Victory Lap for Tyranny
In the wake of his party’s official proclamation of his untouchability, Demagogue Extraordinaire Donald Trump decided it would make great optics to take the presidential armored car on a pre-race lap at the Daytona 500, after a “dramatic” flyover in Air Force One. In other words, he co-opted an annual sporting event, one popular with Republican voters, as an election campaign rally, which in Trump World means a personal paean to himself. It was also an all too literal manifestation of his current “victory lap” mentality, born of having finally proved beyond all doubt that he was absolutely right, during the early days of the 2016 presidential primaries, when he conjectured that his fans (they cannot be called voters or supporters) would not abandon him if he shot a man on Fifth Avenue. They would not, and have not.
I do not know when the extremely un-republican practice of political leaders making official appearances at sporting events invaded the former free republic of the United States of America. But as ill-conceived as such appearances are — I even find the tradition of singing national anthems before (non-Olympic) games inherently illiberal and morally suspect in an ostensibly free society — there has always, in America, been a certain sense of restraint about it. In particular, though a president is by definition a partisan figure, presidential appearances at sporting events have typically been treated, at least in theory, as largely bipartisan “patriotic moments” — a bit of pro-American pageantry, like red-white-and-blue bunting, rather than as pointed political statements.
The classic example of such relatively innocent pageantry, and perhaps the only such moment of presidential parading that can be justified outright, was George W. Bush’s ceremonial first pitch at the 2001 World Series in New York, when the country was still reeling from the September 11th terrorist attacks. In that context, the president’s appearance was manifestly a balm and boost to the national psyche. And unlike the showboating artifice that is the manicured, pampered fraud Trump in his armored vehicle, Bush actually had the nerve, in the midst of such national tension and palpable fear for the worst, to walk confidently to the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound and throw a perfect strike. His confident and unpretentious gesture, in the heart of Democratic territory to boot, meant a great deal to millions of people who had been shaken by a sudden jolt of vulnerability. Bush may have been a poor president, but he was the last human to occupy that office.
Now, in a perfect contrast to Bush’s nation-rallying pitch, you have Trump merely pitching himself, as usual, and doing so in the most vainglorious and overblown manner he could muster. Further, the victory lap optics were clearly meant as part of his personal vendetta against every American, Democrat or Republican, who dared to oppose him through the impeachment process, equivalent to an athlete celebrating too long and too loud after a goal, touchdown, or homerun, until the understandable satisfaction of success turns into the despicable pettiness of mocking and belittling one’s rivals — what in the days before Trump would have been universally condemned as poor sportsmanship, i.e., unmanly behavior.
Naturally — or rather, unnaturally but predictably — his cult eats up this overtly anti-American demagoguery with delight. (“Anti-Americanism” does not essentially involve a refusal to worship the flag and shout patriotic slogans; it means, more deeply, a flouting of American ideals and premises, as Trump’s Mussolini-esque posturing does every day.) Even those who had held out for a while as Trump critics, or at least Trump skeptics, until after the election, are now praising him for exactly the sort of crass megalomania that caused those people to be hold-outs in the first place — thus putting the lie to the typical late-joining cultists’ claim that Trump has turned out to be better than they expected. No he hasn’t. He has turned out to be more or less what they expected; it is they who have not.
When Trump said he could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue without losing his flock’s worshipful support, he was right. And he was not merely joking. There is a profound truth about both himself and his cultists within that speculation, one fully born out by the progress of his first term. Donald Trump has neither any awareness of, nor any respect for, the letter or spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He believed that his followers did not expect any such awareness or adherence from him — indeed, that even outright criminality would not deter them or dilute their rabid enthusiasm for his…his what? Not his principles, for he has none. Not his policy positions, for there were very few enunciated, and even fewer of those pursued seriously or consistently. No, he was saying simply that his followers would stick with him regardless of what he might do, because they loved him, his personality and his fame. He meant exactly the same thing he meant when he talked on microphone about how women will “let you do it” if you are Donald Trump.
And so it is that two days after his Daytona 500 victory lap, Trump has commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois who was in the middle of serving a fourteen-year prison sentence for selling Barack Obama’s vacated senate seat for personal profit.
Did he do this because he has reviewed the case and decided that Blagojevich was unjustly convicted? Of course not.
“He served eight years in jail, a long time. He seems like a very nice person, don’t know him,” Trump told reporters after the decision. By pure whimsical fiat, he has released a man who epitomizes the “swamp” Trump’s cult worshippers fantasize he is draining. He says he regards Blagojevich’s stiff sentence — for selling political power — as “ridiculous,” which is a clear indication of Trump’s own attitude toward the concept of political integrity and the relationship between money and power. He is all for that latter relationship, has used it frequently in his own affairs, and therefore sees nothing wrong with it. In short, as many of us have been saying for years, to the few who will still listen, Trump is the swamp.
He commuted Blagojevich’s sentence (along with commuting or pardoning a large number of other criminals with the same wave of his magic pen) for no higher reason than to assert his power to do it. Perhaps he wanted to appease Democrats by helping one of their own. Perhaps he wanted to scratch the back of some people — criminal or otherwise — whom he hopes will now scratch his. But most of all, and most consistently with his general behavior throughout his public life — and certainly throughout his first term as president — he did this because he likes showing the world that he can do whatever he wants, and get away with it.
Some paranoid leftists fear, or claim to fear, that Trump actually intends to suspend elections, or at least term limits, and proclaim himself president for life. On its face, the claim seems absurd and far-fetched. But this much may be said with absolute certainty. There is no internal compass — no humility, respect for republican principles, or concern for constitutional legality — preventing Trump from doing such a thing. That is to say, if Trump wanted to rule for life, there would be nothing in his heart or mind to prevent him from asserting this power. And we already know, as he does, that his followers — who now number in the tens of millions — would not flinch, let alone question him, if he shot a man on Fifth Avenue. Why should they suddenly have reservations about their god’s decision to suspend presidential term limits for his own aggrandizement?
I contend that they would have no such reservations, and would simply recite the Trumpian catechism, on every talk radio or Fox News program, on every “conservative” website, and in every living room, that these times are different, that the old constitutional ideas are no longer applicable to current issues, and that to deny Trump this power would be equivalent to supporting the Democrats. Hence, they would flatly brand an America-hater anyone who dared to oppose Trump on this. “After all, who else deserves to be president, when there is a Trump among us?”
But what about Congress? Given the post-impeachment statements and fawning of the supposed constitutionalists in that bunch, from the House Freedom Caucus to Mike Lee to Rand Paul to Ted Cruz, I see no serious objections to Trump’s ego-gratification coming from anyone in that camp.
Do I think Trump will actually try to grant himself such tyrannical powers? No, probably not. I am merely willing to grant the paranoid leftists this much: Trump is exactly the sort of person who might get a notion to assert such authority; and his followers are exactly the sort of people who would stand by him if he did. That last point is now utterly beyond doubt in my mind.
In the readers’ comments under the Right Scoop article (linked above) about Trump’s Daytona 500 lap, I saw many former pro-Constitution, anti-Trump regulars, long since converted to the cult, gushing over how this Daytona victory lap egomania “is a great look for Trump.” Sure it is; for it is the look that most closely resembles Trump’s nearest historical predecessor, Benito Mussolini.