Every few days, the media looks aghast at something Donald Trump has said or done, and concludes that he “has hit a new low.” If one were to graph Trump’s behavior, the result would be clear: The longer he has exercised power, the more irresponsibly he has used it.
The Signal: This week, as the pandemic continued its devastating course and the country remained convulsed with protests, the most powerful man on Earth turned his attention to smearing Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old who was seriously injured by police in Buffalo, N.Y. In true Joe McCarthy form, Trump accused the Catholic Worker peace activist of being an antifa agent provocateur. He alleged that Gugino was illicitly monitoring police communications, and that when police pushed Gugino to the ground—where he smashed his head against the pavement—Gugino was acting, worsening his own fall just to discredit Buffalo’s finest.
Trump had no evidence to back up these claims. He simply took, verbatim, the conspiracy nonsense floated by a Trump-propaganda outlet named One America News, then used his immense social media reach to defame an elderly man lying seriously ill in a Buffalo hospital.
This comes just weeks after Trump went on a tear of similarly unsubstantiated smears against Joe Scarborough, accusing the TV personality—his longtime nemesis—of having murdered a young woman who was working for him in 2001.
Apparently, none of this is enough to convince most GOP senators of Trump’s fundamental indecency. While Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and a handful of others did express discomfort at Trump’s denigrating Gugino, most GOP senators simply pretended they didn’t know what all the fuss was about.
So let me explain what it’s about: Trump is using his bully pulpit to character-assassinate private citizens. He is spewing forth one lie after another on Twitter, then his White House team is doubling down and amplifying his falsehoods. At a moment as perilous as any in America’s post–Civil War history, Trump’s disdain—both for the truth and for a politics of reconciliation that could lower the tension—threatens to obliterate what little remaining trust there is in the country’s governing institutions.
That’s not simply Trumpian Noise; it’s a fiercely dangerous development. When Trump speaks, millions of his followers listen. When Trump blithely declares a private citizen to be the enemy, with no real evidence to back up his claims, he puts that person’s safety at risk. When he elevates conspiracy theories over facts, he profoundly vandalizes the political culture and the notion of a rational, rules-based social order.
This is all part of the larger process by which Trump attacks reality whenever that reality stands in the way of his power and his political prospects.
Witness the Orwellian cease-and-desist letter that his campaign sent to CNN this week, demanding that the network apologize to him for daring to release polling data indicating that he is trailing Joe Biden.
Or witness the fact that the administration has stopped holding Covid-19 briefings with doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, despite the 2 million cases now confirmed in the United States, the national death toll of over 112,000, and the sharply rising infection rate in many states. In fact, Trump’s minions have nearly stopped talking about the pandemic in public. They seem to hope that if they don’t draw attention to the ongoing mayhem Covid-19 is causing, the country will go back to business as usual and drive down unemployment numbers in the months leading up to the election.
Meanwhile, although Trump may not be talking about the pandemic anymore, his agencies continue to use fear of the disease as an excuse to brutalize the immigrants being held in ICE detention centers—even while pushing back on court orders to release detainees and decrease crowding that could cause Covid-19 to spread.
This week, reports emerged of ICE agents repeatedly spraying a powerful disinfectant called HDQ Neutral inside several privately run detention facilities around the United States. The advocacy organization United We Dream says that detainees in facilities in California, Florida, and Texas had all reported similar stories. While the spray is ostensibly meant to control the spread of Covid-19, the manufacturer’s instructions for its use say it should be used by people wearing gloves and goggles—that if it gets into eyes, they should be thoroughly rinsed; if it touches skin, it should be washed off with soap; and that anyone who inhales it should be removed immediately into fresh air. Instead, immigrants report being kept inside during its alleged use, resulting in a range of serious health symptoms from exposure to the gas, including nosebleeds, headaches, blisters, and fainting.
Despite the many allegations of HDQ Neutral being used in ways that compromised the health of detainees, ICE issued a blanket denial of any wrongdoing earlier this month, simply stating that it was “committed to maintaining the highest facility standards of cleanliness and sanitation.”
Or witness Trump’s ongoing assault on vote-by-mail systems. Trump keeps screaming that expanding this program will undermine the integrity of the ballot, despite the lack of evidence supporting this. Yet there has been a deafening silence from the White House regarding the all-too-real fiasco of Georgia’s primary vote on Tuesday, when hastily purchased voting machines didn’t work; dozens of Atlanta polling stations in Atlanta—especially in poor, largely African American neighborhoods—were shuttered; and people had to wait in line for many, many hours simply to cast their ballots.
The assault on truth and decency is so all-encompassing these days, it’s tempting to simply tune out. Don’t. We resist totalitarianism not by unplugging but by engaging. We defeat the politics of the Big Lie not by ignoring it but by challenging each and every falsehood that the purveyors of that Big Lie spew. We win not by turning off but by calling out every shameful, ugly misuse of power and the manipulation of information.
Keep well, keep safe, and keep up the righteous outrage at the nonsense and the sadism that pass for public policy in these debased, Trumpian times.