Don’t blame the 'dumpster cult' for banal evil

Don’t blame the 'dumpster cult' for banal evil
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.
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Peter Navarro was one of the criminal former president’s top advisors. He’s now the second one, following Steve Bannon, to be convicted of contempt of the Congress. A jury handed down a verdict yesterday. It found him guilty of refusing to cooperate with the J6 committee that investigated Donald Trump’s attempted paramilitary takeover of the US government.

Michael Cohen, who is perhaps the only former Trump aide to seem truly regretful of his association with him, was on MSNBC the night before Navarro’s conviction. Chris Hayes asked why people like Navarro don’t realize they’re in trouble before throwing their lives away for Trump.

The part of Cohen’s response that’s getting the most attention is this: “The extent of the damage that Donald Trump causes for those people who get caught up — like myself — in this cult of Trump, this dumpster cult, it so far-reaching that Peter Navarro has not yet contemplated the full extent of it.”

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But there’s another part that deserves attention.

It’s stupidity,” Cohen said. He said that Navarro could have shown up for witness testimony, answered some questions, pleaded the Fifth on other questions, thus satisfying his legal obligations. Instead, he did nothing.

Which is it, though? Are these people throwing their lives away because they are ensnared by a “dumpster cult” of Trump’s making? Or are they just stupid, careless, lazy, arrogant and convinced of their own invincibility?

I get that there’s overlap between these two aspects. Cohen’s own reply, which featured “cult” as well as “stupidity,” exemplifies that. But I think the difference is important. One of these represents an extraordinary evil. The other doesn’t. It’s evil that’s so banal as to be invisible – and that’s frightening.

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So frightening that we may not want to see it for what it is. We may want to see something else, something that can’t be explained by ordinary human psychology, to wit: people like Peter Navarro are throwing away their lives not because they are foolish or proud or blinded by ambition. They are throwing away their lives because they are involved in a “dumpster cult.”

Actually, Navarro seems keen on encouraging that view. The night after being found guilty of contempt of the Congress, he took to social media to say that he’s “guilty” of “doing my duty to God, country, the Constitution, and my commander-in-chief. Standing tall, thanks for your prayers.”

The afternoon of his conviction, outside the courtroom, he also suggested that he’s a martyr. “The day Judge Mehta ruled that I could not use executive privilege as a defense, the die was cast,” he told reporters. “This was pro forma. We knew going in what the verdict would be. That’s why it’s going to the appeals court. … I’m willing to go to prison to settle this issue.”

(The issue in question is whether Navarro, as the president’s aide, could defy a congressional subpoena on grounds that his testimony would violate executive privilege. Judge Amit P. Mehta said that there’s scant evidence showing that Navarro’s conversations with Trump were privileged.)

Isn’t this curious? On the one hand, here’s Michael Cohen, saying that Peter Navarro is throwing away his life because he was trapped by a “dumpster cult.” “Navarro has not yet contemplated the full extent of it,” Cohen said.

On the other hand, here’s Peter Navarro, suggesting, “Yeah, I was trapped by a ‘dumpster cult.’ I didn’t commit these crimes because I willingly joined a conspiracy to overturn a free democratic election for the purpose of installing a natural-born monarch by the name of Donald Trump. I committed these crimes, because he duped me into committing them.”

We don’t have to do this. We don’t have to reach for something like “cult” to explain what appears to be the inexplicable behavior of ordinary criminals, only to have those criminals try exploiting “cult” to dodge accountability.

Instead, we should just listen to him.

“I get a House of Representatives controlled by Nancy Pelosi trying to put me in prison,” he told reporters. “Why? Because I’m a Trump guy! I get a Biden White House and a Biden Department of Justice. Does anybody want to tell me I’d be here if Republicans had held the House? Or if President Trump was in office? No! No! So a little bit of righteous indignation.”

In other words, he’s where he is, because the J6 insurrection failed. If it had succeeded, there’d be a Trump White House and a Trump Department of Justice. There’d be no accountability for him, “because I’m a Trump guy!”

Yes, that’s stupid. That’s the point.

Stupidity is obvious and boring. It does not get the attention that “dumpster cult” does. Neither do ambition, risk-taking and hubris. Neither does the belief that criminal accountability is for the little people. Neither do all those sins of the human psyche that are unleashed once you believe that anything’s justified in “taking your country back,” even betraying it.

We already understand this evil.

We don’t need “cult” to explain it.

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