By Thomas L. Friedman
What if Mitch McConnell, at the close of his scalding speech on the Senate floor blaming Donald Trump for the riot that occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6, had promised to use his every last breath to ensure that Trump was convicted on impeachment charges and could never, ever become president again?
What if Melania Trump, after the porn star Stormy Daniels said Trump had unprotected sex with her less than four months after Melania gave birth to their son, had thrown all of Trump’s clothes, golf clubs, MAGA hats and hair spray onto the White House lawn with this note, “Never come back, you despicable creep!”
What if the influential evangelical leader Robert Jeffress, after Trump was caught on tape explaining that as a TV star he felt entitled to “grab” women in the most intimate places — or after Trump was found liable by a Manhattan jury of having done pretty much just that to E. Jean Carroll — declared that he would lead a campaign to ensure that anyone but Trump was elected in 2024 because Trump was a moral deviant whom Jeffress would not let babysit his two daughters, let alone the country?
Where would statements and actions like those have left Kevin McCarthy, his knuckleheads in the House G.O.P. caucus, and other Republicans who now are defending Trump against the Justice Department indictment? Would they be so eager to proclaim Trump’s innocence? Would they be raging against Tuesday’s hearing in Miami? Would they be claiming, falsely, that President Biden was indicting Trump, when they know full well that the president doesn’t have the power to indict anyone?
I doubt it. But I know that all of these questions are rhetorical. None of those people have the character to rise to these ethical challenges and take on Trump and what he has done to break our political system. Trump is like a drug dealer who thrives in a broken neighborhood, getting everyone hooked on his warped values. That is why he is doing everything he can to break our national neighborhood in two fundamental ways.
For starters, Trump has consistently tried to denigrate people who have demonstrated character and courage, by labeling them losers and weaklings. This comes easy to Trump because he is a man utterly without character — devoid of any sense of ethics or loyalty to any value system or person other than himself. And for him, politics is a blood sport in which you bludgeon the other guys and gals — whether they are in your party or not — with smears and nicknames and lies until they get out of your way.
Trump debuted this strategy early on with John McCain — a veteran, a man who never broke in five-plus years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, a man of real character. Do you remember what Trump said about McCain at a family leadership summit in Ames, Iowa, on July 18, 2015?
When McCain ran for president, “I supported him,” Trump told the audience. “He lost. He let us down. But he lost. So I never liked him much after that, because I don’t like losers.” When the audience laughed, the moderator, the pollster Frank Luntz, interjected, “But he’s a war hero!”
Trump — who wangled a dubious medical deferment to avoid the Vietnam War draft — then responded: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Later that day, Trump retweeted a web post headlined, “Donald Trump: John McCain Is ‘A Loser.’”
So part of the way Trump tries to break our system is to redefine the qualities of a leader — at least in the G.O.P. A leader is not someone like Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney, people prepared to risk their careers to defend the truth, serve the country and uphold the Constitution. No, a leader is someone like him, someone who is ready to win at any cost — to the country, to the Constitution and to the example we set for our children and our allies.
And when that is your definition of leadership, of winning, people of character like McCain, Cheney and Romney are in your way. You need to strip everyone around you of character, and make everything about securing power and money. That is why so many people who entered Trump’s orbit since 2015 have walked away muddied. And that’s why I knew that all the questions I asked earlier were rhetorical.
The second way that Trump is trying to break our system was on display on Tuesday in Miami, where he followed his appearance as a federal criminal defendant with a political meet-and-greet at a Cuban restaurant. There, once again, Trump tried to discredit the rules of the game that would restrain him and his limitless appetite for power for power’s sake.
How does he do that? First, he gets everyone around him — and, eventually, the vast majority of those in his party — to stop insisting that Trump abide by ethical norms. His family members and party colleagues have grown adept at running away from reporters’ microphones after every Trump outrage.
But precisely because key political allies, church leaders and close family members will not call out Trump for his moral and legal transgressions — which would make his 2024 re-election bid unthinkable and hasten his departure from the political scene — we have to rely solely on the courts to defend the rules of the game.
And when that happens, it puts tremendous stress on our judicial system and our democracy itself, because the decision to prosecute or not is always a judgment call. And when those judgment calls have to be rendered at times by judges or prosecutors appointed by Democrats — which is how our system works — it gives Trump and his flock the perfect opening to denounce the whole process as a “witch hunt.”
And when such behavior happens over and over across a broad front — because Trump won’t stop at red lights anywhere and just keeps daring us to ignore his transgressions or indict him so he can cry bias — we end up eroding the two most important pillars of our democratic system: the belief in the independence of our judiciary that ensures no one is above the law, and the belief in our ability to transfer power peacefully and legitimately.
Just consider one scene in Trump’s indictment. It’s after a federal grand jury subpoenaed him in May 2022, to produce all classified material in his possession. Notes written by his own lawyer, M. Evan Corcoran, quote Trump as saying: “I don’t want anybody looking through my boxes, I really don’t. … What happens if we just don’t respond at all or don’t play ball with them? Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?”
“Wouldn’t it be better if we just told them we don’t have anything here?”
Better for whom? Only one man. And that’s why I repeat: Trump has not put us here by accident. He actually wants to break our system, because he and people like him only thrive in a broken system.
So he keeps pushing and pushing our system to its breaking point — where rules are for suckers, norms are for fools, basic truths are malleable and men and women of high character are banished.
This is exactly what would-be dictators try to do: Flood the zone with lies so the people trust only them and the truth is only what they say it is.
It is impossible to exaggerate what a dangerous moment this is for our country.
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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman • Facebook
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