Resolute Square

A Bunch Of Good Books

Teri Kanefield astounds us once again with this incredible list of essential reading for anyone who wants to understand where our democracy is, how we got here, and how we can find our way through.
Published:February 8, 2024

*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

These are some of the books I read between 2018 and 2023. I found it instructive to put these summaries together. (If I talked about a book recently, I put a link to the blog post instead of offering a summary here.)

Come for the story of how the Party of Lincoln became the Party of the Ku Klux Klan. Stay for a heartfelt mea culpa (or two).

Politics, Media and Political History

The authors, one a Berkeley professor and the other a Yale professor, argue that Trump is a “consequence and recent enabler” of the Republican Party’s long steady march to plutocracy. They also believe that attention given to Trump’s authoritarian impulses distracts from the greater danger: The Republican Party that enables him. From the Introduction:

“As the title of this book implies, the Republican Party has substituted division and distraction for a real response to the needs of ordinary Americans—and nothing better demonstrates this than Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. But it is not just voters who are distracted. Pundits and experts are, too. Almost everything we read today is about the president and his outrages. But focusing on Trump can obscure more than it reveals. We need to step back and understand the long road to plutocratic populism, and the degree to which Trump has reinforced, rather than challenged, the core elements of what his party had already become.”

One myth the authors torpedo is that a 2016 Republican civil war pitted Trump against the Republican “establishment,” and Trump won. Nope, they say. Trump and the “establishment” are on the same side. Initially, Trump’s refusal to hide behind euphemisms scared them, but the elected Republican officials fell in line. Others, particularly some prominent Republican members, bolted, but the elected officials mostly did as they were told and supported Trump.

  • To explain the modern Republican Party, the authors describe what Daniel Ziblatt calls the “Conservative dilemma,” which goes like this:Conservatives represent the interests of a few wealthy people.
  • Their economic policies are unpopular.
  • So when more people are allowed to vote, they have a problem.

When suffrage was restricted, conservative parties could ignore the massive gap between the rich and the rest. But this became a losing game as the right to vote expands. Relatively quickly, conservative parties find themselves caught between a commitment to economic elites and an expanding electorate. 

The conservative dilemma is the problem of how to win elections with policies that are unpopular and hurt the constituents. 
The problem is compounded by the fact that plutocracy is incompatible with democracy. Too much income inequality kills democracy because too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few people. (The authors offer statistics to show how precariously we are tipping toward plutocracy.)

To win elections with unpopular policies, Plutocrats have a choice:

  • Move to the center by agreeing to implement economic policies that benefit more people, or
  • Consolidate minority power so they don’t have to compromise on economic issues.

Beginning with Nixon, guess which the Republicans chose. Yup, they chose to consolidate minority power. During the the Civil Rights movement, Republicans discovered that stirring racism brought them voters. They used code words, but it worked.
Nixon talked about being “tough on crime” (code for putting black men in jail). Reagan talked about “welfare queens.”

Parties generally seek to reach out to the uncommitted or weakly committed, the swing voters who decide close elections. They thrive on the ambiguity that allows many factions to gather under one big tent.

Outrage groups, on the other hand, care first and foremost about survival (or, as social scientists put it, “organizational maintenance”). They gain the members and money they need to survive by building ranks of passionate followers and ramping up those followers’ sense of threat. They disdain swing voters and ambiguity. They seek to tear down big tents.

The Republicans formed an alliance with Fox, an outrage-producing machine. At first, the Fox-Republican Party partnership was a boon to Republican candidates, but what the authors call “outsourcing voter mobilization” has drawbacks. Eventually, FOX exerted control over Republican officials. Republican candidates and elected officials were forced to cater to Fox’s demands, which forced them to adopt more extreme policies.

The Republican Party also outsourced voter mobilization to the NRA and white Christian evangelicals. In the 1970s, the Republican Party wasn’t opposed to gun regulations. That changed when it outsourced voter mobilization to the NRA. Outsourcing voter mobilization to white Christian evangelicals similarly forced Republican candidates to adopt extreme positions on abortion.

Plutocrats don’t care about gun violence or abortion rights. All they care about is money and getting more of it. So they made a bargain: We’ll get rid of gun control and abortion, and you deliver votes for our economic policies.

By outsourcing voter mobilization to outrage-stoking entities, the Republican establishment found it harder to chart a moderate course. Even Romney and McCain had to make deals with the extremists. For example, McCain selected Sarah Palin to try to shore up the support of the fringe because he needed that fringe if he had any hope of winning the election.

“Thus, like some ill-fated conservative parties in the past, Republicans came to depend on extreme factions that provided valued resources but also pulled the party further toward the fringe.”

The authors made the point that the current “polarization” is one-sided. It’s caused by the Republican Party’s swing to the far right. They cited this chart: 

* * *

MacLean traces the rise of the modern libertarian movement. She argues (persuasively) that libertarianism is based on racism and developed as a backlash to Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that declared segregation in schools unconstitutional. According to MacLean, James Buchanan, the “architect” of the modern Libertarian Party, came up with the idea of libertarianism because he was resentful of Northern liberals telling white Southerners how to live.

