This week during season two of The Trump Show in an episode entitled “How Far Will They Go?” we learned that as far back as January of this year President Trump’s legal defense team, comprised mostly of lawyers who have since abandoned his defense, wrote a 20 page memo to Special Counsel Robert Mueller arguing that the president cannot possibly obstruct the justice system because ultimately he himself IS the justice system.
“It remains our position that the President’s actions here, by virtue of his position as the chief law enforcement officer, could neither constitutionally nor legally constitute obstruction because that would amount to him obstructing himself, and that he could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desired.” (emphasis mine)
And before you conclude he believes that power extends only to pardoning other people, just this morning in response to this story breaking Trump tweeted that he believes he has the power even to pardon himself. A couple of hours later he went so far as to assert that the very existence of a Special Counsel to investigate him is against the law.
The appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL! Despite that, we play the game because I, unlike the Democrats, have done nothing wrong!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2018
To my knowledge, no one in American history has ever attempted to defend a sitting president with words so clearly stating a belief that the president himself IS the law. Citizens of other countries around the world will recognize in this language the legal basis for every monarchy and dictatorship that has ever existed, but this kind of talk is new to us. No one has ever tried to push executive power quite this far (no, not even FDR was this brash, and Nixon resigned before reaching this point). An overwhelming majority within the Republican Party remains complicit in this, along with FOX News, who cannot offer enough support for whatever the president does.
I can’t resist adding that, according to the national security editor of the New York Times, the lengthy memo sported a letterhead written in, of all things, Comic Sans font. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. The writers for The Trump Show are clearly on psychedelics, but evidently it’s working for them because the ratings are through the roof.
Incidentally, in the midst of the internal screams I can feel rising up within those who feel the Trump presidency represents the most dangerous threat ever to our democracy, I want to point out what reading between the lines of this memo tells us:
It tells us they already know he’s guilty and that they have no hope of disproving it. And it also tells us they’ve known this as far back as January. No wonder his lawyers keep ditching him (the ones who haven’t been arrested, anyway).
This isn’t so much a defense as much as it is a bald assertion that he need not be defended at all because as president he can do whatever he pleases (he can’t). Legal teams with actual, substantive defenses don’t reach for arguments this desperate, nor this destined to fail. The Supreme Court of the United States isn’t going to just lie down and agree to the erasure of one of their key reasons for existing. As many have pointed out, our much anticipated constitutional crisis is already under way.
But that’s not what this post is about. No, today what strikes me about all of this is how eerily similar these arguments are to the kinds of defense of the Christian faith I hear coming from apologists who have been saying things like this for centuries. Even the tactics themselves are nearly identical.
How Trump’s Defenders Resemble Christian Apologists
1. The Divine Command Theory
First of all, both Trump’s defenders and Christian apologists argue that the person atop the chain of command is always right by virtue of the fact that they are at the top. Whatever that person does IS what’s right by definition.
Yesterday Rudy Giuliani said that as long as Trump is president, he could shoot the FBI director in the Oval Office and still not be indicted for it. He would have to be removed from office first, and only then could he face any legal consequences for his actions. One can only assume Giuliani is here trying to slide the Overton window as far upward toward total legal immunity as possible in order to make it easier for the public to accept when the Republican-controlled chambers of Congress forgive him for anything less than actual murder. His argument is that whoever occupies that office can legally do anything he wants and still remain unindictable. As long as he’s a Republican, of course.
Defenders of the Christian faith have been pushing this same argument about God for much, much longer. The philosophical question itself goes all the way back to Plato’s character Euthypro, who asked if the gods approve of what is good because it is good–in and of itself–or if the gods approving of it is what makes it good? In other words, altering it for a monotheistic audience, does God like what is good because it is good, or simply because he likes it, and whatever he likes is automatically good because he likes it?
Given that no one has conclusively proven invisible beings are real, it’s kind of a moot discussion. But philosophically it’s still an interesting question, and the dilemma exposes a weakness in the very act of analyzing religious dogma: If you believe in an unimpeachable deity, then you can never legitimately question anything you are told he has done. You can only argue whether or not people are accurately representing what he has done.
Or for that matter if “he” is even a “he” rather than a “she” or an “it.” Personally, I’ve searched high and low among theistic apologists for an explanation why nature points to the existence of only one creator rather than of many. I have yet to hear any notable answers. But I digress.
The point is that the arguments put forth by Christian apologists and Trump’s legal defenders are essentially the same in this case. Of course that makes Trump essentially “like God” in ways that should make evangelical Christians recoil. But I’m willing to bet they will be the last demographic to finally stop defending him. If they ever do, that is.
