the #DarkMAGA movement that wants a more violent and unconstitutionally repressive repeat of Trump’s term in office.
Authoritarians embrace lawbreaking by authority figures because they see the world in terms of power relationships: there are those above them and those below them. And for their own safety and security, they want to align themselves with that power above them.
Throughout my life I have been in positions of power enough times to identify this personality type that I have come to think of as “Kiss up, kick down” people. When they perceive me as having more power than them, they are obsequious; when they think I am powerless relative to them, they behave like I do not exist – or worse.
Authoritarian leaders commit their lives to being at the top of that hierarchy, first kissing up until they get power and then proudly and constantly kicking down with a vengeance; Donald Trump is probably the example most Americans would immediately recognize.
Another good example is Ted Cruz, an authoritarian who wants to be president, simpering and sucking up to Tucker Carlson on live television, then redeeming himself by publicly abusing and “kicking down” at a Black woman, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Authoritarian followers are also typically “kiss up, kick down” personalities, but their main commitment is to “kiss up.” That’s why they spend most of their lives finding authority figures above them who they can follow, and who they believe will protect them, if through nothing else than affiliation. These are the people with the oversized flags and Trump signs.
Authoritarian followers — including most Republican voters — tolerate abuse of power by those above them because the very act of abusing power demonstrates it, and they want to follow the greatest power possible.
This is why the most effective way a strongman political figure demonstrates his true power is to abuse it, to break the law, to violate society’s norms and get away with it. Like Putin and Trump.
As Winston Churchill pointed out:
“The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is … the foundation of all totalitarian government…”
Donald Trump announced this with his “Lock her up!” chant. No call for due process; just throw your opponent into prison.
When an authoritarian leader does this, it binds his followers even more fiercely to him because it makes them feel safe and secure. They assume that even though he’s breaking the law, he’ll be equally willing to use or even, if necessary, break the law to protect them.
Breaking the law, for authoritarians and in the minds of their followers, represents a sort of near-mythic “superpower.”
Republican followers themselves even delight in breaking laws just to prove their connection to their leader: look at the numerous cases of fraudulent voting that have been uncovered in the past year; almost every single one was a Republican committing voter fraud to endorse Trump and the GOP.
Trump followers similarly drove Kamala Harris’ campaign bus off the road in Texas in 2016 and now regularly find opportunities to assault or harass normal Americans. They vandalize opposition political signs or cars with Biden bumper stickers, set fire to Democratic offices, and even murder abortion providers.
The world saw the peak demonstration of this dynamic on January 6th of last year. And now 57% of Republicans say what happened that day was “patriotism” rather than a “crime.”
The conservative movement from Edmund Burke and John Adams in the 1790s right up to Goldwater, Reagan and Trump has always had this germ of authoritarian and aristocratic thinking at its foundation.
John Kenneth Galbraith is often quoted as saying:
“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
But it’s not just selfishness: conservatives throughout history have also sought to create their own in-crowd that doesn’t have to adhere to the same rules they’d impose on everybody else.
As musician Frank Wilhoit noted in a 2018 comment on the Crooked Timber blog:
“Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: ‘There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.’”
Understanding that dynamic hands us the key to how authoritarian leaders both gain and lose power; it is a key they all know and understand, and universally fear.
Because authoritarian followers – like today’s Trump sycophants – will only bind themselves to an authoritarian leader who has significantly greater power than themselves, the way to break that bond is to strip the leader of his power.
As mentioned, all authoritarian leaders know and understand this dynamic; they only have followers as long as they have power. When they lose power, they not only lose their followers; most of those followers will actually turn on them like spurned lovers.
Mussolini and his mistress, for example, were trying to flee Italy as his nation was losing WWII; he was caught near Lake Como, by the Swiss border. The next day they were both executed and their bodies taken to Milan, where, after spending the day laid out in a park where people were invited to kick and spit on them, their bodies were hung upside-down outside a service station on the town square.
This is why authoritarians never, ever voluntarily let go of power or admit defeat: like Hitler, they often commit suicide.
If, like Mussolini, their attempts to flee are thwarted, they are often killed by their own people. Even Pinochet, although removed from power through constitutional means, ended up arrested and charged for his crimes before he was finally freed by death from a heart attack.
They are hard but brittle, like glass statuary. And when they’re discredited and seen as “losers,” they shatter.
Understanding this is the key to knowing why Putin will level cities commit genocide, and risk World War III before he’ll declare a loss in Ukraine. It also explains why Trump is absolutely unwilling to admit he lost the 2020 election, even in the face of overwhelming evidence and a landslide 7-million vote margin for Biden.
It is also the key to knowing how to end the reign of Trumpism, at least in its current incarnation.
Jovan Pulitzer, who conducted the Maricopa “audit,” was just asked to describe Trump: “A messiah in Judaism is the person who would bring the one true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the world .. I believe that Donald Trump is a messiah .. he’s a prophecy fulfilled.”
If the January 6th Committee can shatter the image of “Trump as Savior” and instead portray him as a pathetic loser who turned to criminal activity to hang onto power, and paint that picture so vividly even Trump followers understand its reality all the way down to their toes, his devotees will desert him.
But it is going to require Democratic leaders — and the few Republican members of Congress committed to our democracy — to express a serious level of outrage, over and over again in any media they can find, over a period of months. Think Benghazi, but this time with an actual crime.
Then America must turn its attention to dealing with the next corrupt strongman authoritarian who wants to end democracy in America: Ron DeSantis.