When I was a boy, I often heard my mother quote an old adage: Many a true word has been spoken in jest.
I hated it when she said it because it usually was aimed at me whenever I said something cruel, unkind, unjust or self-serving and then, when she called me on it, would claim I was “just kidding.” When I did this, like I say, I was just a boy. It’s a puerile and only very thinly veiled ploy that is wholly unsophisticated and simply doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny.
And yet, the 45th president of the United States makes use of this childish device on a not infrequent basis. One of the first times we heard it was when the infamous Access Hollywood tape became public. You’ll recall that on that tape, among other totally inappropriate and sexist things that Donald Trump said, he bragged that he could “grab women by the pussy” and they wouldn’t do anything to stop him because he was a star. He would later say that it was “just locker room talk”—a variation of the “just kidding” argument—as if that justified it or rendered him any less repulsive for saying it.
The Access Hollywood tape is now part of a long list of offensive or potentially dangerous things this president has said and later tried to justify by arguing (or having one of his surrogates argue) that he was just joking.
At the height of his campaign to win the presidency over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Trump publicly and famously said, “I will tell you this: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 (Clinton) emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” He thus not only openly encouraged Russia to interfere in the 2016 elections, but also tacitly admitted that he believed reports of Russian operatives hacking sensitive US communications.
However, when Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was investigating Russian interference in US affairs, sent a written question to the US president’s attorneys regarding this campaign statement, Team Trump responded that the president (then candidate) had made the statement “in jest and sarcastically, as was apparent to any objective observer.”
Be that as it may, Mueller’s probe showed that it was no more than five hours after Trump’s 2016 statement before Russian agents were already actively engaged in hacking Hillary Clinton’s server and eventually the communications of the Democratic National Committee. Furthermore, although the Mueller Report fell short of establishing evidence of an actual conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin, it did indeed establish that there were multiple lines of communication between Russia and Team Trump.
When, later in the 2016 campaign, thousands of emails hacked from the DNC and from Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta were published in a public information dump orchestrated by publishing transgressor Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and picked up by the mainstream media, Trump crowed at a public rally, “I love Wikileaks!” Clearly, Trump and Assange shared inimical feelings toward Hillary, Trump because of the election campaign in which he was constantly insisting that she should be “locked up”, and Assange dating back to Hillary’s stint as secretary of state, when the Obama administration sought to bring charges against the Wikileaks founder for his role in the publication, among other things, of incidents of wrongdoing by US troops that were being kept secret by the military.
After his “I love Wikileaks” cheer, Trump would go on to praise the organization dozens more times, for as long as it was undermining his rival’s campaign. When Assange was arrested in London, however, after holing up for seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in order to elude arrest warrants in Britain, Sweden and the US, the president’s chief spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Chris Wallace of Fox News that the president “clearly...was making a joke” regarding Wikileaks during the 2016 campaign. Trump, for his part, seems to be suffering from “Wikiamnesia”, since when asked by reporters what he thought of Assange and Wikileaks now, after the rogue publisher’s arrest, he said, “I know nothing about WikiLeaks.”
Sarah Sanders once again pulled a joker from the deck after Trump asked, “Can we call it Treason?” when Democrats in Congress failed to applaud his State of the Union address. Democrats said accusing opponents of treason for not praising the executive seemed a lot like fascism, to which Sanders claimed that the president “was clearly joking.”
And then there was the time Trump claimed to have been joking when he suggested to a gathering of law enforcement officers that they should “not be too nice” to the suspects they arrested. And the time that he said former President Barack Obama was “literally the founder of ISIS.” After that outlandish claim, Trump tweeted of those who were appalled by such a suggestion, “They don’t get the irony.”
The list goes on, but the latest presidential “joke” is, perhaps, his most narcissistic and authoritarian-minded yet. This is his controversial two bonus-years “joke”.