2. Compulsive Control of the Terms of Debate
Have you ever watched professional apologists ply their trade in debate? To some degree, the rigid structure of debates owes to a set of disciplinary customs in which a clear resolution must be stated and either affirmed or negated through argumentation that follows strict time guidelines, with rules about interrupting out of turn, etc. That part is just standard protocol for formal debate.
But apologists like William Lane Craig who make their living defending the faith are famous for micromanaging the terms of their public appearances, and their continued popularity owes largely to their acquired ability to exploit the mechanics of the debate structure itself to their benefit. If anyone attempts to relax those rules or subvert the order of topics preapproved by the apologist, all bets are off and often they will simply walk away, refusing to engage in discussion.
Looking to the Trump administration, once again it is Giuliani who keeps issuing demands before his client will appear for an interview before Mueller. One month ago, just after he took over Trump’s legal team (all but Jay Sekulow have left him now) Giuliani indicated that Trump would never sit down to an interview with Mueller that could potentially go on for up to twelve hours (note that Hillary Clinton once sat and answered questions for eleven hours straight), and that he would only do so if the scope of the questions were significantly narrowed from the broad range of topics enumerated in a document almost certainly leaked by Sekulow’s team (for which Trump quickly blamed Mueller).
Over the last couple of weeks Giuliani has added to his list of demands, stating that Trump will not sit down for an interview until his legal team is allowed to see the classified DOJ documents pertaining to an FBI informant which Trump ordered to be viewed by the Republicans leading the House investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. More on that issue in a minute.Out here in the real world, people who know the truth is on their side don’t have to compulsively control the terms of discussion in order to feel secure, nor do they employ the diversionary tactics to which both Christian apologists and Trump’s public defenders keep resorting. More on that presently.
3. Diversionary Tactics/Changing the Subject
You cannot mention Trump’s abuses of power without immediately triggering a knee-jerk deflection to Hillary Clinton, which is a change of subject. Leaving aside the unforgivable false equivalencies present in every example I’ve ever seen of this maneuver, what you will never be able to make Trump’s defenders acknowledge is that they never actually answered the question, nor did they offer a defense of Trump’s words or actions. They just sidestepped the question entirely, which wouldn’t be necessary if the man was innocent of whatever we’re charging.
The defense of the Christian faith usually works the same way. If you try to address a specific issue like the historical accuracy of the Bible or the gaping holes in logic left by the very construction of Abrahamic monotheism, it won’t be long before they find a way to change the subject entirely to something else. Here are a few examples of tactics you’ll see in a defense of either Donald Trump or the Christian faith, take your pick:
i. Special pleading – We’ve already seen this in the defense of Trump. Because he is president, his lawyers argue, he is the ultimate determiner of what is and isn’t “legal,” so it’s not possible for him to break the law. He’s a special case.
The Christian faith is similarly predicated on its own assumed exceptionalism. I could quit teaching if I had a dollar for every time I was told Christianity is unique among world religions—it’s so dissimilar in fact that it’s not even a religion at all, it’s a relationship. Just try using the tools of academia to analyze the way churches work or how religious beliefs function within a subculture and see how uncomfortable it makes them. You can tell immediately that you’ve broken an unspoken rule, that they feel their faith should be uniquely privileged above all others in myriad subtle ways. Putting their faith side-by-side among others undermines its specialness, which is why so few American Christians extend principles of “religious freedom” to anyone other than themselves.
ii. Ad hominem attacks – As I’ve argued before, the Christian faith normalizes logical fallacies and ad hominem arguments are no exception to this rule. You cannot legitimately question the basic tenets of their religion because you are at bottom a wretched, evil person with a deceitful heart which clouds your moral judgment. The Bible assures them that no one is rightly qualified to disagree with their beliefs, and that anyone who disagrees with them is only suppressing the truth because of the evil in their own hearts. Our interests are too conflicted (but somehow theirs aren’t).
[Read: “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker“]
Since day one, Trump has charged that any and all investigators looking into his political campaign or his financial dealings are plagued by personal prejudices and conflicts of interest. The unspoken assumption there seems to be that anything such people find would be automatically illegitimate because their motives for digging it up are impure. Of course he’d like for us all to forget that at this point everyone leading these investigations was hand picked to do their job either by him or by his administration. Both Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are lifelong conservative Republicans, as was James Comey before Trump fired him from leading the FBI. Nevertheless Trump keeps characterizing them all as “angry Democrats” with “massive conflicts of interest.”