Her thesis is that Libertarians have a “stealth” plan for preserve power in the white Southern ruling elite.

Warning: This book enrages Libertarians, but it did win the National Book Award 🤷‍♂️.

* * *

To Make Men Free offers a comprehensive history of the Republican Party and shows how the two major parties essentially switched places. Here is the history, in a nutshell:

Before the Civil War, the Democratic Party (formerly the Democratic-Republicans) was the party of the South, slavery, and rural America.

The Republican Party, the “Freedom Party,” was born in 1855 as an anti-slavery, pro-industry, pro-federal government party. The Republicans wanted a strong federal government because industry needed roads, canals, etc. to thrive. For that, they needed federal legislation. Republicans gave us our first income tax.

After the Civil War and the crushing defeat of the South, the Republicans had the power to pass pro-industry legislation. As a result, the industrial revolution boomed. Also as a result, the nation’s wealthiest people were railroad and business executives instead of enslavers.

Income inequality opened between business tycoons and laborers, who worked long hours in dangerous jobs at poverty wages. When slaveowners had power, they voted to consolidate their power. After the Civil War, industrialists did the same, which brings us to one of Richardson’s theses: Democracy is always in danger of tipping toward oligarchy as groups accumulate power and then give in to the temptation to use that power to enrich themselves. (Richardson uses the word ‘oligarchy.’ Hacker and Pierson use the word ‘plutocracy.’)

After the Republicans had the infrastructure they needed, they began opposing federal legislation because they didn’t want the government controlling them or taking their wealth.

In the early 20th century, the Republican Party split into two factions: The conservative pro-Industry faction and the liberal pro-labor pro-civil rights faction.

By the 1920s, the Republican Party dropped civil rights and racial equality from its platform and became the party of business. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s base consisted of Southern whites, rural America, and laborers.

Neither party championed racial equality: which ushered in a long period of relative harmony between the parties—they respected each other’s “differences” because they weren’t that different: Both parties were ruled by white men.

In 1920, Harding (a Republican) won the presidency & immediately deregulated business and repealed taxes. More money poured into the hands of the wealthy. Banks freely lent too much money. The gap between the wealthy and laborers widened further. Laborers had no protection. Only the wealthy could attend college, etc. It was the “age of business.”

Then, in 1929, it all tumbled down when the market crashed and the Depression hit. Republican President Hoover felt the best solution was mostly hands-off because he believed government control was socialist and anti-American. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in contrast, promised a New Deal: Protective legislation for laborers. Roosevelt gave us social security, minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek, etc.

The Republicans, now opposed to a strong government, fought against the New Deal, calling it socialism and a welfare state.Evangelicals, too, opposed government assistance and regulations: They didn’t want to elevate government over church. Problems, they believed, should be left to God and local churches.

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education (declaring racial segregation in schools unconstitutional) shocked much of the US. Tensions arose when the federal government enforced the no-segregation rule. The changes alarmed the far right, igniting a powerful backlash. Meanwhile, the Republicans devised a way to expand their shrinking base: the so-called Southern Strategy designed to bring disaffected Southern Whites into their party. 

Today, Libertarians, the KKK, the Christian evangelicals, and NRA extremists find themselves with a common goal: Dismantle the federal government to return to 1920 or earlier. 

* * *
I wrote recently about How the South Won the Civil War, so see this post.

* * *
I wrote recently about How Democracies Die, so see this post.

* * *
I wrote recently about The Anatomy of Fascism, so see this post.

* * *
Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Appetite for Misinformation is one of my newest favorites: In a nutshell, because of the current media disruption, outlets (and audiences) are breaking into smaller units, which is creating more extremism as people settle into media ecosystems with like-minded people and outlets (and wanna-be influencers) peddle rage and euphoria to generate clicks. These media ecosystems create fertile environments for the spread of conspiracy theories on both sides of the political spectrum.If you watch a lot of MSNBC / CNN news talk shows or spend a lot of time following politics on social media, this book is a real eye-opener. Please click here and read the entire series, particularly Part II.

* * *

I wrote recently about The Road for Unfreedom, so see this post.

* * *

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, through a series of stories, describes how and why Russia slipped back into totalitarianism after a brief flirtation with democracy. 

Russia attempted to transition to a democratic government in the early 1990s. At the time, Soviet totalitarianism had created a “barren intellectual landscape” and an “ideological vacuum.” Disciplines like sociology were banned, so Russians didn’t have the tools to understand themselves or their society. Free thinking wasn’t permitted. To be a “critical thinker” in a Soviet university meant spotting where a person deviated from the Party line.

For example, “deviants” of any kind had never been tolerated in Soviet Russia. Homosexuals in particular had always been hated and criminalized. When Russia attempted the transition, 1/3 believed homosexuals should be liquidated. 10% believed they should be left alone. Researchers thought that 10% was encouragingly high. 20% wanted to liquidate “rockers” (this meant “hippies”)

According to one self-taught Russian sociologist, the Soviet regime created a particular kind of damaged and beaten-down person who he called Homo Sovieticus—a fearful and authority-loving personality.

