The price of a controlled narrative: Trumpism, the Mueller Report and our new normal

Trump White House fully cooperated with special counsel investigation, says AG Barr

Attorney General William Barr told reporters on April 18, 2019 that he reviewed the team’s findings on allegations that President Trump tried to obstruct or impede the investigation, saying Mueller examined 10 instances of potential obstruction.
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Attorney General William Barr told reporters on April 18, 2019 that he reviewed the team’s findings on allegations that President Trump tried to obstruct or impede the investigation, saying Mueller examined 10 instances of potential obstruction.

The Trump nightmare only worsens by the day as his rush toward autocracy becomes the normal for too many people. William Barr this week confirmed all too well that he sees his chief obligation as attorney general is to protect the president, rather than to ensure that justice is done. His repeated misrepresentation of the Mueller Report over the past month, culminating in his disgraceful press conference on Thursday, should trigger congressional oversight to prevent the Department of Justice from any further attempts to put the president above the law.

Then there is the horror on the border that will almost surely get worse in the wake of Trump’s purge of Homeland Security and related branches this past week. The sins of those cast out apparently were their refusal to break the law in carrying out Trump’s monstrous policies. Trump himself reportedly last week told border patrol personnel explicitly to disregard laws in keeping migrants out. He is also calling for the use of the military in processing asylum seekers, something clearly illegal.

Finally, there is the stonewalling of the Trump administration about turning over his taxes. Acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, didn’t even bother to defend the refusal to let the Congress have access to them, as the law clearly mandates. Mulvaney simply declared that they would never get them. This is full frontal autocracy. It is also part and parcel of Trump’s control of the narrative.

Perhaps worst about Trump’s malignant control is the obliteration of any concern for the fundamental issues that will decide our destiny as a republic: climate change, infrastructure, healthcare, gun violence, tax reform, corporate consolidation, labor organizing, disarmament, education, immigration, and the international order. Ignoring or dismissing these issues as hoaxes or merely concerns of the elite is a perfect recipe for catastrophic consequences.

Still, it seems to me, the very worst effect of Trump’s calculated chaos is to prevent any possibility of getting at the even more fundamental issues underlying the crucial ones listed above. These involve the central questions of truth, authority, government, and the nature of a republic.

How do we regard truth? As the irreplaceable glue of society which enables it to cohere and function? As something to be inherently respected, or rather as something to be manipulated as our interests dictate? What authority do we rely upon in forming our opinions? Or do we simply reject all authority that challenges our convictions, no matter the weight education and experience give to its assessments? What respect, in short, do we have for the intellectual elite which historically has shaped public discourse and action?

How seriously do we take the preamble of the Constitution: that “we the people” established a government to create “a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty?”

And how expansive do we believe government should be in attempting to achieve those ever evolving goals, as technology and circumstances change our understanding of the opportunities for as well as the challenges to meeting these goals? Do we acknowledge that our history teaches just how integral the growth of government has been to the progressive realization of those goals in the Preamble? Or do we see government as inherently corrupting and hence to be riffed to the barest minimum, no matter what the Constitution implies?

And what do we see as the role of taxation in the functioning of our government? Do we see it as the engine of a well-functioning government, the primary revenue provider for government to fulfill its Constitutional duty? Or do we see taxes as a fundamental evil, which justifies a tax code of minimal rates and maximal loopholes, and undermans the Internal Revenue Service to effectively sanction tax fraud on a massive scale? Do we take pride, ala Donald Trump, in being a deadbeat nation?

And what do we make of this republic that the Constitution created? Is it a national community committed to pursue the goals that the Constitution lays out, to which the laws, domestic and international, provide a pathway? Or is it essentially a media-generated tribe persisting in recapturing an America that never should have been, and contemning the laws and institutions that may stand in the way of re-imposing that society?

The irony is that so long as Trump controls the narrative, we will never begin to address those meta-questions. But the longer we postpone addressing them, the greater the danger that Trumpism will prove to be no passing aberration but the new normal in American life.

Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor of history emeritus at Georgetown University.