Musing about law, books, and politics

Michael Cohen, the GOP, and the Cult of Leadership

[View here as a Twitter thread]

Michael Cohen, in his riveting testimony Wednesday before the House Committee on Oversight, illustrated how Trump’s Cult of Leadership operates.

The classic definition of a leadership cult comes from Robert O. Paxton:

1/ In a leadership cult the followers look for a strong authority (always male) culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny.

This is what Trump was getting at when he said, “I alone can fix it” and promises to Make America Great Again.

2 / Lies are an integral part of a leadership cult. The leader’s utterances don’t have to be factually true—as long as they advance the group’s agenda.

The agenda always includes consolidating power. Truth is “whatever permits” the Leader to dominate others.

3/ On Wed., Cohen explained how Trump signals to his supporters what lie they are supposed to tell. “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress,” Cohen said. “That’s not how he operates.” How does he operate? 

Cohen offered an example of how he operates.

4/ During the campaign, while Cohen was negotiating with Russia on Trump’s behalf (to build Trump Tower Moscow), Trump often asked how the negotiations were going. Other times Trump looked Cohen in the eye and say, “there’s no business in Russia.”

5/ Afterward Trump went out and told the same lie to the American people. Cohen thus understood that “there’s no business in Russia” was the lie he was supposed to tell.”

McCabe tells a similar story. After Trump fired Comey, Trump summoned McCabe to a meeting.

Trump offered a “gleeful” description of what happened with the firing of Comey. McCabe knew this wasn’t true. He also knew Trump expected him to “adopt” this falsehood.

McCabe refused. He said, “No sir. That’s not true . . . ” He knew that he’d “given him the wrong answer.”

7/ McCabe knew he would lose his job because of his unwillingness to tell the lie that Trump wanted him to tell.

Trump not only made sure McCabe was fired, he also made sure McCabe—after 21 years of service—would not receive his earned benefits.

8/ Preet Bharara tells a similar story. Bharara was startled shortly after Trump took office when Trump personally reached out to him. It was odd,” Bharara said, “because as a general matter, Presidents don’t speak directly to United States attorneys. You know the number of times President Obama called me? Zero.”

9/ The calls were particularly awkward because Mr. Bharara was prosecuting Russian money laundering and Russian mob crimes in Trump’s own neighborhood of Manhattan.

10/ Bharara accept a few of Trump’s phone calls. Trump just called to shoot the breeze. Bharara suspected nobody knew the president was calling him.

He felt distinctly uncomfortable, so the next time the president called, he refused the call.

He was fired twenty hours later.

11/ McCabe and Bharara were clear warnings to what happens to those who ignore the leader’s signals. There are too many other examples to count, like the way Trump signaled to Comey that he should drop the investigation into Flynn without actually telling him to do so.

“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Comey, according to Comey’s memo.

12/ Cohen explained how he was drawn into the Leadership Cult:

“Being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating. When you were in his presence, you felt like you were involved in something greater than yourself — that you were somehow changing the world.”

13/ Cohen ended up “touting the Trump narrative for over a decade.”

Cohen’s job—and the job of everyone else in Trump’s orbit—was to stay on message and “protect” Trump.

They did their jobs willingly and even eagerly.

14/ A chilling moment in Cohen’s testimony on Wed. was when Cohen responded to insults by Congressional Republicans by saying: “I am responsible for your silliness because I did the same things that you are doing now. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.”

15/ Cohen then issued a warning: “People who follow Mr. Trump blindly will suffer the same consequences I’m suffering.” 

16/ One way to understand our current politics is that people like James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Preet Bharara were not susceptible to a “mesmerizing” leader and the kind of far right wing fascist-style leadership cult Paxton describes. Graham, much of the Congressional GOP and the Fox crowd, is.

Cohen was drawn in, but could pull out. Manafort & Stone probably can’t.

17/ That’s what it means to say that we are up against a Cult of Leadership.

Understanding the problem, I think, is the first step toward solving it.