Gordon Campbell on the limits of political loyalty

In the wake of the Comey testimony, one of Donald Trump’s White House defenders has claimed in her boss’s defence: “The President is not a liar.” Inevitably, that comment conjures up memories of Richard Nixon’s immortal line: “I am not a crook.” But there’s a sense in which the White House is right. Trump isn’t a liar so much. He’s really a bullshitter.

The political difference between the two has been explained before, in a terrific essay by the American philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt.

Namely, a liar has at least some connection to the truth in that their aim is to convince you that something is the truth. A bullshitter just doesn’t care a toss about the distinction and just says stuff. That’s Trump’s modus operandi as this Vox article recently pointed out:

If you do things a little differently,” [Trump] writes of the media [in his book Crippled America : How to Make America Great Again] “if you say outrageous things and fight back, they love you.” The free publicity that results from deliberately provoking controversy is invaluable. And if a bit of exaggeration is what it takes, Trump doesn’t have a problem with that. When,” he asks “was the last time you saw a sign hanging outside a pizzeria claiming ‘The fourth best pizza in the world’?!”

When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.

Which brings us back to those nine conversations that Trump had with James Comey and the ‘loyalty” that Trump was demanding of him over this pesky FBI investigation into the links between Trump election’s campaign and Russia. “Loyalty” does have a very positive dimension : it suggests “integrity” under fire. But it also has a more sinister, Mafioso like quality. In a passage in his book The Art of the Deal, (as Matthew Yglesias recently pointed out in the Vox article linked to above) Trump sang the praises of that darker kind of loyalty, as demonstrated by Roy Cohn, the legal hatchet man for Senator Joseph McCarthy, and subsequent mentor to Trump. As Trump put it :

….Hundreds of “respectable” guys make careers out of boasting about their uncompromising integrity, but have absolutely no loyalty. They only care about what’s best for them and don’t think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem. What I liked most about Roy Cohn was that he would do just the opposite. Roy was the kind of guy who’d be there at your hospital bed long after everyone else had bailed out, literally standing by you to the death.

As Yglesias pointed out, that’s not how Trump himself operates:

Trump, ironically, would not stand by Cohn’s deathbed as he perished of AIDS; instead, he disavowed his friend. For Trump, loyalty is a way to size up those around him, suss out friend from foe. It is not a quality he cares to embrace in his personal life. Now President, it’s the same in his political life.

The two passages taken together illuminate an important facet of Trump’s personality, and of his presidency. He’s a man who doesn’t care much about the truth. He’s a man who cares deeply about loyalty. The two qualities merge in the way he wields bullshit. His flagrant lies serve as a loyalty test.

Not all that different, Yglesias adds, to the standard role played by state propaganda under authoritarian regimes : “Regimes often propound nonsense more to enforce expectations on their citizens than because they are expecting anyone to actually believe it.” Everyone in America – James Comey included – just better get with the new programme. Even if, or especially if – it is pure bullshit.

Footnote : While Comey is the headline case, the Republican Party continues to be Trump’s enabler in the march towards some kind of authoritarian rule. Earlier this week, the Trump administration told government agencies they no longer need to honour Democratic Party requests for information:

During budget and nomination hearings, senators have pressed current and prospective officials about a Justice Department legal opinion [that said] information requests to executive agencies from senior Democrats on congressional committees, called ranking members, “do not trigger any obligation to accommodate congressional needs and are not legally enforceable through a subpoena or contempt proceedings.”

The legal opinion, largely unprecedented, says agencies are required to give information to only committee chairs, positions held by members of the majority party in Congress. Currently, Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House.

Most lawmakers first learned about the guidance in media reports last month. Now, they say agencies under President Donald Trump are becoming less responsive to them, making it harder to check whether the executive branch is correctly carrying out laws, as required by the constitution.

That’s the problem right there. You’ve got to weed out those people who seem more loyal to the Constitution than they are to the current administration.

Are We Loyal ?

Do our diplomats have a strategy for dealing with the Trump Administration, beyond doing nothing overtly to arouse his ire? We certainly need such a plan, but who is going to create it? Subtlety and statecraft are not the strong suits of either Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlie or our man in Washington, Tim Groser.