What those conflicts are, he’s never said. But generally speaking, his supporters never ask for evidence. Trump has something far more powerful among his base: confidence. And as I’ve said over and over again, “Certainty is the currency of fundamentalism.” That goes for evangelical Christianity as well as for Trump’s base of support. They are essentially the same group of people, after all. A Venn diagram detailing the overlap would make a single circle.
iii. Tu quoque – Every elementary school child knows and employs the “You Do It, Too” argument, although none of them are mature enough to grasp how this changes the subject and therefore fails to answer whatever has just been charged. It’s a diversionary tactic that suggests the one using it knows good and well that he or she is guilty of whatever’s being charged. They simply feel they should be immune to consequences because, in their view, others have done the same things.
Remember that reflex response I mentioned where Trump’s defenders pivot to Clinton every. single. time? That’s the tu quoque argument, also known as whataboutism. I’ve never seen it so bad among a group of people as I’ve seen with this group. It’s almost as if they’re incapable of looking directly at anything being said, like we’re asking them to stare directly into the sun. They won’t do it. They can’t do it. They know they will regret it, so they look elsewhere.
If defending either your faith or your president inspires you to reach for the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” maneuver, you’ve already forfeited the discussion.
iv. Argument from authority – I figure this one doesn’t require much explanation. Essentially Trump’s defenders are saying that because he’s the president, whatever he does is legal. It’s the same argument Christians use to defend whatever the Bible says about the actions of God. It’s an extension of the special pleading I’ve already mentioned above.
v. No true Scotsman – If you try to challenge a religious belief held by one brand of Christianity by mentioning that there are other kinds of Christianity which hold to different beliefs, you will soon discover that they do not consider this a valid argument because any form of Christianity which sees things differently is automatically excluded by the way they define the term “Christian.”
Likewise, from the start of the Russian investigation, Trump and his surrogates have automatically excluded any discussion, vote, or opinion offered by anyone who is not a card-carrying member of the Republican Party. No Democrat or Independent is allowed to have a say in this matter because their judgment is clouded by the aforementioned conflicts of interest. But every once in a while a Republican breaks ranks and fails to robustly deny any entanglement between the Trump campaign and representatives of the Russian government or its financiers, at which point that person immediately flips and becomes a persona non grata.
Their canon is as follows: Only the word of Republicans matter, and Republicans support Donald Trump unwaveringly. If anyone says he is a Republican but does not support Donald Trump, he or she is No True Republican. Ergo don’t listen to him.
No one knows this better than Trey Gowdy, who was involved in (and in most cases led) every single attempt to undermine public trust in the Obama administration and in Hillary Clinton’s term as his Secretary of State. He was the point man for the fruitless four-year Benghazi investigation and has been the partisan bulldog in charge of every major federal investigation into the workings of the Democratic party for the last several years.
But after viewing the DOJ documents which Trump insisted would support his belief that the FBI illegally spied on his campaign, Gowdy admitted on FOX News last Tuesday that he saw no evidence that would support Trump’s claim. He went on to say that the FBI appears to be doing precisely what Trump himself told James Comey he wanted them to do.
Guess how the GOP has treated Gowdy since Tuesday? Suddenly he is everybody’s target on FOX News, getting called out by Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee, Judge Jeanine, and of course Rudy Giuliani. All those years of running point for Republican character assassinations to undermine potential Democratic threats just vanished in a single day, and now he’s no longer trustworthy. One of Trump’s legal advisors went so far as to tell FOX News viewers that Gowdy “doesn’t know diddly-squat” about how federal investigations work. He’s No True Republican now, so his word matters nothing.
I’m as tired of watching this season of The Trump Show as you probably are. I’m ready for the show to be canceled, but I know the ratings are just too good for this to stop anytime soon. There is a legal process under way which will almost certainly culminate in the removal of Trump from office, probably later rather than sooner, but it won’t undo the damage that his election and presidency have already done.
I can’t find who said it first, but I’ll repeat it here: Trump isn’t an aberration, he’s a revelation. It’s not that he’s some glaring exception to an otherwise democratically sound general populace. The startling truth is that he represents exactly the kind of leader that apparently millions of Americans want to lead our country. I’m not sure what to do with that information. But denying it won’t help anyone.
I’m still unpacking all the reasons why I missed the warning signs littering the road to this administration, and I don’t really know what needs to happen next. But for now I had to at least stop and enumerate some of the parallels between Trumpism and Christian fundamentalism that I keep seeing exemplified every day. Calling these tactics out is at least a start. How we address these logical fallacies in ways that won’t be dismissed with the wave of a hand is a completely different matter.
[Image Source: Flickr|DonkeyHotey]
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