All of this made it difficult for democracy to take hold.

Before the 1990s, the Communist Party had a monopoly on power and the nation’s resources. After the Soviet Union fell, “The country was in a state of high anxiety.” The economy went “from bad to dead.” Portable coal stoves were in demand. People were concerned with basic survival.

For a while, though, it looked hopeful that Homo Sovieticus could embrace democracy and freedom (and diversity, which always grows in a true democracy).

Things, though, didn’t go well. Attempts to privatize the nation’s industries and distribute wealth created opportunities for corruption. That was when the oligarchs (thieves) seized control of the nation’s industries. The Russian people remained poor with the impression that “crooks, con men” and “criminals” were getting rich. Russians quickly lost faith in the new government. (Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss)

As Putin consolidated his power, his regime whipped up the old hysteria over homosexuals, and the number of people who wanted to “liquidate” homosexuals grew again. She diagnoses Russian society with “recurrent totalitarianism” a country with no history of democratic institutions and a population with no understanding of how they might work.

* * *
I wrote recently about Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, so see this post.

* * *

I wrote recently about How Fascism Works so see this post.Political Psychology

My favorite political psychologist is Karen Stenner, who builds on the classic works by Theodor Adorno and others. You can start with this essay by Karen Stenner and Jonathan Haidt:  “Authoritarianism is Not a Momentary Madness.” Stenner has made it available to read on her website for free. 

Books that make the Law Accessible to Nonlawyers 

* * *

Simple Justice by Richard Kluger purports to be a history of Brown v. Board of Education, the case that desegregated schools in America, but in fact, it is a history of the struggle of Black Americans to achieve equal rights. It also provides an excellent account of how our laws can change. A must-read for anyone interested in racial equality and the legal system.

* * *

Make No Law by Anthony Lewis offers an in-depth look at New York Times v. Sullivan and a landmark First Amendment case. After you read it, you will cringe when you hear people asking why the liars are not all put in prison.

* * *

I’m putting one of mine on here. (I’m allowed to if it’s only one, right?) A history of women’s rights in America, how they evolved, and how the legal system can be used as a vehicle for change.Insider Exposes

Tim Miller’s Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell opens with a splash. He says, “America never would have gotten into this mess if it weren’t for me and my friends.”

He describes his task in writing this book:

“Why We Did It aims . . . to dig through the wreckage of the party I once loved and come to understand how so many of my friends allowed something that was so central to our identity to become so unambiguously monstrous. And why they continued to do so once the monster became uncontrollable.”

Miller entered politics in 1998 at the age of 16. For him, politics was a game and the goal was to win. If this required nefarious means, he told himself that the ends justified those means:

“I saw myself as someone who could channel the dark arts of politics to positive ends. If the more rational, reasonable, compassionate side of the party was going to win the battle for the soul of the GOP, we were going to have to do so as slash-and-burn executioners. We were also going to have to throw some elbows on behalf of the conservative base so they would know we had their back. At least, that was the story I told myself.”

Here is how he describes the Republican primary voters:

“[The] most vocal constituents, the Republicans who turn out to vote in primaries . . . don’t give a shit about incremental progress or the plight of their fellow man or a serious and nuanced response to a deadly pandemic anyway. Boring. They are only made upset if a politician doesn’t satiate their desire to see hot-fire slams savaging their perceived enemies, further incentivizing the pols to prioritize this fight over all else.”

He explains how the Republican elites (including himself) inflamed the angry mob (the highlights are mine):

“You’ll also see how the Republican ruling class dismissed the plight of those we were manipulating, growing increasingly comfortable using tactics that inflamed them, turning them against their fellow man. How often we advanced arguments that none of us believed. How we made people feel aggrieved about issues we had no intent or ability to solve. How we spurred racial resentments and bigotry among voters while prickling at anyone who might accuse us of racism. And how these tactics became not just unchecked but supercharged by a right-wing media ecosystem that we were in bed with and that had its own nefarious incentives. . .”

Even moderate Republican candidates like McCain were forced to adopt racist and anti-immigrant sentiments to appease the mob:

“[McCain] had transitioned from taking a confrontational stance with the audience to using the politician’s “comforting lie.” The comforting lie centers the mob’s feelings, anger, their passion, over the uncomfortable realities of governing. It was a small change but a meaningful one.”

Did any of this bother Miller?

“. . . you might assume I would have had some pause about becoming a professional partisan axe thrower in service to these extremists. Nope. Not a one. Honestly.”

It was a bit unnerving how openly Miller describes how he and his friends lied and stoked racial resentment. I’ll go further than that. For someone who watched for decades as Republican leaders riled a bloodthirsty racist mob, it was disturbing. You know those moments when Shakespeare’s Richard III basically tells the audience, “Now watch me do evil!” Reading the first half of Miller’s book was like that.

