Call it the dictator’s paradox: By demonstrating weakness, you affirm the Big Man’s power. By groveling, you gain standing. Pretending to believe what’s patently false, you affirm manly independence from what Swift mockingly called “the vulgar Dictates of unrefined Reason.”
It’s not a question of true or false; it’s a matter of who’s in charge, a form of moral cowardice common in the pre-Civil Rights South: say, the Alabama of George Wallace or the Arkansas of Orval Faubus. Cowering acknowledges respect for the way of the world, enhancing one’s standing.
Up until the rotten edifice collapses, that is, when the ambitious sycophant may suffer a bad fall. Hard core segregationists became hard to find down South after the Civil Rights Act.
So it is with Trumpism. What happens if the Big Man’s strength proves more illusory than real? After all, everybody with sense enough to come in from the rain knows that Donald J. Trump didn’t merely lose the 2020 presidential election; he lost it by seven million votes.
What if something like that happens again, as appears quite likely? Whatever will become of the Rep. Kevin McCarthys of the world, who have turned themselves upside-down and inside-out to affirm Trump’s most preposterous lies?
Once upon a time, the California congressman who yearns to be Speaker of the House was overheard in a recorded conversation with a group of fellow Republicans on June 15, 2016, obtained by the Washington Post.
“There’s two people I think [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin pays: [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy said.
None of his listeners objected. Plays a bit differently today, doesn’t it? But then Trump went on to win the GOP presidential nomination, McCarthy made nice, and the two became allies.
His most recent series of blunders have made McCarthy look even weaker. Basically, he jumped into his own trap. Excerpts from a new book by two New York Times reporters titled This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future, began to circulate around Washington last week. It quoted McCarthy describing Trump’s role in the January 6 Capitol riot as “atrocious and totally wrong.”
He’d even gone far enough to inquire about using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office and put Mike Pence in his place.
Two days later, the Times reported, the House minority leader held a telephone conference with his leadership team. Regarding Trump’s conduct on January 6, McCarthy told the group “What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that and nobody should defend it.”
Responding to a question from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) about the likelihood of Trump resigning, McCarthy said he planned to phone Trump about the Democrats’ forthcoming impeachment resolution. He said he would tell the president that “I think [the resolution] will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign.”
TheTimes report stipulated that its reporters had “reviewed the full recording of the conversation.”
Seemingly panicked, McCarthy ignored the blinking red light and blundered on. He and his press spokesman put out dueling statements denying everything. The Times story, McCarthy insisted, was “totally false and wrong.”
Reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns went on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program that same night, and played the audio tape.
Uh-oh. How could McCarthy not suspect that Liz Cheney would keep a recording of the call, and might be disinclined to keep his secrets after he’d purged her from House leadership to please Trump? (To be fair, she has denied taping the call or leaking the audio.)
After all, history records that only days after President Biden’s inauguration, McCarthy had hurried down to Mar-a-Lago to roll on his back and pee on his belly like a puppy before the former president.
So now the Very Cowardly GOP Leader has had to do it all over again. Knowing a sycophant when he sees one, Trump has gone out of his way to appear magnanimous. McCarthy, he told the Wall Street Journal, had changed his mind “when he found out the facts.”
“I think it’s all a big compliment, frankly,” Mr. Trump said about Republicans who doubted him after January 6, but later changed their minds. “They realized they were wrong and supported me.”
That’s just how Trump likes it. He has a downright canine understanding of who’s the Big Dog in any relationship. “Trump actually prefers it when people oppose him and then have to beg for his forgiveness,” Salon's Heather Digby Parton has written. “It shows dominance. And if there’s one thing we know, dominance tastes sweeter to him when he forces it with his boot on his rivals’ necks.”
But it’s all dependent upon the perception that Republican voters remain in thrall to the Big Loser. And there are growing indications that his hold over the base could be waning. Upcoming GOP primaries in Pennsylvania, Ohio and particularly Georgia don’t look so good for Trump-endorsed candidates.
Ruling by fear only works when there’s something to be afraid of.
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