Periodically over the last year and a half we've had cause to ask ourselves, "Is this it? Is this the moment we've been dreading and warning about? When Donald Trump truly becomes the kind of president he keeps telling us he wants to be?"
Sometimes it's hard to tell. It's as if we're all standing in a river of corruption rushing around us with impossible speed and force, and every once in a while another wave smashes us in the face. Was that wave the real problem, or is it the whole river?
The answer is: It's both. The "Deep State" may be a myth, but we've seen the installation of the Trump State, which is something far worse.
Here's what Trump tweeted on Sunday:
I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2018
Yes, that's the president of the United States, "hereby demanding" an investigation into the investigation of him, and along with it an investigation into his political enemies.
What led him to this latest bout of rage-tweeting was a series of reports about the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and some related matters. First it emerged that after the FBI learned that people with connections to the Russian government had been in contact with Trump campaign officials, offering to help them in the election, the bureau sent a confidential source it had used before to reach out to those Trump officials to try to learn more.
Trump falsely claimed that this meant that "there was indeed at least one FBI representative implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign for president," but the truth was far different. As former FBI agent Asha Rangappa noted, the bureau was conducting a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal one. In other words, they were trying to find out what the Russians were up to and whom they had compromised—if anything, to protect Trump and his campaign from Russia. And the FBI was extraordinarily careful not to let the fact of their investigation leak to the press before the election, another way they acted to protect him. If they had been as accommodating to Hillary Clinton, she'd be president right now.
Second, we learned that the Russians weren't the only foreigners the Trump campaign was yielding offers from. The New York Times reported that during the campaign, Donald Trump Jr. met with villainous mercenary Erik Prince, a representative of the Saudi and UAE governments, and an Israeli consultant to explore some opportunities for synergy:
Erik Prince, the private security contractor and the former head of Blackwater, arranged the meeting, which took place on Aug. 3, 2016. The emissary, George Nader, told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president. The social media specialist, Joel Zamel, extolled his company's ability to give an edge to a political campaign; by that time, the firm had already drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump.
Where oh where did they ever get the idea that the Republican nominee for president might be open to something so clearly illegal and unethical?
As far as we know, the Saudi/UAE assistance never materialized, much like the Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton that Don Jr. was so keen to get his hands on. But it seems that even before he became president, people around the world knew that Donald Trump was a man who could be bought.
They knew that because Trump had made little secret of it. As a businessman he was spectacularly corrupt, lying about the height of his buildings, skipping out on creditors, refusing to pay vendors, creating scams like Trump University, using illegal labor, doing business with kleptocrats and mobsters, and gathering around him a collection of small-time crooks like Michael Cohen. This was plainly a man who didn't care too much about the rules.
And in office, Trump has created a government that reflects himself, in which the most important question is what you can grab for yourself and the people who either paid you in the past or are going to pay you in the future. So when Michael Cohen went around to a bunch of corporations telling them to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars for his precious "insights" into health care or telecom policy, a bunch of them went ahead and paid up. That's just how things work with Donald Trump in charge.
Some might protest that as a liberal I merely object to Trump's conservative agenda, which I certainly do. But this isn't just about things like reducing the size of government. You can reduce the size of government to actually promote efficiency, but no one thinks that's what Trump is up to. For instance, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos not only stops investigations of abuses by for-profit colleges but installs the former dean of DeVry University to oversee such investigations, it's not about efficiency. When you make a literal coal lobbyist the No. 2 person at the EPA, you aren't after sensible regulation.
That isn't to say that the administration isn't pursuing ideological goals, because it is. But certain ideological goals, like the exploitation of students, the befouling of the environment, the diminution of reproductive rights, or the relentless enhancement of corporate power at the expense of workers and consumers, are perfectly compatible with the Trump State, so long as those in policy positions remember that there is no value higher than loyalty to the boss. You might have experience or qualifications, but you certainly don't need them, not if your devotion to Donald Trump is beyond question.
And in the Trump State, the idea that there are rules or institutions that stand outside the president—and heaven forbid might even hold him accountable—is unconscionable. Trump's attempt to wage war on the Justice Department, which he plainly sees as properly existing only to protect him and carry out his vendettas, is only one vivid example. Trump has also personally urged the postmaster general to raise shipping rates on Amazon, according to reporting by The Washington Post, as part of his vendetta against Amazon CEO and Post owner Jeff Bezos.
So far, the postmaster general has resisted, which shows that even in the Trump State there are people and institutions willing and able to resist the president's most authoritarian tendencies. But there may not be enough. Most Republicans have decided that there is almost no behavior or abuse on the part of Trump or his family that they wouldn't defend, whether it's monetizing the Oval Office for personal financial gain or cooperating with a hostile foreign power to distort an American election. Try to imagine Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell saying, "There are a lot of things I put up with, but this time the president has gone too far!" You can't do it, can you?
And late Sunday, we learned that the Justice Department has given in to Trump's demand and ordered its inspector general to investigate whether the FBI improperly investigated Trump's campaign. The Trump State corrupts all. And he's still got two and a half years to go.