 Miller jumped ship when Trump won the nomination in 2016. He voted for Hillary Clinton, worked hard to sink both Trump’s presidential campaigns, and has been an outspoken critic of what the Republican Party has become.

During the Trump era, he puzzled over his pals who lined up to kiss Trump’s ring. To understand them, he looked inward because he figured he knew something about soul-sellers.

He then categorized the various character failings that caused former colleagues to go full MAGA. He eviscerates them, one and all. Elise Stefanik is a “striver” high on the drug of ambition willing to jettison personal integrity for the thrill of moving with the powerful. Sean Spicer is a social nerd who thought bowing to Trump would make up for his lack of personal charisma.
“Enablers” include Jeff Sessions (who “has a lust for the blood of immigrant children”) and the “slithery” Stephen Miller.

* * *

Stephanie Winston Wolkoff tells a story of friendship and betrayal as she recounts how the Trumps used her and when she was no longer useful, were willing to carelessly destroy her. Most of the 350 pages deal with Stephanie’s years-long “friendship” with Melania that began before Melania became a Trump and contain lots of gossipy details. I’ll skip the gossipy details.

OK, OK, I’ll tell you one. Wolkoff has reason to believe that Ivanka planted the plagiarized portions of Michelle Obama’s speech to make Melania look bad. 

Now for the meat of the story: How the Trumps framed Stephanie for their crimes.

Stephanie worked for Vogue as Director of Special Events. Her resume included producing the Met Gala. Eventually, she opened her own consulting business, SWW Creative. She was recruited to produce Trump’s inauguration, which behind the scenes was a disorganized mess. (She didn’t need the job. The inauguration needed her.)

Her friends warned her not to take the job. She ignored the warnings because she genuinely thought Melania was different.

She thought Melania was being used by the Trump family. They’d been friends so long, she felt like she knew Melania.

To work for the Trumps, she gave up her business and clients so she’d have no appearance of conflict.

She thought from the beginning there was something odd about the contract she was offered. Rick Gates “coordinated” her contract. Yes, this Rick Gates, the one who pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents during the Mueller probe.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee incorporated a company, WIS, to “develop, produce, and manage” the events. She didn’t understand why it had to be so complicated, and why she was instructed to subcontract WIS, given that they were doing 90% of the work:

“Things seemed really complicated. Operating Agreements, Scope of Works, Master Service Agreements, proposals, and vendor budgets flooded my inbox. So many different versions, with revisions and comments, that it was impossible to keep track of them all. To me, contracts are like gobbledygook. Thankfully, I had learned an invaluable lesson from Melania: I told everyone to ‘speak to my lawyer.'”

Why didn’t the inaugural committee just pay WIS directly? Why did they try to push her company, SWW Creative—doing a fraction of the work—into the more prominent position? She was told “It’s easier this way,” and “better” for her. 

“I didn’t like that WIS was front and center, but to make matters worse, there was a new effort in place by all parties to lower WIS’s profile and push SWW to the front of the line. The more I fought and resisted, the more I felt like a target. After being repeatedly told by my partners that I was overreacting and that it was ‘easier this way’ and ‘better’ for me, my answer was always the same: ‘Please run it through my lawyer.’ To this day, my lawyer has never signed off on this arrangement.”

The budget was $25 million. They ended up spending $27 million. She received $480K for her work. The rest of the money went to pay vendors—but the money went through her company. For the next 13 months, she worked for Melania in the White House without pay, absorbing her own expenses. She ended up working under a “gratuitous service agreement.”

Why did she do it? Loyalty. Dedication. And because Ivanka kept redirecting the money intended for Melania’s staff. 

In Feb. 2018, the inaugural scandal hit. The inaugural committee had raised $107 million, but only $27 million was accounted for. Investigators wanted to know where the other $80 million had gone. 

Stephanie started to smell a rat when she received a document “the family” was preparing, to “get ahead” of the story. Her company was listed front and center—with numerous inaccuracies.

The stress had already taken a toll on her health. About this time, members of Melania’s staff started being rude to her, and she was ready to quit. Friends, the same friends warned her not to work for the Trumps, advised her to quit. Soon it was all just too much. On Feb. 14, she wrote an email to Melania resigning.

I woke up the next morning, February 15, 2018, to see my name and picture splashed across the front page of the New York Times website under an article headlined “Trump’s Inaugural Committee Paid $26 Million to First Lady’s Friend” by Maggie Haberman and Kenneth P. Vogel. With those ten words, life as I knew it ended. Sitting at my desk alcove in my kitchen, I stared at the screen in disbelief. I kept hitting refresh, hoping it’d go away. The comments on the article started racking up, all of them hostile, hateful, and negative. By the headline alone, it seemed like the First Lady had handed her “party planner” friend a cushy job and that I had danced off with millions. It made our friendship the big scandal. I was freaking out.

 The press releases and planted articles made it look as if Melania’s ‘friend’ had made off with $27 million, and when the White House found out, they fired her. She understood the stories about her were to distract from where the other $80 million had gone.

