Joshua Frank

Fools rush in: Trump, pardons and the tyrant’s cult

There is little doubt among readers of this online magazine that Donald Trump, like all U.S. presidents before him, is a criminal. His grotesqueness and belligerence, however, has elevated Trump to Nixonian heights. With Bugsy Siegel's mob swagger and the ponzi-salesmanship of Bernie Madoff, Trump, the petty grifter, is unlike almost any official we've witnessed in public life.

In his 1979 book, the Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, social critic and historian Christopher Lasch all but predicted the dawn of Trumpian politics, writing:

"…the prevailing obsession with celebrity and a determination to achieve it even at the cost of rational self-interest and personal safety. The narcissist divides society into two groups: the rich, great, and famous on the one hand, and the common herd on the other … The narcissist admires and identifies himself with 'winners' out of his fear of being labeled a loser. … his admiration often turns to hatred if the object of his attachment does something to remind him of his own insignificance."

The only point that Lasch perhaps missed in his pioneering work is the cultish atmosphere a specimen like Donald Trump is able to cultivate and exploit for his own personal and political gains. It's this innate narcissism, emboldened by a coterie of abiding fools circling round him, that led to the invasion of the Capitol. His racist minions, not too unlike the conditioned and dutiful helter-skeltering Manson Girls, were more than willing to sacrifice their personal safety for what they believed was the greater good — in this case, a battle against the "injustice" Trump had faced at the hands of some mysterious electoral fraud. The sinister enemies were everywhere. The media. Mitch McConnell. Nancy Pelosi. The Georgia Secretary of State and even that smarmy Mike Pence. The lone truth-teller was Trump, the great defender of the supremacy of white America, and to his energetic fans, the only man able to save our fragile and dying Republic from the brink of collapse.

Understanding Trump as a cult leader is the only way to truly appreciate the power he wields and the idiocy he manifests. Few others could call upon their legions to rush government buildings with the dashing hope their efforts would make a difference, overturning what they falsely believed was a rigged election. No longer did police lives matter to these twisted Patriots. No longer did America's legal system matter, which shot down one election lawsuit after another. No longer did common sense matter, if the Capitol stormers had any to begin with. Only their President mattered. Only fulfilling his delusional fantasies mattered, and this was worth risking imprisonment and even death for. While the refrain may have been "Make America Great Again", the real mantra echoing through Washington last Wednesday was "Keep Trump President." He had not, after all, lost, according to them. The multiple logics here were murky at best, but the essence of their rhetoric was not.

As an ice-cold Trump stood at his podium, cold air blowing against his puffy, orange cheeks, he bellowed nonsense to the assemblage below, which was largely made up of white men and women clasping red Trump flags and banners. Like so many of his election trail spectacles, his speech was long-winded, meandering, and bellicose. The crowd screamed "Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!" At the end, he called on the riled-up crowd to parade with him to the Capitol building where Congress was meeting to certify Biden's electoral victory. They would finally be heard. There would finally be justice.

"…we fight like hell, and if you don't fight like hell you're not going to have a country anymore … So we are going to–we are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, I love Pennsylvania Avenue, and we are going to the Capitol, and we are going to try and give–the Democrats are hopeless, they are never voting for anything, not even one vote but we are going to try–give our Republicans, the weak ones because the strong ones don't need any of our help, we're try–going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country. So let's walk down Pennsylvania Avenue."

We all know what transpired next. The broken windows. The stolen podium. The "QAnon Shaman" with his horns and fur hat. A self-proclaimed white nationalist kicking back at Pelosi's desk. The woman, shot and killed by police as her fellow rioters violently attempted to break down a barricaded door. One cop was killed. It was chaos as numerous fascist groups converged for action. Trump, of course, did not march with his cult down Pennsylvania Avenue that afternoon. He never intended to. Prior to his speech, Trump stoically watched his feverish crowd build on television screens safely under a white tent as Laura Branigan's "Gloria" blared in the background. Everyone was packed in, smiling. Dancing. Celebrating. Maskless. Drunk on Trump madness, imploring him to "fight".

