In Donald Trump’s first press conference of his presidency, the first question, as expected, was about the firing of Mike Flynn. This was his answer: “Mike Flynn is a fine person…I asked for his resignation…I was not happy with the way that information was given [to Mike Pence]. He didn’t have to do that, because what he did wasn’t wrong. [my italics]…What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves in this room, were given that information, because that was classified information that was given illegally.”
Mike Flynn’s talking to Ambassador Kislyak about relaxing sanctions was classified, according to Trump, but lying to the FBI, communicating with a foreign power that had intervened in democratic elections, perhaps making the promise of relaxing sanctions in return for that interference, was what had been really hidden. Trump continued: “That’s the real problem. And, you know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all a, you know, fake news, fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it. In fact, I saw a couple of the people that were supposedly involved with all of this — that they know nothing about it; they weren’t in Russia; they never made a phone call to Russia; they never received a phone call. It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news.” We now know for certain that these were all lies, but we still had to learn whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians or even actually colluded.
Later in the press conference, Trump was asked, “Can you tell us in determining what Lieutenant General Flynn did — whether there was no wrongdoing in your mind, what evidence was weighed? Did you ask for transcripts of these telephone intercepts with Russian officials, particularly the Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who he was communicating with? What– what evidence did you weigh to determine that there was no wrongdoing? Further to that, Sir, you said on a couple of locations this morning, you are going to aggressively pursue the source of these leaks.” Trump affirmed the latter question and ignored the much longer and entire list of questions that led to it.
In another follow-up question about whether anyone on the Trump team had talked to Russian officials, Trump replied that Mr. Manafort “said he never spoke to Russia; never received a call. Look at his phone records, et cetera, et cetera… people knew that he represented various countries, but I don’t think he represented Russia, but knew that he represented various countries. That’s what he does. I mean, people know that.” Most of the press conference was spent on Trump speaking about fake news and insulting the press as well as on Flynn and the Russia issue. Trump repeatedly claimed, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.”
In my estimation, not in quantity but in insight, the most important part of the Q&A had nothing to do with Flynn and Russia, but with a statement Trump made about “others.” “You do agree there are bad people out there, right? That not everybody that’s like you. You have some bad people out there.” He could not have meant that the people out there are “not good” like you since he had just spent an enormous amount of time telling reporters and the public how deceitful the press was. The meaning of “not everybody’s like you” came near the end of the press conference soon after this remark when the discussion turned to antisemitism and racism.
When Trump, near the end of the Q&A, was asked about his administration’s policies for inner cities and whether he would include members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the discussions, Trump replied: “Do you want to set up the meeting?” And he repeated the question. The female reporter who asked the question was black. When she was startled and said, “no,” Trump asked a follow-up. “Are they friends of yours?’ The reply: “I’m just a reporter.” Trump: “Well, then, set up the meeting.”
Is it racist to tell a black reporter to set up a meeting with the Black Caucus? Was it demeaning that he was so condescending to a female reporter? I leave it for the readers to decide. However, repeatedly Donald Trump differentiates between those who are “like us” and those who are not.
Because of Mueller, we have been conditioned to believe that the most important issues about the Trump presidency concern his possible collusion with the Russian intervention in the American election and Trump’s corruption – a record of lying and of giving priority to his own transactional agenda. These are certainly the most sensational and are more than likely to be the issues that bring the Trump regime to an ignominious end. But the most substantive issues are still about who to include and exclude, how to do it and the internal, almost unconscious, propensity to treat different communities of America differently – blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and women.
As President Trump began his path of self-destruction with his first step onto the slippery slope, as he ignored what was really happening in the production world, the shift of routine automobile assembly to Mexico with the benefit that the jobs created eased the pressure on the southern border, and as American-based production focused on leading edge self-driving and electric-powered vehicles that entailed a much greater stress on weaving artificial intelligence as well as robotics into transportation, meaning an increased need for highly trained workers who could manage robots and cope with the reality that artificial intelligence could often make much more rational decisions than humans. Trump time and time again proved that he was not only living in a fantasy world of lies of his own making, but that it was a topsy-turvy world of the Mad Hatter and Alice in Wonderland, but without its colour, joy and sheer pleasure in outrageousness.
The clock could not be turned back. History was not about eternal return but about dramatic shifts – from slavery to a system of free individuals, from a rural agricultural society to an industrial one and, more recently, into an electronic communications culture of which the internet is just a part. The movement of peoples and of external governments into domestic politics now had to be managed in radically different ways that did not involve placing one’s total reliance on mediaeval methods such as walls. Trump wanted to preserve the magic world of yesteryear when his magicians proved repeatedly to be losing control and ceding the space of the miraculous to a whole new way of life.
Trump in his head and in his pronouncements wanted to turn defeat into victory, revive the obsolete and dying past so that America once again could become the central force of human history, but Trump increasingly revealed he was living in a land of make believe. The first step onto the slippery slope of the Trump administration began with denial, denial and denial – of that which was true and proved to be increasingly validated. But Donald Trump had shown that he could be untouched by either reality or human suffering at the same time as he was condescending and demeaning to persons he saw as “other.”
David Frum offered a very different picture of nostalgia based on the resurrection of conservatives who can govern responsibly while being “culturally modern, economically inclusive and environmentally responsible.” Though equally unrealistic, Frum’s vision is at least based on truth rather than fabrication, on goodwill to all rather than bad will towards some. But it is nostalgia nevertheless, for a lost world rather than an imagined one.
With the help of Alex Zisman