She begged Melania to clear her name and tell the truth, but Melania refused. (Melania did advise Stephanie to get a lawyer because Stephanie had “done nothing wrong.”) The $480K she earned for the inauguration disappeared into legal fees, and she’s now one million in the hole. But that isn’t her complaint. Her complaint is that she was framed and her life destroyed.

How does it feel to be betrayed by someone you thought was a friend, and framed for a crime you didn’t commit? For Stephanie, it felt like this:

That day, I remember staring at the screen for hours, hitting refresh on a Google search of my name, reading all the tweets, not able to stop myself. My body was racked with chills, and covered in goosebumps. At one point, I crumpled into a ball on the floor and sobbed and cried out in anguish like a wounded animal. My only comfort was a cozy black sweatshirt that was big enough to bury my face in. In my head, I turned it into a life vest, the only thing that was keeping me afloat. I didn’t take it off for days.

Melania ghosted me. She didn’t comment on my resignation letter for two long days.Finally, she texted, “How are you? Did you talk to your lawyer?” In her words, “What a fool I was.”

* * *

“Theirs is a movement driven by racial fear,” Stevens says of today’s Republicans:

“The United States will become a minority-majority country in only a few more years, and all the Steven Millers in the world can’t stop that. How fast is America changing? In 1980, Ronald Reagan won a sweeping landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, garnering 489 electoral votes and fifty-eight percent of the white vote. In 2008, John McCain lost a not-very-close race against Barack Obama and received . . . fifty-eight percent of the white vote.” 

Stevens explains that what is motivating the Republican Party is the “deep fear that the party is doomed.” (p. 131). He said this: “The demographic apocalypse confronting the Republican Party is both a powerful motivation for it to do whatever it takes to guarantee victory and its justification for doing so. If you believe that America was chosen by God to be a white, Christian nation, then the looming specter of a minority-majority America demands action.” 

He also says, “Trump ran as a xenophobic racist and once the Republican party embraced him as their leader, it legitimized threads of extremist conspiracies that had previously been limited to the ecosphere of the far right.” 

He talked about how Republican insiders went along with Trump in 2016. “The responses uniformly went like this: “If we, the party establishment, put our thumbs on the scale when Trump loses it will not be because of his xenophobia, his racism, his anger. It will be our fault. We just have to let him lose and start over.”

Stevens would invariably respond, “But what if he wins?” And the answer always was, “He’s not going to win.”

Because in 2016 Republicans believed they could mold Trump should he become president, Stevens compares the backroom deal that made Hitler chancellor to the way the Republican Party backed Trump in 2016.” Then, “After the Republican party accepted a platform that was nothing more than a fealty pledge to Donald Trump, it abandoned any pretense of being anything other than an autocratic movement.”

Now, here’s the important part: “If Trump is not ultimately the party’s nominee in 2024, its loyalty will pass to the next leader.” In other words, getting rid of Trump will not solve the problem. The Republican Party will simply look for another Trump-style leader who will similarly promise to eviscerate the rule of law to prevent what they see as the ruin of America.

Stevens marches through all the problems we know including dark money in politics and concludes that “It is naïve and foolish but predictable . . . [to] imagine that there is a possibility for the Republican Party to become a “normal” American political party once again.” 

So he sees no hope for the modern Republican Party. The only way to stop the Republican Party’s march toward authoritarianism, he says, is for the party to suffer at the ballot box. 

* * *

At the age of 13, Boot’s father gave him a subscription to The National Review. He fell in love with conservative values and aspired to be another George Will. He graduated from Berkeley, which he characterized as Bezerkley, eventually landed a plum job at the Wall Street Journal, and became an influential spokesperson for the Republican Party. He advised Rubio’s campaign.

When Trump came to power, and all Boot’s idols abandoned what he thought were genuinely held beliefs and traded their souls for power—he was blindsided. So he looked back, and did some soul-searching, and saw what he’d been missing all those years:

“Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the whole history of modern conservativism is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, ignorance, isolationism, and know-nothingism. Even those who were not guilty of these sins too often ignored them in the name of unity on the right.”

“In 1964, the Republican Party ceased to be the party of Lincoln and became the party of southern whites. All of the Republican presidential nominees in the future would harvest racist votes, whether consciously or not, because from then on the Republican Party would be the party of white privilege, and the Democrats, of minority rights. “States’ rights”—a euphemism for segregation—became the new Republican rallying cry. As I now look back with the clarity of hindsight, I realize that, whatever Republican candidates claimed to stand for, what a lot of their voters heard was: this is someone who will put minorities in their place. Or who, at the very least, will not grant them any more rights, as the Democrats would do. I am now convinced that coded racial appeals—those dog whistles—had at least as much, if not more, to do with the electoral success of the modern Republican Party than all of the domestic and foreign policy proposals crafted by well-intentioned analysts like me.”

After recognizing that Republicans became what it had long pretended to be, the “Party of Stupid,” he said, “It’s amazing how little you see when your eyes are closed.”