This week, PM Bill English was required to play the dutiful host to the least influential US Secretary of State in decades. In the wake of that visit, is anyone really feeling re-assured that the US is still interested in a regional and global leadership role on trade, defence, human rights, climate change or anything else? Didn’t think so. That foreign policy stuff tends to get in the way of the golfing plans & business deals of the Tweeter in Chief.

Treating the New Abnormality under Trump as just a quirky version of business as usual, would be as optimistic as… well, the old joke about the guy who jumped off the Empire State Building and yelled as he passed the sixtieth floor: “So far, so good!” We haven’t yet got on the radar of the White House : so far , so good. So far, our ‘loyalty” hasn’t been tested. One can safely assume it will be, sometime during the next four years – and it might be advisable to have a plan for how to react if and when Trump stumbles into say…a regional war, as a way of diverting voters from his mounting failings back at home. Sooner or later, our “loyalty” will be tested, and we know how much Mr Trump values loyalty.

For example: if we successfully rekindle our trade with Iran in the coming months, and Trump re-imposes unilateral sanctions on trade with Teheran, then what’s our plan ? (During the 1980s, Iran was one of our top five export markets: it could be again. If Washington doesn’t disapprove too much. ) The NZ corporates who went on a business trip last December with Trade Minister Todd McCaly to explore new business opportunities in the Middle East – including Iran and Qatar – might like to know where our red line is on the Iran trade.

Last February, Qatar opened a direct air link to Auckland. In April, Qatar signaled that while the link was going well, it would be terminated if New Zealand joined in the US in-cabin ban on laptop use on flights originating from certain Middle East and African airports. What’s our plan if we’re asked to line up against Qatar ?

Note that the US has given the Sunni kings of Saudi Arabia the greenlight to boycott Qatar and thereby rachet up the regional sectarian rivalry that the kingdom has with the Shi’ite republic of Iran…so, where do we stand on that ? Only a few days ago, Islamic terrorists attacked Iran and killed civilians. With the same ugly opportunism he showed towards the mayor of London, Trump sent this June 7 press release from the White House:

We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran and for the Iranian people who are going through such challenging times. We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.

That is almost total bullshit. Iran and its Hizbollah ally have been among the main opponents of the Islamic State organization in Syria, alongside the US and Russia. Instead, it has been Saudi Arabia that has long been the prime funder of the Islamic State (and other fundamentalist terrorist groups in Syria and elsewhere in Africa and Afghanistan ) that Trump claims to abhor. It was Saudi Arabia’s obsessive competition with Iran for regional dominance that – in the wake of the Arab Spring – led the Saudis to bankroll the uprising against an Assad regime that was seen to be an Iranian ally. In that sense, you can trace the cause of the Syrian refugee influx into Europe right back to Riyadh.

The Saudis also resented the loss of Saddam Hussein ( their fellow Sunni ruler and ally in Iraq) and his replacement by a Shia majority government that is totally beholden to Iran, and whose Army our troops are helping to train. So are the US troops. (No one better tell the President about that.)

According to Trump, both Iran and Qatar support terrorism, in the shape of the Hizbollah fighting Islamic State in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood opposing the military dictatorship in Egypt and the Houthi rebels in Yemen fighting for autonomy against the Saudis’ puppet dictator. As “ terrorist” financing, this is very small beer, compared to the practices of Wahhabi fundamentalism that Saudi Arabia enforces at home and exports abroad – a process that has given rise to Osama Bin Laden, al Qaeda, Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Shahab and the Taliban, to name but a few. No doubt, our diplomats are already resuming their wooing of Saudi Arabia, in the hope of finally securing a bilateral trade deal with them. We’re loyal like that.

Train to Mars

And for no good reason – beyond the fact that it’s a great song/performance – here’s Hum with their finest one-hit moment from the mid 1990s, with “Stars”. A few years ago, when a Cadillac commercial used this song, there was talk of a Hum reunion, in order to cash in at the likes of Coachella. As so many 1990s groups were doing. Nah, the guy from Hum said, it would get too much in the way of the various family commitments that everyone involved now had. And besides, he wasn’t sure that they’d fit in at Coachella. “We’re kind of meat-heads, when it comes down to it.”