To believe that the president of the United States did nothing wrong in asking the government of Ukraine – and now, more openly, China – to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and/or a California company called CrowdStrike, which helped the Democratic National Committee after Russia hacked its servers in 2016, you have to believe the following:
Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has neither a security clearance nor any foreign policy credential besides being the Mayor of 9/11, has stumbled onto a Deep State conspiracy worthy of a shitty Dan Brown novel involving the State Department, intelligence officials and other world governments to – bear with me – cover up Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election so that Democrats could then blame Russia for that interference and Donald Trump's subsequent (and totally legitimate) election, and/or cover up a multimillion-dollar scheme in which Biden's son took a do-nothing job as an adviser to a sleazy oligarch's natural gas firm, at which point Biden – at the behest of President Obama and the International Monetary Fund, which is naturally very concerned about Biden family financial interests – pushed Ukraine to dump an obviously corrupt prosecutor who had a year earlier dropped an investigation into that firm.
Got all that?
Occam's razor, of course, dictates that Donald Trump did exactly what the facts suggest: He and Giuliani have been involved in a months-long campaign to convince a foreign government to dig up dirt on Trump's political opponent, holding over its head much-needed military aid. And now, out in the open, he's asking China to do the same, all while negotiating a trade war.
These are impeachable offenses, of course.
Throw them on the stack, atop the others: the obstruction of justice noted in Robert Mueller's probe, the efforts to block congressional investigations, the president's Twittery insinuations that his political opponents should be executed for treason.
At its core, the impeachment standard – "high crimes and misdemeanors" – is a breach of trust between the president and the public he's supposed to serve. Trump's entire administration, at its core, is a walking, talking, lurching, hulking, prevaricating, mouth-breathing breach of trust, and has been from day one.
The fish rots from the head. But make no mistake: This fish has rotted, and no one who comes in contact with it can shake the stink.
Vice President Mike Pence is simultaneously trying to convince the right wing that he's Trump's right-hand man and everyone else that he had no earthly idea what Trump was up to in Ukraine. Attorney General Bill Barr is gallivanting around the globe indulging Trump's conspiracy theory du jour. Secretary Mike Pompeo is trying to block State Department officials from responding to congressional subpoenas. And now Trump is trying to throw Secretary of Energy Rick Perry – reportedly on his way out anyway – under the bus, blaming him for the phone call with Ukraine's president. Even John Bolton – John Fucking Bolton! – ran for the hills.
Whatever the best and brightest is, this group is the opposite of that.
And at the center of it is a man who on Monday tweeted about his "great and unmatched wisdom," a man who boasted during his campaign that he would hire "the best people," and, it seems, a man who has turned his administration in the Keystone Kops division of Infowars.
But when Giuliani and Trump's other defenders ramble on about CrowdStrike; or when Trump's campaign blankets cable news with invented accusations about Biden's supposed corruption, which the media then dutifully regurgitates (noting, also dutifully, that the accusations are "baseless" or "unproven"); or when the White House pretends that it is a Very Serious Scandal you would already know about if the Fake News cared about the Truth, understand this: The game is to pollute the conversation with nonsense, to fill the swamps with noise, to give the right-wing propaganda feeds something to hyperventilate over and your uncle to breathlessly share on Facebook.
The game is to turn Biden's Ukraine into Hillary's emails – something that seems nefarious, even if you can't quite figure out what it is.
The point isn't to make Donald Trump look upright. It's to make everyone else appear corrupt, too – to make it seem as if there's no truth out there, that everyone is corrupt, that it's all pollution and noise, that nothing can be trusted. And, for Trump's followers, if there's no objective truth, if nothing can be trusted, they might as well trust him. He's hated by the same elites that hate them. They're all in this together.
He might be a bastard, but he's their bastard.
In the short term, this Demagoguery 101 strategy will probably work. GOP officials will listen to their voters, and their voters won't tolerate any daylight between them and their president. Consider the case of Sen. Thom Tillis, who last week called maintaining whistleblower protections "critically important" – obvious, no? – but then had his press secretary force a local newspaper to "clarify" its assertion that he was "breaking" with Trump after his primary opponent criticized him. (The spine, it bends.)
In a cult, the person at the top is more important than any principle. Trump's GOP functions like a cult. This is why, no matter how much Trump degenerates over the next few months as impeachment proceedings drag on, no matter how much he lashes out at Mitt Romney, no matter what horror shows he concocts to deter asylum-seekers, no matter how much he sounds like a sundowning Wizard of Oz on Twitter, Democrats are unlikely to snag the 20 Republican senators they'll need to remove the president from office.
Of course, cult leaders also tend to be poorly served by their subordinates, because everyone who's smart enough to know better stays away. On a completely unrelated note: On Monday, Axios reported that Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, believes that Trump's inevitable impeachment will lead him to a 45-state landslide next year. Hail Trump!
– This story appeared in the Oct. 9, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.