* * *

Disloyal is like a modern retelling of The Godfather from the viewpoint of an introspective mafia family member examining and analyzing his own complicity. 

During Michael Cohen’s testimony before Congress on February 27, 2019, when Congressional Republicans hurled childish Trump-like insults at him, he looked them over and said, “I am responsible for your silliness because I did the same things that you are doing now. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.” He then issued a warning: “People who follow Mr. Trump blindly will suffer the same consequences I’m suffering.” 

Cohen’s book, Disloyal, expands and explains.

For 10 years, Cohen was an ‘active and eager participant’ in Trump’s ugly behavior:

“I stiffed contractors on his behalf, ripped off his business partners, lied to his wife Melania to hide his sexual infidelities, and bullied and screamed at anyone who threatened Trump’s path to power. Cohen, Michael. Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump.”

Cohen explains why people lie and cheat for Trump:

“The answer, I was coming to see, included something deeper than the obvious lures of money and power, though those were crucial factors. It was physical, emotional, not quite spiritual, but a deep longing and need that Trump filled for me. Around Trump I felt excited, alive, like he possessed the urgent and only truth, the chance for my salvation and success in life.”

It was a Faustian bargain: Grovel at Trump’s feet, and be rewarded with power, and invited into a world of wealth and glamour.
“In the pitiful sight of Republicans throwing aside their dignity and duty in an effort to grovel at Trump’s feet, I saw myself and understood their motives. My insatiable desire to please Trump to gain power for myself, the fatal flaw that led to my ruination, was a Faustian bargain: I would do anything to accumulate, wield, maintain, exert, exploit power.”

Cohen was susceptible to the allure of Trump-style power. Since childhood, he’d been fascinated by mobsters and attracted to their power and methods, which he found “glamourour.” He wanted to be a gangster lawyer.

“I wanted to be like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and Roy Cohn—or Downtown Burt Kaplan hanging out by the pool at the El Caribe. I liked how wise guys moved, talked, thought. I liked how they resolved issues and commanded a room. I would practice law, I determined as a kid, but I’d practice it like a gangster.”

Cohen explains how Trump brings people into his web of lies and deceit. First Trump tells a lie. He knows it’s a lie. You know it’s a lie. If you go along, he has you. Then he tells another. He subtly signals to people what lie they are supposed to tell, and bestows his favor when they comply. Eventually, people start believing their own lies because Trumpworld reinforces them.

Trump has an “unerring eye” for the kind of person who he can reel in:

“Explaining exactly how Trump came to dominate my thoughts, night and day, for years on end, isn’t a simple one-dimensional undertaking. The first vital ingredient was my desire to please him, which was matched by my fear of displeasing the Boss. Over and over again, these two co-equal motivations urged me further and further into the embrace of his way of seeing the world and life. But another element of Trump’s gaslighting genius involved his ability to attract a certain type of person into his inner world. It’s something you can recognize in the news today, with the likes of Lindsey Graham and Jim Jordan and Mike Pompeo and the other people surrounding Trump. The Boss had an unerring eye for sycophants: yes men, loyal soldiers, call them what you will.”

Cohen explains why Trump loves Putin. This entire passage is instructive:

“Trump loved Putin because the Russian had the balls to take over an entire nation and run it like it was his personal company—like the Trump Organization. In Russia, no one questioned or doubted Putin, just as no one called out Trump on the 26th floor of Trump Tower. Putin’s ability to bring the press to heel, the media’s throat under his jackboot, was also an attraction to Trump, not a bad thing. The same was true for the banks and Russia’s industrial complex; an entire society and civilization bent to the will of a single man was how Trump viewed the ideal historical form of government—with him as the man in charge, of course. Locking up your political enemies, criminalizing dissent, terrifying or bankrupting the free press through libel lawsuits—Trump’s all-encompassing vision wasn’t evident to me before he began to run for president. I honestly believe the most extreme ideas about power and its uses only really took shape as he began to seriously contemplate the implications of taking power and how he could leverage it to the absolute maximum level possible.”

He also says he was amazed by Trump’s ability to lie to a person’s face.

The ending was quite dramatic: After ten years of loyalty and devotion, Cohen was arrested for crimes committed mostly while working for Trump, and at Trump’s direction. The arrest took Cohen completely by surprise. Trump’s response to Cohen’s arrest was a version of “I hardly know him.” Cohen was hurt and shocked.

The summer before Cohen (famously) told a Vanity Fair reporter that he would take a bullet for Trump. “And I meant it,” Cohen wrote. “But not if Donald Trump pulled the trigger.”

Cohen understood that he was expected to stay quiet, go to prison, and work on remaining in Trump’s good graces. But Cohen—hurt and angry by Trump’s reaction—walked. He pleaded guilty and went to prison and cooperated with the prosecutors who were going after Trump.

