by Matt Taibbi
A month ago in the Washington Post, not long before the Colorado mess, neoconservative icon Robert Kagan wrote, “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending.” We may accuse Kagan — husband of Victoria Nuland, co-founder of the Project for a New American Century, and co-author (with Bill Kristol) of the “benevolent hegemony” theory of world conquest that was the real reason for America’s Iraq invasion — of much. We can’t accuse him of not knowing history. The graphic was a bust of Caesar, perfect for a six thousand word opus on stopping Donald Trump at all costs, whose sniper-scope subtext was as subtle as the Bullwinkle float at the Thanksgiving Day parade. It could have been headlined, “Where’s Hinckley When You Need Him?”
Kagan kept trying to suggest a biological solution to the Trump problem without actually saying it. The word count can get hot quickly when you’re trapped in that kind of mind-loop. Here he tries to express the idea, “We gotta stop Trump before the election”:
Indicting Trump for trying to overthrow the government will prove akin to indicting Caesar for crossing the Rubicon, and just as effective… What limits [his] powers? The most obvious answer is the institutions of justice — all of which Trump, by his very election, will have defied and revealed as impotent.
If elected, Kagan went on, it would mean:
Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans threw every legitimate weapon against Trump and still failed. Will they turn instead to illegitimate, extralegal action?
What’s the irony level of a clarion call for a Caesarian “intervention” appearing in the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” Washington Post? Can that level of hypocrisy be quantified?
This is the paper that re-branded itself as America’s living bulwark against authoritarianism after Trump’s election, covering its new slogan like the naming of a Pope. They ran multiple self-referential stories about the significance of their decision, and paid CBS $5.25 million to introduce football fans to “Democracy Dies in Darkness” via a preposterous Super Bowl spot, which was narrated by Tom Hanks with the leaden gravitas of the U/North ad in Michael Clayton. It showed scenes of Normandy, Selma, and Apollo 11, then a montage of journalists who died for truth, before declaring, “Because knowing makes us better”:
This was after Trump’s inauguration, and right after his conniption-fit inspiring “The FAKE NEWS media… is the enemy of the people” tweet. The Post’s message couldn’t have been clearer: we’re willing to die for the truth, and under Trump, we may have to. (After Kagan’s piece, the message seems to have been reversed, but who’s counting?)
Poor Bob Woodward was dispatched to tell the slogan’s origin story on Face the Nation. It’s revealing in hindsight. We learned from Jeff Gerth’s epic Columbia Journalism Review story on Trump-Russia coverage that Woodward tried to warn Post reporters away from the “garbage” Steele Dossier, only to discover a “lack of curiosity” on the subject from staff. It’s therefore an eyebrow-raiser that Woodward took this early moment to note that “Trump is right” that “some of these stories have been out of bounds,” but “the key is to get the big things right.” It was a muted plea, but at a time when it was heresy to suggest Trump could be right about anything, even partially, Woodward was showing a measure of the courage the Post was bragging about. No one caught it.
Trump opponents argue, at times persuasively, that J6 and Stop the Steal prove Trump can’t be trusted to respect “norms,” but the Post and its sources were throwing “norms” out the window at the very moment the paper was paying millions to advertise devotion to them.
From mid-2016 on, the paper was a factory of anonymous intelligence leaks, often false. Not long after the Woodward appearance, it wrote that a Russian named Sergei Millian was the source of the Steele Dossier’s “most salacious claim,” the “well-developed conspiracy” of five years with Russia. It later had to pull the allegation and change its headline after reports emerged that Steele source Igor Danchenko, hilariously no Kremlin insider but a Brookings Institution analyst, was at the zoo when supposedly meeting Millian. Worse, the paper had to concede the infamous story of Trump cavorting at the Moscow Ritz with peeing prostitutes may have come not from Millian, but “a Democratic Party operative with long-standing ties to Hillary Clinton,” as the Post put it in a tail-between-legs explainer from 2021.
The Post racked up lots of these oopsies. It ran the damaging April 2017 leak about the FISA court surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page, wrongly dubbed an “agent of a foreign power.” It botched the “Nunes memo” story, ran at least eight different wrong scare pieces about Russian bots, bit on “Bountygate,” and helped build the oppo-crafted story of Trump as a Manchurian Candidate whose “warm views” of Russia “began in the 1980s, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union,” who appeared to change the Republican Party platform to help Russia, and “tried to conspire” with Putin. It’s hard to see anything but willful cooperation in a goofball intelligence-led caper to paralyze the Trump administration through a campaign of leaks and manufactured rumors that began before Trump’s inauguration, before he even had a chance to do the bad thing.
