Nothing that has happened in the short and exciting political career of President Donald Trump has any clear precedent, so this week was nothing new in that regard. Cable-news pundits who earnestly proclaimed on Thursday and Friday that the Trump administration had reached a Watergate-level turning point — after barely 70 days in office — may be operating on the assumption that old rules, or indeed any rules at all, still apply.
My Salon colleague Chauncey DeVega recently argued that Trump has not, in fact, created an “alternate reality” and his opponents need to hold him to account through the aggressive and activist application of normal politics. That’s a coherent practical agenda, and no doubt a necessary one. I’m not entirely thrilled to be the guy who sits in the armchair wearing a cardigan sweater and says, Yeah, but it might not work. If reality itself has slipped its gears, “Man in the High Castle”-style, we may no longer understand what politics is, or how it works.
Michael Flynn’s bizarre reappearance on the scene, demanding immunity from criminal prosecution in exchange for testimony about something-or-other, defies any obvious explanation. It’s as if Charlie Brown were haunting the Great Pumpkin, rather than the other way around. (If younger readers do not grasp that reference, that’s what the internet is for.) Or to put it another way, the explanations that suggest themselves seem entirely too obvious, and cannot account for the available evidence.
Maybe Trump’s apparently bottomless Russia scandal, which is overloaded with salacious but nonexistent videos and shadowy but unfocused surveillance operations — but almost entirely bereft of hard facts — is about to vomit up its secrets and drive Trump’s presidency onto the rocks. If you believe that one, I’ve got some “Hamilton electors” and a Michigan recount to sell you, and after that we can fix everything by burning Jill Stein at the stake. Liberal overconfidence, willful blindness and rampant wish-casting are what got us into this mess, to a large extent. They won’t get us out.
Another possibility is that Donald Trump is trolling us all, as usual, and Flynn’s ploy is a short con that forms part of the Trumpian long con. As people with long political memories have reminded us, providing congressional immunity to Lt. Col. Oliver North during the Iran-Contra investigation, in hopes of burning Ronald Reagan’s White House to the ground, didn’t quite play out the way Democrats hoped. Flynn might well seize upon immunity and fall on his sword, telling investigators that, yeah, he had personally done some questionable or illegal things — a whole lot of them, one suspects — but his boss never knew about any of it and was as pure as the plastic snow around the Mar-a-Lago Christmas tree.
In perhaps the only accurate thing Rep. Jason Chaffetz has said in public in the last decade, the Utah Republican described Flynn’s request for immunity as “very mysterious.” This is the congressman who promised endless investigations of not-quite-President Hillary Clinton’s real or perceived conflicts of interest, but has repeatedly said he detects no odor of corruption around Trump because the president is simply “too rich.” Whatever Chaffetz has to say about public land disputes, Georgetown steakhouses or the Final Four is almost certainly mendacious, but he’s right this one time.
Quite likely the gentleman from the Beehive State means to imply that of course no one in the Trump campaign or the Trump White House is guilty of any criminal misdeeds, so he can’t understand why the deranged general who told the Republican National Convention to “lock her up” would seek to bargain his way out of prison time. One could put other constructions on the nature of the Flynn mystery, for sure.
Chaffetz and other Trump loyalists will no doubt spend the weekend cowering in terror — or trying to lure the media sharks away with scatterings of chum, Devin Nunes-style — because Michael Flynn is self-evidently corrupt and crazy and only God knows what tales he might tell to Congress or the FBI. Flynn was a Trump zealot and a Trump favorite, who got his high-level White House post despite the fact that his former colleagues in the intelligence community had come to view him as a padded-room candidate with a propensity for conspiracy theory, whose capacity for “linear thought” was in doubt. If he is now playing the role of jilted lover back for revenge, Republicans have reason to quail.
But here’s the funny part: Democrats and Trump-haters should fear Flynn for exactly the same reason. Even by the standards of liberal magical thinking circa 2017 — in which the CIA, an agency that has undermined or subverted democracy in any number of nations, suddenly becomes the hero of the struggle against despotism — casting that guy as the principled truth-teller who will save America from Donald Trump beggars the imagination.