* * *

Trump’s niece Mary, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, describes Donald’s father as a lying, cheating, sociopath and his mother as selfish and needy. She opens her book with a quotation from Victor Hugo suggesting that the villain of the story isn’t the twisted and warped Donald, but the parents who left his soul in darkness:

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”

Donald’s father, Fred, demanded obedience from his five children. He despised weakness and despised people who apologized. Fred believed that there could be only one winner, and everyone else was a loser. He saw kindness as a weakness and humiliated people who didn’t fall in line.

To cope with a sociopathic father and selfish mother, Donald developed “defenses” including hostility to others. He became an aggressive schoolyard bully and ended up in a “military school” or” reform school.”

The oldest son, named Fred after his father, disappointed his parents when he wanted to become a pilot instead of taking after his father and becoming a lying cheating scumbag. Donald became the favorite when he was eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, and turned out to be an even better liar. Donald couldn’t manage or actually build anything, but he was good at publicity, and creating the fiction that he was a successful businessman.

In Donald, Fred saw qualities that he lacked and envied. Donald’s personality served Fred’s purpose. Donald was the better showman, the better liar, better able to grab headlines and bring the family fame.

Fred “co-opted” Donald and short-circuited his development:

“That’s what sociopaths do: they co-opt others and use them toward their own ends—ruthlessly and efficiently, with no tolerance for dissent or resistance. Fred destroyed Donald, too, but not by snuffing him out as he did Freddy; instead, he short-circuited Donald’s ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotion. By limiting Donald’s access to his own feelings and rendering many of them unacceptable, Fred perverted his son’s perception of the world and damaged his ability to live in it. His capacity to be his own person, rather than an extension of his father’s ambitions, became severely limited. The implications of that limitation became clearer when Donald entered school. Neither of his parents had interacted with him in a way that helped him make sense of his world, which contributed to his inability to get along with other people and remained a constant buffer between him and his siblings. It also made reading social cues extremely difficult, if not impossible, for him—a problem he has to this day.”

Donald and Fred formed a team: Fred did the managing while Donald manipulated the media, ruled the tabloids, and told mesmerizing lies. His father encouraged his worst impulses. Any time Donald tried to manage something, he lost money. Fred often tried to bail him out. Once, to try to bail out his failing casino, Fred paid $3 million in cash for gambling chips with no intention of using them, to pump money into Donald’s casino. It wasn’t enough. Donald kept going bankrupt.

Mary, who observed her uncle Donald up close for decades, presents him as petty, shallow, vindictive, vulgar, and incompetent. 

“Donald, who was wearing golf clothes, looked up at me as I approached as if he’d never really seen me before. “Holy shit, Mary. You’re stacked.” “Donald!” Marla said in mock horror, slapping him lightly on the arm. I was twenty-nine and not easily embarrassed, but my face reddened, and I suddenly felt self-conscious. I pulled my towel around my shoulders.”

Later in his life, when Fred became senile, Donald tried to cheat his siblings out of their share of the inheritance in the “codicil” incident. He almost tricked his father into signing a codicil to his will that would give Donald control. The siblings caught it in time. Donald’s sister Maryanne later said this about the incident:

“We would have been penniless. Elizabeth would have been begging on a street corner. We would have had to beg Donald if we wanted a cup of coffee.

Donald’s attempt to cheat his siblings was a prelude to the four surviving siblings cheating Mary and her brother (the children of the deceased sibling) out of their share. Mary learned that she and her brother had been disinherited after her grandfather died. Mary and her brother took steps to challenge the will and hire a lawyer. To punish them, Maryanne (Donald’s oldest sister, the one who became a federal judge) got the idea to cut off their health insurance, even though Mary’s brother’s son, a baby, had serious health needs.

Mary and her brother settled. As part of the settlement, Mary got access to the financial documents. That’s when she discovered what looked to her like tax crimes.

She decided to live up to the hyperbole of her grandfather and uncle by being the very “best” at something. What could she do on a grand scale? What could she do that might make a difference? In her words: “I had to take Donald down.”
She called the New York Times, handed over all 19 boxes of documents, and (obviously) decided to write this book. The New York Times went through the boxes and wrote this article.

Mary thinks the armchair psychologists and journalists miss the mark:

“In the last three years, I’ve watched as countless pundits, armchair psychologists, and journalists have kept missing the mark, using phrases such as “malignant narcissism” and “narcissistic personality disorder” in an attempt to make sense of Donald’s often bizarre and self-defeating behavior. I have no problem calling Donald a narcissist—he meets all nine criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)—but the label gets us only so far.”
She suggests Donald Trump is troubled by sociopathy (criminality, arrogance, disregard for the rights of others), dependent personality disorder, and perhaps a long undiagnosed learning disorder, and even caffeine-induced sleeping disorder. Ultimately, she says, there’s no way to know because he’s been “institutionalized” all his life, and nobody knows if he could thrive, or even survive “on his own in the real world.”
* * *
How can people learn to withstand the power of a demagogue? Learn to spot one

Prof. Mercieca presents Trump as a master con artist. She says his gaffes weren’t gaffes. They were deliberate and masterful uses of aggressive debate tricks. She explains her use of the word “genius” in the title by saying Trump is a master at manipulating people through standard rhetorical devices: he ingenuously wields communication as a force in a way that makes it difficult to respond to him.