The “Dictator” essay got a ton of clicks, but Kagan revealed himself a bulkier, less introspective version of Shakespeare’s Brutus, who was also over-convinced of his aristocratic rectitude while completely misreading the public. Kagan must have missed the “Brutus is an honorable man” speech, and its lethal lesson for patrician leaders lost up the backside of their own self-regard. Antony’s final address is considered a standard-bearer for political oratory, but Shakespeare’s point is that it didn’t need to be, because the Roman street was already seething at the plotters’ arrogance, and could have been knocked over with a feather. Julius Caesar is literature’s most famous warning to elites about the perils of ignoring popular sentiment, and ours don’t get it.
Papers like the Post insisted since 2016 that Trump’s sole currency is racism, so it was a shock to see Kagan write, “Trump is running against the system. Biden is the living embodiment of the system. Advantage: Trump,” or, “On Trump’s watch, there was no full-scale invasion of Ukraine, no major attack on Israel, no runaway inflation, no disastrous retreat from Afghanistan. It is hard to make the case for Trump’s unfitness to anyone who does not already believe it.” Where was that before? Was there an agreement in places like the Post op-ed page to avoid analyzing Trump in conventional political terms until it was too late to be useful, i.e. until after his voters had been alienated through hysterics about “deplorables” and white supremacists?
More revealing still were Kagan’s passages about how easy it will be for dictator Trump to pursue enemies in modern imperial America, a state Kagan helped build, where the executive has almost limitless ability to thumb the scales of justice. I get why Kagan would be nervous — he and his CIA-ogling pals like Bill Kristol and David Frum will likely be first in line to herded into the proverbial C-130 and pushed out over the Atlantic, should Trump and Steve Bannon go that route. Still, it’s astonishing Kagan didn’t know how much he gave away, in laying out fears of “tyranny.”
“Nor will it be difficult to find things to charge opponents with,” he wrote. “Think of all the laws now on the books that give the federal government enormous power to surveil people for possible links to terrorism, a dangerously flexible term, not to mention all the usual opportunities to investigate people for alleged tax evasion or violation of foreign agent registration laws.” He also complained about the “whiff of new McCarthyism” from Trump acolytes accusing opponents of being “communist” or tools of China.
It’s as if Kagan doesn’t remember — or maybe he does — the last eight years of accusing everyone out of line with uniparty orthodoxy of siding with Russia, the overzealous FARA prosecutions of Trump allies like Thomas Barrack and Matthew Grimes, or the constant leaks about how the release of Donald Trump’s tax returns would serve up the long-awaited evidence of collusion. Moreover the line about the possible misuse of the “dangerously flexible term,” terrorism, coming from Robert Kagan — the man who helped lead us into war by conjuring a fictional “scenario” involving Saddam Hussein and terrorists — is enough to make anyone wonder how inflated his fears of dictatorship are.
This last week in December is normally when the campaign season turns white hot, with orgies of TV buys and canvassing sweeps. This year the decisive battles will take place in courtrooms and in invitation-only party Zoom meetings (the modern smoke-filled rooms), rather than in New Hampshire diners or town halls in Sioux City or Ames. Already we see that only a few candidates will be permitted to run without severe impediments in the form of ballot exclusion efforts, censorship, or (in Trump’s case) criminal prosecutions, making the outcomes of Colorado-style ballot suits, or Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s lawsuit against Google/YouTube, or even challenges around third-party entities like the “No Labels” party, as important or more than primaries.
Americans clearly hate this drift in the direction of a third-world-style continuous power contest. An incredible 28% dislike both parties now, a record high and four times the percentage from 2002, with the public distrusting both parties equally. The removal of so much campaign drama to courts and other venues means voters may not have as much of a say in things as they traditionally do (although I hope the change isn’t too pronounced, as this site is planning to spend a lot of time on the trail).
Still, even this coming year extra-ballot battles will be heavily influenced by the court of public opinion, the modern version of the Roman square, where a chicken-egg question will be debated: who abandoned democracy first? A lot of people seem afraid of how the country will answer, including the editors of the Washington Post. They might be right to worry.