Off the Top …

My friend Justin Harmon, a highly intelligent and much younger man whose ability to work by his own clock with fierce determination is both admirable and tiring to an older fellow like me, makes sure I get three or four magazines he reads diligently before passing them on to me, usually neatly deposited on my back porch. Sadly, they have been piling up on my shelf as of late. What’s your excuse, old man, he often barks at me about this or that? As for the publications, I am drawn to The Atlantic and Harper’s but not The New Republic. My disdain for the latter dates to the mid-1980s, when it became clear to me that the magazine’s editorial board crowded into a chicken coop and emerged with print on paper far too ripe for my large Roman nose.

George Packer

That said, the April issue of The Atlantic carries a very fine piece entitled “How To Destroy A Government” by George Packer, a journalist and author of tremendous skill whose essays on U.S. foreign policy in this magazine and The New Yorker are highly regarded and whose book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2013.

Packer writes about chilling episodes in President Donald Trump’s war on the executive branch of the federal government, especially the departments of state and justice – a war Packer says Trump is winning! That is Packer’s main point. I wonder if it will fall on ears that went deaf four years ago among those who now are convinced that Trump faces certain defeat in his bid for re-election, especially given the way he has handled COVID-19.

In the opening section of his essay, Packer takes to task “The Adults” who were initially part of Trump’s leadership circle, who believed they could handle the “impetuous, bottomlessly ignorant, almost chemically inattentive” president. He cites James Baker, the former general counsel of the FBI, who like other government officials prided themselves on their professionalism and were convinced they were “smarter” than Trump, or that they could “hold their own against” him, or that that they could protect their respective departments and agencies because they understood more than the president about “the rules and regulations and how it’s supposed to work.” To this Baker told Packer, “They’re fooling themselves. He’s light years ahead of them.” From this Packer concludes: “The adults were too sophisticated to see Trump’s special political talents – his instinct for every adversary’s weakness, his fanatical devotion to himself, his knack for imposing his will, his sheer staying power.”

Well, they’re all gone.

Packer offers a stark warning in this piece. The adults’ “greatest miscalculation was to overestimate themselves – particularly in believing that other Americans saw them as selfless public servants, their stature derived from a highminded commitment to the good of the nation.” What they missed was Trump’s core belief that the executive branch of government was “his, property he rightfully acquired, and that the two million civilians working under him, most of them in obscurity, owed him their total loyalty.” All were suspect from the start and could destroy him. “He had to bring them to heel before he could be secure in his power.” And Trump has been doing this from the start of his presidency, preying on what Packer views as his greatest asset, a firm belief throughout his life that we humans are weak and subject to the irrational at every turn. This makes us capable of being “cowed, corrupted, or crushed” and ready game for Trump.

Packer describes five chilling examples to make his argument, one quite salient to me because it enables us to know Trump at his most personal, pathological self. Just after he fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017, Trump summoned Comey’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, to the White House, essentially demanding from McCabe, now the bureau’s interim director, the same thing he could not get from Comey, his loyalty. After some questioning and a backhanded compliment, Trump said that McCabe’s only problem was that “one mistake you made. That thing with your wife.”

Andrew McCabe

Jill McCabe

Jill McCabe, a pediatrician, had run for a seat in the Virginia Senate as a Democrat pushing for greater medical care for poor children she treated on a regular basis. She lost the race and then much more. In Trump’s eyes she was a “Clinton Ally” and the worst of his enemies. This was the kiss of death for the McCabes, two highly dedicated professionals.

Packer ably describes a toxic phone call from Trump to McCabe soon after his White House appearance. Trump was angry with McCabe for allowing Comey to fly back to Washington from Los Angeles where he had been fired. Trump ordered McCabe not to be allowed entry into FBI headquarters and then out of nowhere asked, “How is your wife,” alluding to her defeat. “When she lost her election that must have been very tough to lose. How did she handle losing? Is it tough to lose?”

McCabe kept his composure and said it had been difficult but that his wife was fine and back at work. Trump persisted. “Yeah, that must have been really tough,” he told McCabe. “To lose. To be a loser,” Trump remarked. As Packer tells it, Trump humiliated McCabe because the latter was in no position to defend his wife out of deference to the president, a tactic by Trump that Packer describes as “a kind of Mafia move: asserting dominance, emotional blackmail.”

In treating the executive branch of the federal government as his property, thereby making all those in the bureaucracy his employees, Trump is demonstrating to our very eyes what many writers in the U.S. during the last Great Depression of the 1930s thought American fascism would look like. From their prescient views, we can argue that Trump is the successor to Huey P. Long, the governor and then senator from Louisiana, who treated everyone in state and local government the same way as Trump is doing now. Moreover, based on a little book Long had written just before his assassination in 1935, and published posthumously under the title My First Days in the White House, it is clear he would have carried this thought and behavior as president, which he assumed he would become in 1940. I discuss Long in my book, The Coming of the American Behemoth (Monthly Review Press 2018) as someone acutely aware that Long is Trump’s true predecessor.

Packer is pointing out in Trump & Co. what many of my sources from the 1930s and early 1940s would likely say if they were around to see it for themselves. What could have happened then is happening now. Trump is a fascist demagogue, and on that Packer would certainly have to agree if asked. I’d be surprised otherwise. But then my world has been full of them even before a fascist occupied the White House.

Still, this much seems clearer by the day. Trump & Co. are indeed mobsters on the prey for anyone they deem to be even borderline enemies. Packer offers five examples of individuals more or less in the public eye who are slayed by The Mob. As I read his compelling accounts, I was overcome by a familiar disgust I felt when reading the last two recent biographies of Hitler and “his” gang.

But there is more to this than disgust, and that is knowledge acquired from a method of study and analysis I learned as a graduate student in my youth known as “comparative history.” From many of my predecessors who wrote exceptionally good history, I will say this. Trump & Co. are far more pathological as twenty-first century American fascists than even Hitler and the Nazis because their whole deal is the product of American business enterprise. Business as a System of Power, the title of Robert Brady’s superior 1943 book, aims at the political domination of society, its institutions, and the public domain. This is what Brady and others at the time considered a defining feature of American fascism.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.