I won’t march through all the devices. (It’s a long, comprehensive book.) But I’ll hit a few that most struck me.

“Argumentum ad populum (Latin for “appeal to the crowd”) is used by a demagogue to praise his or her supporters as wise, good, and knowledgeable.” It works like this: Trump tells his supporters that they’re smart enough to see through the manipulation of the “fake” media. He tells them America’s problems are not their fault; they’re the victims of corrupt and inept politicians. 

Trump — a liar and consummate salesperson—conned his supporters into thinking he was a truth-teller. He did this by positioning his “lack of political correctness” as “genuineness.” He positioned being “politically correct” as being “scripted” and going along with corruption.

His supporters bought it. The result was that the more outrageous Trump’s language became, the more “truthful” and less “corrupt” he appeared to be to his supporters.

Merceica says the impulse of Trump’s critics to mock him backfired by solidifying his position as a man of the people mocked by the establishment—a tricky feat for someone who claimed to be a billionaire real estate mogul.

“When Trump read the Muslim Ban in South Carolina,” recalled CBS News reporter Sopan Deb, “a lot of us assumed it would be a death knell to his candidacy. He had a lot of criticism coming at him from both parties. It was an unexpected proposal, and it received a lot of backlash, or so we thought. When he read it in South Carolina, he got a prolonged standing ovation.”
Trump’s “ad populum” argument during the primaries was annoyingly circular: “We know Trump is right because the people support him, and the people support Trump because he is right.”

The next device is one we heard Trump use repeatedly: Ad hominem. Attacking an opponent personally diverts attention away from the debated question. People focus on the attack. His critics assume that the very nature of the attack will reflect badly on Trump, but in the process, people entirely forgot the underlying criticism that prompted the attack. When other people try to use this technique, it often flops. Remember when Marco Rubio tried to mock Trump’s small hands? He later regretted trying.
Successfully deploying these devices requires a great deal of skill.

What some people call “projection,” Mercieca calls “appeal to hypocrisy.” For example, during the Mueller investigation, Trump kept asserting without evidence that “there was no collusion except between Crooked Hillary and the Democrats.” This is a rhetorical device, which basically says “My critics have no standing to critique me because they have done it [or worse] themselves.” 

The next one is so important it may be the vocabulary word of the decade: Paralipsis, which means saying something while claiming not to be saying it. Here’s an example:

“I’m going to be nice today,” Trump said at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 21, 2015. “I’m not going to call Jeb Bush ‘low energy’; I’m not going to repeat it. I’m not going to say that ‘Marco Rubio is a lightweight.’ I said I’m not doing it! I will not do it. I will not say that ‘Ben Carson had a bad week.’ . . . I said that I’m not going to say it, so I’m not saying it! So, I’m not saying any of those things about any of those people.”

Another example during the 2016 campaign was when Trump retweeted an unnamed lawyer explaining how Rubio and Cruz couldn’t become president because they weren’t “natural born citizens” of the United States. Later, he insisted he wasn’t accountable because all he did was retweet something. He said this:

“I mean, let people make their own determination. I’ve never looked at it, George. I honestly have never looked at it. As somebody said, he’s not [eligible]. And I retweeted it. I have 14 million people between Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, and I retweet things and we start dialogue and it’s very interesting.” 
This gives Trump deniability. It lets him spread innuendo without accountability.

Trump’s followers and supporters feel like they’re in on his jokes. They applaud his deliberate ambiguity, which they understand lets him escape accountability.

When confronted by the fact that David Duke supported Trump, one Trump fan said: I love it when Trump plays dumb.”
As Hannah Arendt says in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “When followers find out that their mass totalitarian leader lied, they protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

JJ after reading all these books:


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    Steven Beschloss, one of the essential voices in the pro-democracy fight, sat down with Rick, Joe, and Stuart to talk about the GOP strategy of denial - from the 2020 election results to the jury's verdict. In case you hadn't heard, it was GUILTY on all 34 felony counts. Just thought we'd mention that. The four discussed the GOP war on elections, the rule of law, decency, and democracy - and the work we'll have to do post-2024 even after Biden wins. We're glass half full here at Resolute Square!
    June 4, 2024
  • The Great Reaction (1968-2024)
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    May 30, 2024
  • Another Republican Supports Biden
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    There were just a few brave Republicans to openly criticize Trump for falsely claiming the election was stolen in 2020, today's guest was one of them. In this episode we welcome former Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, Geoff Duncan, for an insightful conversation about the state of the Republican Party and American politics. Duncan shares his unexpected journey into politics, his vision for a renewed GOP based on policy, empathy, and tone, and his courageous stand for election integrity during the 2020 election. They discuss Duncan's recent decision to support President Biden in 2024 to help the GOP rebuild post-Trump and critique the current divisive and chaotic influence within the party.
    May 20, 2024