But first, he had a laugh at the expense of the Mueller investigation on the telephone with Vladimir Putin, the very Russian head of state whose espionage agents carried out a disinformation campaign that sought to skew the 2016 US general election in favor of Trump. The hour-long phone call between the two leaders was a thumb in the eye to everyone who finds Russia’s interference in US domestic affairs completely unacceptable. It came just two weeks after the release of the Mueller Report on the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling, which corroborated that this had indeed taken place. Despite denying any Russian state interference in US affairs, Putin had admitted that he was “rooting” for Trump to win.
Well, that interference was never discussed in the US president’s latest talk with Putin—an anti-democratic strongman for whom Trump has continuously expressed admiration since his 2016 presidential campaign. Rather, Trump encouraged Putin to reset their good personal relations now that “the Russia hoax” was over. The president told reporters that Putin had “actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it (the Mueller investigation) started off as a mountain and ended up being a mouse. But he knew that because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever.”
When critics pointed out that the communication with Putin had been a phone call rather than a video conference, so Trump’s assertion that Putin had smiled seemed rather like wishful thinking, the White House rushed to clarify that the president had misspoken and meant to say that Putin had “laughed, chuckled.”
Surely, neither version made any difference to Americans who find rampant Russian anti-American cyber-espionage no laughing matter. And considering the grave contents of the Mueller investigation report, a critical mass of Americans find the president’s quasi-carnal relations with the Russian autocrat baffling and disturbing to say the least.
But back to the “two-year bonus round”. Last weekend, lawyer, Liberty University president and Trump-Evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. took to Twitter to compliment Trump on his “no collusion, no obstruction” status following release of the Mueller Report. Falwell bought into Trump’s own theory that the Mueller investigation had been an attempted coup orchestrated by Democrats. The Liberty University president tweeted, “Trump should have 2 yrs added to his 1st term as pay back for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.”
Far from explaining to Falwell that, in case he hadn’t noticed, the US was a constitutional republic based on the rule of law and that presidents only served on behalf of the people and only for the terms mandated by law, Trump re-tweeted Falwell’s seditious suggestion and added: “Despite the tremendous success that I have had as President, including perhaps the greatest ECONOMY and most successful first two years of any President in history, they have stollen [sic] two years of my (our) Presidency (Collusion Delusion) that we will never be able to get back.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor and researcher who specializes in the traits of authoritarian rulers, in response to a query from The New York Times, said, “Everything that he (Trump) says is a trial balloon—even his, quote, ‘jokes’ are trial balloons.” According to Professor Ben-Ghiat, “If you look at what he jokes about, it’s always things like this. It’s the extension of his rights, it’s the infringement of liberties.” She added that, “Authoritarians are continually testing the boundaries to see what they can get away with, and everything he does is a challenge to Democrats to mount some response against him.”
The Falwell and Trump tweets underscored fears expressed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about the possibility of Trump’s refusing to accept the outcome of the 2020 election if his Democratic rival wins. She suggested that if Democrats were to win, they needed to “win big” in order to protect the country from the kind of divisiveness that any refusal by Trump to accept an orderly transfer of power could cause.
Alarm and condemnation expressed in the media and in opposition circles regarding the portent of Trump’s tweeted enthusiasm for Jerry Falwell Jr.’s anti-democratic and unconstitutional suggestion was so swift and so strong that the White House felt called upon to issue a denial. Officials said the president was “just joking” when he talked about being owed an extra two years over and above his four-year term.
It is noteworthy that the president’s latest “joke” comes at the dawning of a constitutional crisis, in which the Executive Branch is actively rejecting legislative oversight and seeking to rule the country as an autocracy that answers to no one for its actions. In my many years as an expatriate and newsman, I’ve had the fortunate professional experience and the dubious personal distinction of living under and next door to a rather wide variety of populist authoritarians and hardcore dictators. It’s an experience that, until now, not a lot of Americans have had, so for many it’s hard to see the signs of what could be coming or even of what’s happening right now. On the one hand, there is Trump’s base, made up of people who seem to have no use for democracy and who are perfectly happy to be ruled by an autocrat. On the other is the majority of Americans, who simply can’t bring themselves to believe that anything as intrinsically alien as authoritarianism could ever happen in the United States.
Friends, all I can say is, “Wake up!” It can, and it is.