In 1982, Meryl Streep starred in a film called Sophie’s Choice, widely acknowledged as being one of her best performances and one that gave her an Academy Award.
In the film, the Sophie played by Streep faced two monumental choices: one was between two suitors; the other, incomparably more tragic, was about deciding which of her two children would be sent to a concentration camp and which one would be spared.
As the legal problems facing Donald Trump grow, and become more complex and inter-related, he too faces monumental options. Of course, they are for him much easier to contemplate than those facing Sophie. He will not have to decide over the life or death of one of his children as she did. On the other hand, how he elects to navigate through the growing morass of legal and political challenges that now confront him can have towering implications, both nationally and geopolitically. And they will no doubt also have a serious impact on his family.
The US President is now implicated in campaign finance irregularities owing to the testimony of an erstwhile lawyer of his, Michael Cohen. The latter seems to have played the role of a mafia-type fixer for a Trump with longstanding links to organized crime. Cohen is reputed to have had connections to New York- based Russian and Italian criminal groups whose favourite watering hole was a place called El Caribe, owned by an uncle. Cohen’s fleet of NYC cabbies were apparently regulars at this place. Cohen is said to have sought financial help from Russian sources when his taxi business fell on less profitable times.
Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has just been judged guilty on eight counts involving money-laundering, tax evasion and improper representation of a foreign country. In the wake of his first of two trials, According to a new book entitled House of Trump, House of Putin, Manafort’s efforts on behalf of Russian interests in the former Soviet Union go back to activities that took place over two decades ago, well before he became a political advisor to former Ukrainian President Yanukovich, a Putin stooge if there ever was one. And this guy was Trumps’ campaign manager? And he did not take a salary for this post, notwithstanding the then sorry state of his personal finances – so you can imagine who was picking up the bill.
(Manafort’s daughter, a fledgling film director, has just announced that she is adopting her mother’s name in an effort to avoid association with her father’s dirty dealings.)
The challenges to Trump’s credibility keep mounting. Just this past week, excerpts of Bob Woodward’s latest book, Fear, were released, painting a picture of a seriously dysfunctional White House. If this was not bad enough, an anonymous source within the Trump White House came forward with an editorial in the New York Times denouncing Trump’s disfunctionalities and his unfitness for the Presidency.
Thus far, there is still no clear proof of Trump’s complicity in Russian efforts to skew the 2016 US elections in his favour. That said, it is likely to only be a question of time before his involvement will have been shown to be irrefutable for anyone still capable of distinguishing truth from fake news.
As yet, we have probably only been exposed to the tip of the iceberg. All things being equal, we can expect the seventy percent that is traditionally below water level to eventually rise to the surface. In an ideal democratic world, this would only be a question of time. But the US has become, in certain critical respects, a banana republic. American democrats, and their allies around the world, can no longer be confident that the country’s traditional checks and balances will work. Above all, Trump seems to own most of the Republican Party. This could change after the mid-term elections but then again it might not.
How will Donald Trump deal with what is in any event a politically increasingly precarious situation? He faces several very different choices.
One is to organize a witch-hunt in the United States, targeting those whom he has accused of organizing a witch-hunt against himself. This process is well underway. For example, there is the growing pressure the President has been putting on his Attorney-General to investigate Democrats and, failing this, to resign. This comes on top of Trump’s efforts to discredit the main-stream media and the security services. He appears to be very close to shutting down the Muller investigation. And so on, and so forth.
Another option is to organize a conflict – serious or simulated – with a foreign country, say with Iran, North Korea, China, Russia – or more probably with easier targets closer to home, such as Mexico, Canada or even Venezuela. (For a recent blog on how this might play out, read my North American Futures.)
Or he could do both. The underlying idea is that he needs to move the political discussion in the United States from the President’s fitness for office to the necessity for Americans to join ranks against internal and external foes.
A fourth option would be for Trump to resign, as did a similarly embattled President Nixon in 1974, when facing almost certain impeachment proceedings. But, Nixon for all his failings, was still within the democratic American mainstream. Trump is beyond its edges. And as long as he is still President, his prospects for protecting his family and inner circle are better than they would otherwise be.
But if Trump fails in his grand design, a fifth option might present itself: to make the supreme sacrifice, ending his life as did a man of similar disposition in 1945. This may seem totally improbable to most readers. That said, the parallels between the ascendancies of Donald and Adolf are striking. (See my Donald and Adolf, a blog posted in October 2016.)
I sense, however, that the President is by no means done. The bottom line is that Trump has to create an authoritarian regime if he is to survive politically and otherwise. This means that he has to suspend the prevailing checks and balances on the Presidency and establish a dictatorial regime on the model of Putin, Erdoyan, Duerte, Orban – we know their names by now – conspiring with them to create something like an authoritarian international. This process is well underway.
For the time being, the US GOP, the key potential obstacle to such a development, is playing possum. Republicans should know that those among them that are prepared to facilitate the ascension of a dictator are typically among his first victims once he has secured his power.
And as I have argued elsewhere, once a would-be dictator holds the reins of power, it is exceedingly difficult to bring him to heel. Typically, one needs at least a generation to do so.
We will see how this plays out in the US of A.