Had the rioters had black or brown skin, armed or not, they would surely have been shot on the spot as they climbed walls and ransacked the congressional building. Instead, a few of Trump's intruders were greeted by gleeful officers while hordes of off-duty cops hung out in the crowd. The breach was easy for the mob, as security forces holding the line futilely fired pepper spray. Their efforts failed miserably. They were outnumbered and ill-prepared. Why weren't they ready for what so many knew was coming? Because these were wholesome white goons and not black rights activists? During last summer's BLM protests in DC, there were far more stormtroopers present, an overwhelming show of force. The lack of police presence on January 6 appeared intentional.

As more photos are corroborated and verified, it's becoming evident that a group of these fascist thugs, some with military backgrounds, had something even more sinister planned than smearing their feces on the walls of power. They planted pipe bombs and had a truck full of weapons at the ready. One instigator, as Ronan Farrow reported for The New Yorker, decked in full military garb and a handful of zip ties, was Air Force Academy graduate and retired Lt. Colonel. Ret. Larry Brock, a decorated combat veteran from Texas. He and his fellow Confederate flag-waving terrorists were out for blood. As the raid transpired, Trump, the pseudo-conductor, gleefully responded that he "loved" them and that they were "very special" but they could go home now. The National Guard, after Trump initially resisted, was finally called in. As of this writing, only 82 have been arrested for breaking into the Capitol. By comparison, DC cops arrested five times that number during last summer's BLM protests.

There is little doubt, legal or otherwise, that Trump fomented this haphazard insurrection. While some of the planning was orchestrated in the darker corners of the web, Trump's Twitter account acted as ground zero for the disorder. After months of claiming, falsely and without evidence, that the election was stolen, he tweeted on December 19, "Big protest in D.C. on January 6th." This was one of several tweets he blasted out supporting the action. "Be there, will be wild!"

His cult, from the Proud Boys to QAnon, latched on quickly, and Pro-Trump forums across the web were exuberant about their "daddy's" call (yes, some called him "daddy") for an uprising against Congress. It was all out in the open. They were planning to be armed. They were planning to "arrest" members of Congress. They said Trump's Tweet was a "marching order" and prepared themselves to shoot counter-protestors.

While the FBI ignored the threats, Twitter and other social media giants took note. Following the three-hour takeover, Facebook and Instagram blocked Trump. Twitter placed his account in jail for 12 hours, only to later ban him altogether. By the weekend, Twitter began to scrub those they deemed QAnon or promoters and supporters of Trump's call for insurrection. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that works to defend civil liberties in the digital world, was swift to respond:

"The decisions by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and others to suspend and/or block President Trump's communications via their platforms is a simple exercise of their rights, under the First Amendment and Section 230, to curate their sites. We support those rights. Nevertheless, we are always concerned when platforms take on the role of censors, which is why we continue to call on them to apply a human rights framework to those decisions."

This social media blockade is the first real punishment Trump has faced for his actions since the failed impeachment attempt of last year. Could he receive more? The 25th Amendment is not going to be invoked and impeachment proceedings are facing hurdles. Once Trump vacates the White House he may be facing numerous charges in New York for financial crimes and even election finance fraud for his various payments to Stormy Daniels. But will he ever be brought to justice for inciting this ugly white nationalist riot? It's possible. The New York Times reports the DOJ is open to pursuing charges. Others believe the charges could stick. "Based on everything I saw my 30 years as a federal prosecutor, it sure looks like there's enough to charge him with inciting a riot," says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Glenn Kirschner.

Of course, any criminal case against Trump would not transpire until he leaves office on January 20. But what of a self-pardon? There's plenty of talk of Trump not only pardoning those around him who have yet to be accused of a crime (Ivanka, Rudy, Jared, etc.) but of pardoning himself as well. Such a pardon, however, may or may not hold up in court. In a 1974 opinion by the Dept. of Justice, written in response to Nixon's dealings with Watergate and the potential for his own self-pardon, the DOJ responded that, "Under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, the President cannot pardon himself."

For such a self-pardon to be litigated, Trump would first have to be charged. Such an indictment is no guarantee but still possible. On Friday, a DC City official, who was not authorized to speak on the matter, told me the City was discussing a charge against Trump for the mob disorder. On Sunday it was confirmed by Washington DC District Attorney, Michael R. Sherwin, who said he will be going after all those involved, including any elected officials. However, any prosecution in DC falls under federal jurisdiction. So any pardon challenge would go into effect and likely make its way to the Supreme Court, where Trump-leaning appointees now stack the bench.

