Sunday 26 May 2019

Trump has been granting himself pardons all his life

Trump cartoon.
Trump cartoon.
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Remember the "fact-checking?" Remember that time, so long ago - Lord, it must be six months now - when reporters would attend some Trump event and make a list all the factual inaccuracies in his performance, believing that this was something that they called "good journalism"?

I remember feeling at the time that it was not really good journalism. That it was actually quite bad journalism. A bit like covering a McGregor fight by exposing various errors of grammar and punctuation in the programme notes - not entirely irrelevant, of course, but not really connecting with the essence of the proceedings.

At a certain point they eased off on the fact-checking. By the time the record had been tidied up and we were all feeling pretty good about ourselves, Trump would have committed a dozen more offences against The Truth for us to abhor. And while we were reacting to the latest atrocity, he would be off again, setting up another one for us, so prolific was he in his urge to misinform and to entertain, to get that reaction.

So it was that last Monday morning we found ourselves listening to a discussion on Morning Ireland about whether the president can pardon himself. A very serious-sounding man called Richard Painter, who was chief ethics lawyer for George W Bush, was explaining that any suggestion, however vague, in a tweet of the president's that he might be able to pardon himself in relation to Russia, were wrong and had absolutely no precedent in human history.

First, let us just stand in awe of the achievement of a man who can rearrange the consciousness of this world to such a degree that there are educated folk on the radio debating in sombre tones the issue of whether he has the power to pardon himself. It is a scenario which could only be imagined in a Mel Brooks movie, or perhaps the story of Papa Doc Duvalier - or ideally in a Mel Brooks movie about Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc.

The man on Morning Ireland, being serious, was evaluating Trump's self-pardon in the light of events which happened in the world before Trump started to run for president. Unfortunately most of that doesn't matter any more. It ceased to matter on the day that Trump mocked a disabled man in public by impersonating him - and proceeded to win the Republican nomination anyway.

At that point we all should have realised that olde worlde customs such as "fact-checking" mightn't make much difference in this game. As the American Psychoanalytic Association put it last week, Trump's behaviour is "so different from anything we've seen before".

It is so different, partly because it mixes things which we normally regard as being mutually repellent - hooliganism and hilarity. With this intoxicating combination he has us where he wants us, reacting to him, always reacting - last week we were just absorbing the concept of the presidential self-pardon, when along came Scaramucci, to raise the levels of hilarious hooliganism another notch.

We have been accustomed to simpler ways of seeing and understanding. We like to think that a compelling performer of any kind is bringing some sort of benign intelligence to the party. And so we struggle with this man who is so delinquent, yet who controls our attention more than a proper giant of our culture would, who can be losing on Russia and Obamacare and somehow produce a Scaramucci to win the ratings.

If you look back at Donald Trump when he was just some late-20th century exhibitionist, you can see that he hadn't hit it yet, hadn't quite found the sweet spot. There seemed to be some small part of him holding out against the darkness, like when he described the campaign of Pat Buchanan as "beyond far right" appealing only to the "wacko vote".

But when he went for it himself, he finally found that he could do it so much better than Buchanan. He was seeing it as big as a basketball, that there were no limits. And now he knows it's true, that he can be president of the USA, musing on Twitter about pardoning himself for committing treason with the Russians - and he will not automatically be led away to a quiet but secure facility for observation.

No, he will keep going. He has found that sweet spot - that place of relaxation in which he can be his best hooligan self - and probably get away with it.

The Trump brand, according to Naomi Wolf, can best be defined as "impunity". The kind of impunity that comes from tremendous wealth. "Impunity" - it has to be the official Trump fragrance.

It is so strong, it has got him through troubles almost as hideous as the Russia imbroglio, and all those bankruptcies.

So he has form in the disaster zone, he is a proverbial course and distance winner. Though with Russia he is slightly hampered, because this time to his obvious frustration he doesn't also own the track - or can't pretend that he does.

Impunity - it's there in the most literal sense as he floats the idea of pardoning himself, but it's there too at a deeper level in the culture, this desire to see someone getting away with it, someone who doesn't play by the rules, someone who doesn't even know there are rules.

In As Good As It Gets, when Jack Nicholson is asked why he writes women so well, he says: "I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability." Strangely, this would also be a guide to writing Trump.

"As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster," says Henry Hill at the start of Goodfellas, and he is speaking for multitudes who would like to live just one day as a total hooligan and get away with it - multitudes who now find that desire represented by Trump, who gets to live his whole life in pursuit of that ideal. Now he even has Scaramucci as his voice, talking like Joe Pesci in full Goodfellas derangement.

He gets away with driving a buggy across a green on one of his golf courses - a transgression which may not seem too heinous to the layman, but which is another of those things which is "so different from anything we've seen before".

He seems to get nailed for a moment, yet the gibberish that he speaks gives him an edge in a culture in which nobody is paying much attention to anything for more than five seconds, in which a tweet from two weeks ago can seem like some ancient scroll from Mesopotamia - we are all distracted, all day long, which is another stroke of luck for a man who has so much to distract us with, so much to distract us from.

So if we think that he'll be going down for Russia, we would be wise not to get too excited - until the day the "golden shower" tapes from the Moscow Ritz Carlton are released into the public domain, and Bryan Dobson is trying to give us a commentary on the action suitable for the Six One News.

But regardless of the judgement of his enemies, regardless of what they might be finding in the law books, we may be sure that this president has already pardoned himself, and all belonging to him, for everything.

Sunday Independent

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