Flynn is a semi-unhinged denizen of the far-right nationalist fringe, who has publicly endorsed the view that Islam is an inherently hostile political ideology, rather than a religion. According to several unconfirmed accounts, he was also intrigued by Pizzagate, the imaginary Clinton scandal that ensnared his even less reality-tethered son, Michael Flynn Jr. (On Friday, the younger Flynn tweeted that reports about his father’s immunity request — contained in a letter from his attorney — were “#fakenews,” a term that apparently now signifies “anything I find displeasing.”) It is vastly more plausible that Flynn would spin outrageous falsehoods in the service of his leader’s anti-Muslim crusade — including casting blame on himself or other, more marginal figures — than that he would ever say anything likely to threaten the reign of the Sun King.
At last we find an issue that can break through the partisan paralysis of Washington, on which Bernie Sanders and the House Freedom Caucus can stand arm in arm: Michael Flynn is an untrustworthy kook who should not get immunity for anything. His potential testimony is an ill wind that can blow no one any good. But the larger lesson here is not about Flynn (who was widely known to be an untrustworthy kook before any of this stuff came to light) but about the idiot brilliance of his former boss, the president of the United States.
At what point and after how many iterations do we grasp the lesson imparted by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, two days after the November election? Rule No. 1 for surviving under autocracy, she wrote, was: “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.” Admittedly we must parse this rule carefully in the case of Donald Trump, who tells lies approximately 100 percent of the time he is speaking.
Nonetheless Trump means what he says in one important sense, which his opponents keep on missing or misinterpreting. He repeatedly employs a stupid but effective form of reverse psychology that no doubt served him well in hawking ugly, overpriced condos to rich people with bad taste: First he tells you the inherently unlikely thing he’s going to do or say next, and then he does it. He’s like the oily card sharp whose last and most confusing gambit is to tell the whole table the truth about his hand, knowing that we are unlikely to believe him.To Trump’s acolytes, this makes him seem possessed of extraordinary wit and power — or, just as likely, they grasp that the whole thing is a scam and they love it.
There are too many examples to enumerate, but the one that preceded the return of Flynnghazi might be the ultimate Trumpian double switchback. When the president first claimed that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower before the election, it played like a crank call from Bozoland, derived from one right-wing talk-show host’s incoherent amalgamation of contradictory reports. Now we’ve reached the point where most Republicans believe Trump’s charges, and where Devin Nunes’ Inspector Clouseau act (I still love you, Lindsey Graham!) — feeding info back to the White House that came from the White House — has bewildered matters so thoroughly that ordinary citizens feel justified in throwing up their hands. LOL WTF #fakenews.
Notice how this worked: First Trump made outlandish claims and the media took the bait, subjecting him to relentless mockery — which was gratifying to Trump-haters but likely only solidified his support. Then he promised a clearly skeptical Tucker Carlson, who despite being a Fox News troll has some vestigial allegiance to facts, that supporting evidence would be forthcoming: “I think you’re going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.” Then came the Nunes pseudo-revelations, which didn’t support Trump’s initial claims at all but clouded the picture significantly and made it appear — through a certain prism — that the partisan liberal failing fake-news media had pilloried the president unfairly once again for saying things that were somewhat, vaguely 1.5 percent true.
So: another ingenious quasi-victory. I don’t think Trump can govern this way indefinitely — indeed, he isn’t governing at all — and at some point the wheels will come off the bus. But that time is not now. Whether or not the wiretapping claims were a deliberate trap, they functioned that way. Now that Trump has tweeted out his support for Michael Flynn’s immunity request, we need to “believe the autocrat”: The trap is set once again. Trump wants the moonbat general to testify because he knows that whatever Flynn says will help him survive. Those who long to defeat or depose Trump cannot reach for low-hanging fruit or easy solutions. They aren’t real. There’s a long road ahead; kick Michael Flynn to the curb and keep walking.