Though it may be only a matter of days, we have a long road to traverse before we reach the end of this four-year-long dumpster fire. Already, scores of Trump's acolytes are planning a violent confrontation on Inauguration Day and these fascists are more armed and crazier than ever. As Trump, the pathological narcissist that he is, finally loses grip on power, his significance will wane and breed further resentment in this sick and sinister faction of white America, energized by their vile settler mentality that has existed since these lands were first stolen from indigenous nations. It may take years before this latest chapter of our country's history finally comes to a close, if it ever shuts completely. In the interim, there will be more sporadic madness and more bloodshed, until the day the Trump cult, outnumbered and on the ropes, has nothing tangible to fight for, no leader, no mythical wrong that can be righted. Hopefully, Trump's white nationalist goons will be left with only a faint memory of their childish insurgency, shining dully like the fool's gold they've been sold.

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank.

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The first Gulf War had a horrific effect on the environment, as CNN reported in 1999, "Iraq was responsible for intentionally releasing some 11 million barrels of oil into the Arabian Gulf from January to May 1991, oiling more than 800 miles of Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian coastline. The amount of oil released was categorized as 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and twice as large as the previous world record oil spill. The cost of cleanup has been estimated at more than $700 million."

During the build up to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Saddam loyalists promised to light oil fields afire, hoping to expose what they claimed were the U.S.'s underlying motives for attacking their country: oil. The U.S. architects of the Iraq war surely knew this was a potential reality once they entered Baghdad in March of 2003. Hostilities in Kuwait resulted in the discharge of an estimated 7 million barrels of oil, culminating in the world's largest oil spill in January of 1991. The United Nations later calculated that of Kuwait's 1,330 active oil wells, half had been set ablaze. The pungent fumes and smoke from those dark billowing flames spread for hundreds of miles and had horrible effects on human and environmental health. Saddam Hussein was rightly denounced as a ferocious villain for ordering his retreating troops to destroy Kuwaiti oil fields.

However, the United States military was also responsible for much of the environmental devastation of the first Gulf War. In the early 1990s the U.S. drowned at least 80 crude oil ships to the bottom of the Persian Gulf, partly to uphold the U.N.'s economic sanctions against Iraq. Vast crude oil slicks formed, killing an unknown quantity of aquatic life and sea birds while wrecking havoc on local fishing and tourist communities.

Months of bombing during the first Gulf War by U.S. and British planes and cruise missiles also left behind an even more deadly and insidious legacy: tons of shell casings, bullets and bomb fragments laced with depleted uranium. In all, the U.S. hit Iraqi targets with more than 970 radioactive bombs and missiles.

More than 15 years later, the health consequences from this radioactive bombing campaign are beginning to come into focus. And they are dire. Iraqi physicians call it "the white death"-leukemia. Since 1990, the incident rate of leukemia in Iraq has grown by more than 600 percent. The situation was compounded by Iraq's forced isolation and the sadistic sanctions regime, once described by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan as "a humanitarian crisis", that made detection and treatment of the cancers all the more difficult.

Most of the leukemia and cancer victims aren't soldiers. They are civilians. Depleted uranium is a rather benign sounding name for uranium-238, the trace elements left behind when the fissionable material is extracted from uranium-235 for use in nuclear reactors and weapons. For decades, this waste was a radioactive nuisance, piling up at plutonium processing plants across the country. By the late 1980s there was nearly a billion tons of the material.

Then weapons designers at the Pentagon came up with a use for the tailings. They could be molded into bullets and bombs. The material was free and there was plenty at hand. Also uranium is a heavy metal, denser than lead. This makes it perfect for use in armor-penetrating weapons, designed to destroy tanks, armored-personnel carriers and bunkers.

When the tank-busting bombs explode, the depleted uranium oxidizes into microscopic fragments that float through the air like carcinogenic dust, carried on the desert winds for decades. The lethal bits when inhaled stick to the fibers of the lungs, and eventually begin to wreck havoc on the body in the form of tumors, hemorrhages, ravaged immune systems and leukemias.

It didn't take long for medical teams in the region to detect cancer clusters near the bomb sites. The leukemia rate in Sarajevo, pummeled by American bombs in 1996, tripled in five years following the bombings. But it's not just the Serbs who are ill and dying. NATO and U.N. peacekeepers in the region are also coming down with cancer.

