To see what spiked means when we say we’re opposed to Trump but also unnerved by some of the opposition to Trump, look no further than the Michael Flynn scandal. In Flynn, we see some of the worst aspects of the Trump administration. And in the fall of Flynn, won by newspapers reportedly fed info by intelligence agencies, we see a creeping disdain for liberal values and even democracy itself among the anti-Trump set. Spin, back-covering and an intemperate disdain for being investigated have quickly become the hallmarks of the Trump administration; fear, exaggeration and a disregard for democratic politics risk becoming the defining features of the anti-Trump set.
The paranoid political style of Trump has been writ large in the Flynn incident. Flynn lasted just 24 days as national security adviser before falling on his sword this week following revelations that in December he had a private chat with the Russian ambassador to the US. Apparently they talked about America’s sanctions on Russia. This was before Trump entered the White House, so Flynn was a private citizen, and it’s against the law for private citizens to interfere in diplomatic relations between the US and a foreign nation. There’s some discussion over whether Flynn actually broke the law: a writer for Bloomberg says he merely said the Trump administration would ‘review Russia policy’, so he wasn’t setting foreign policy. But it’s certainly embarrassing.
But even more concerning is how Flynn and the administration dealt with this problem. Flynn lied to senior officials about the ambassador talks. Trump himself reportedly knew for two weeks that Flynn was suspected of lying and yet he didn’t advise his vice-president Mike Pence. This led to the extraordinary situation where Pence was going about his political business without the full facts on Flynn. In the words of the New York Times, ‘Pence was kept in the dark’ and didn’t know about the Flynn misinformation ‘until reading news accounts late last week’. This suggests a corrosion of basic integrity in the Trump administration. Normally, when the media and others demand of politicians ‘What are they hiding?’, it springs from a cynical worldview that tends to hold all politicians in contempt; but given Trump’s treatment of Pence on the Flynn front, it’s a question people will now ask, and legitimately.
The Flynn debacle speaks to an administration that seems to lack the basic political and moral resources required for smooth, clear governing; to an administration that’s incredibly isolated. And not only by the media and what is mistakenly referred to as the liberal elite (they aren’t actually liberal), but also by significant sections of the machine of American officialdom, including the intelligence agencies, the courts, and of course former Obama officials. And lacking a clear sense of what it is for, or even how it came to power really, the administration’s response to this isolation tends to be attacks, and misinformation, and paranoia. The Flynn fallout shines a harsh light on the closed, tetchy, fatalistic Trump style.
But it also exposes some profound problems in the agitation with Trump, in the growing official and media hostility to Trump, in the view of him as a proto-fascist. It confirms that the fear of Trump has become so intense that some now consider it acceptable to use extraordinary, even undemocratic measures to weaken his power. How else do we explain the cavalier acceptance of the means through which Flynn’s position was made untenable? The Economist sums up with contradictory dryness the alarming nature of recent events: ‘Former Obama administration high-ups and still-serving career intelligence officials told reporters… that the general [Flynn] had been overheard by American spooks talking by telephone to Russia’s ambassador to America.’