A little more than a year into Donald Trump’s make-it-up-as-you-go presidency, the bizarre has become routine, and part of the new normal is a certain rumbling in the deep structures of government, signaling tectonic conflict between a bellicose populist president and our political institutions. Who will be the President’s “deep-state” enemy du jour today? The FBI? The State Department? The Justice Department?
Trump’s errant behavior, and the allegations of rampant incredulity among his advisers that were contained in Michael Wolff’s book (and seconded now by Reince Priebus, who tells us to “take everything you’ve heard and multiply it by fifty”), raise the prospect of extreme scenarios (impeachment; removal according to the 25th Amendment), and cue a daily referendum on whether Trump is mentally fit to govern. A Yale professor of psychiatry recently edited a book titled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, claiming that Trump is “unraveling”—a widespread perception that occasions such highly orchestrated presentations as the televised immigration roundtable last month, clearly designed to demonstrate that our President is still relatively raveled.
These theatrics are playing out against the background of the ever-expanding Mueller investigation, burrowing silently like a groundhog beneath the foundations of the Trump presidency. I occasionally listen to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, unofficial propagandists for Trump, to gauge how the demagogic pot is being stirred on the pseudo-populist right. For many weeks now, Rush and Hannity have been pounding the drums against Robert Mueller, making it clear that Mueller’s investigation is a groundless and vicious liberal conspiracy. Such fulminating insinuation has long been an entertainment staple for talk-radio audiences (liberals are unpatriotic socialists who hate America; the academy and mainstream media are engaged in a liberal plot to destroy our country; and so on), but these days its political function seems increasingly clear—namely, to lay the groundwork for public acceptance of Trump firing Mueller.
The implications of such an action—specifically for the Mueller investigation but more broadly for our politics—were summed up in spot-on fashion in a Times op-ed some weeks back, “The Real Coup Plot is Trump’s,” by Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard. Having grown up in Russia, Mounk knows a thing or two about demagoguery and its uses. His op-ed called attention to the degradation of the very idea of factuality that has accompanied Trump’s accession into public life, reminding us that the term “fake news,” which Trump brandishes so vehemently, originally referred to the chronic dissembling perpetrated by the Trump campaign -- but that the candidate “quickly appropriated the term” to use against journalists and news organizations whose coverage he disliked.
Now the Mueller investigation is being branded as fake, in an effort to undercut and discredit it in the same way. Mounk quotes Fox News host Jesse Watters, who recently made the kind of assertion Limbaugh and Hannity spew out day after day: that Mueller’s investigation aims to “destroy” the Trump presidency “for partisan political purposes,” that the goal is “to disenfranchise millions of American voters,” and that as a result, “we have a coup on our hands in America.” Hannity subsequently reiterated this theme when he claimed that Mueller has put the country “on the brink of becoming a banana republic.”
Here we see the purest kind of demagogic projection—for in truth, the real coup lies in the maneuverings of those who are calling Mueller’s investigation one, and the real banana republic would be the one where Trump had free rein. Mounk makes clear that Trump’s dissembling is no mere carelessness or personal failing, but rather a tactic with ultimate designs. There’s a method to his mendacity, one that works in cooperation with Limbaugh, Hannity, et al. “Mr. Trump, Fox News and Republicans in Congress,” writes Mounk, “seem to be actively using falsehoods to prepare an assault on the institutions that allow American democracy to function.”