The Pentagon has shuffled through a variety of rationales and excuses. First, the Defense Department shrugged off concerns about Depleted Uranium as wild conspiracy theories by peace activists, environmentalists and Iraqi propagandists. When the U.S.'s NATO allies demanded that the U.S. disclose the chemical and metallic properties of its munitions, the Pentagon refused. Depleted uranium has a half-life of more than 4 billion years, approximately the age of the Earth. Thousand of acres of land in the Balkans, Kuwait and southern Iraq have been contaminated forever.

Speaking of DU and other war-related disasters, former chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said the environmental consequences of the Iraq war could in fact be more ominous than the issue of war and peace itself. Despite this stark admission, the U.S. made no public attempts to assess the environmental risks that the war would inflict.

Blix was right. On the second day of President Bush's invasion of Iraq it was reported by the New York Times and the BBC that Iraqi forces had set fire to several of the country's large oil wells. Five days later in the Rumaila oilfields, six dozen wellheads were set ablaze. The dense black smoke rose high in the southern sky of Iraq, fanning a clear signal that the U.S. invasion had again ignited an environmental tragedy. Shortly after the initial invasion the United Nations Environment Program's (UNEP) satellite data showed that a significant amount of toxic smoke had been emitted from burning oils wells. This smoldering oil was laced with poisonous chemicals such as mercury, sulfur and furans, which can cause serious damage to human as well as ecosystem health.

According to Friends of the Earth, the fallout from burning oil debris, like that of the first Gulf War, has created a toxic sea surface that has affected the health of birds and marine life. One area that has been greatly impacted is the Sea of Oman, which connects the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf byway of the Strait of Hormuz. This waterway is one of the most productive marine habitats in the world. In fact the Global Environment Fund contends that this region "plays a significant role in sustaining the life cycle of marine turtle populations in the whole North-Western Indo Pacific region." Of the world's seven marine turtles, five are found in the Sea of Oman and four of those five are listed as "endangered" with the other listed as "threatened".

The future indeed looks bleak for the ecosystems and biodiversity of Iraq, but the consequences of the U.S. military invasion will not only be confined to the war stricken country. The Gulf shores, according to BirdLife's Mike Evans, is "one of the top five sites in the world for wader birds, and a key refueling area for hundreds of thousands of migrating water birds." The U.N. Environment Program claims that 33 wetland areas in Iraq are of vital importance to the survival of various bird species. These wetlands, the U.N. claims, are also particularly vulnerable to pollution from munitions fallout as well as oil wells that have been sabotaged.

Mike Evans also maintains that the current Iraq war could destroy what's left of the Mesopotamian marshes on the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Following the war of 1991 Saddam removed dissenters of his regime who had built homes in the marshes by digging large canals along the two rivers so that they would have access to their waters. Thousands of people were displaced. The communities ruined.

The construction of dams upstream on the once roaring Tigris and Euphrates has dried up more than 90 percent of the marshes and has led to extinction of several animals. Water buffalo, foxes, waterfowl and boar have disappeared. "What remains of the fragile marshes, and the 20,000 people who still live off them, will lie right in the path of forces heading towards Baghdad from the south," wrote Fred Pearce in the New Scientist prior to Bush's invasion in 2003. The true effect this war has had on these wetlands and its inhabitants is still not known.

The destruction of Iraqi's infrastructure has had substantial public health implications as well. Bombed out industrial plants and factories have polluted ground water. The damage to sewage-treatment plants, with reports that raw sewage formed massive pools of muck in the streets of Baghdad immediately after Bush's 'Shock and Awe' campaign, is also likely poisoning rivers as well as human life. Cases of typhoid among Iraqi citizens have risen tenfold since 1991, largely due to polluted drinking water.

That number has almost certainly increased more in the past few years following the ousting of Saddam. In fact during the 1990s, while Iraq was under sanctions, U.N. officials in Baghdad agreed that the root cause of child mortality and other health problems was no longer simply lack of food and medicine but the lack of clean water (freely available in all parts of the country prior to the first Gulf War) and of electrical power, which had predictable consequences for hospitals and water-pumping systems. Of the 21.9 percent of contracts vetoed as of mid-1999 by the U.N.'s U.S.-dominated sanctions committee, a high proportion were integral to the efforts to repair the failing water and sewage systems.

The real cumulative impact of U.S. military action in Iraq, past and present, won't be known for years, perhaps decades, to come. Stopping this war now will not only save lives, it will also help to rescue what's left of Iraq's fragile environment.



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