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Donald Trump: A great man of history or a Wizard of Oz

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Some political commentators have compared Donald Trump to the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz (Image by Dan Jensen)

U.S. President Donald Trump used his abilities as a conman to win over the public and key political figures during his time in office, writes Paul Begley.

THE BRITISH HISTORIAN Thomas Carlyle proposed a theory of charismatic leadership summarised in the view that ‘the history of the world is but the history of great men’. If it’s possible to imagine asking U.S. President Donald Trump his view on that theory, it’s possible also to imagine him answering the question by declaring that he knows more about history than anyone.

And yes, he would say there is no question about it; certain men are divinely chosen to impose themselves on the times in which they live by virtue of their wisdom, courage and decisiveness. And yes, he would add with apparent modesty, that he is one of them. Indeed, some say he is the greatest of the great men of history, with a singular aptitude for inspiring dramatic societal change and for winning a record 74 million votes as a sitting U.S. President. And no, he would not walk back his memorable utterance from the glorious 2016 presidential campaign: “I alone can fix it.”

In the same way that he names the Bible as his favourite book but is coy about naming a favourite passage, he would be reluctant to turn his mind to other great men of history. He has compared himself favourably to Abraham Lincoln on occasions because someone told him the little-known fact that Lincoln was a Republican. He might look favourably on the naming of Churchill, Napoleon and Julius Caesar as great men of his ilk. That said, he would almost certainly bristle at comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, Cleopatra, or Catherine the Great of Russia, though Trump’s Russian contemporary, Vladimir Putin, would win an approving nod.

Some unkind commentators have compared the 45th President to the Wizard of Oz, noting the disembodied voice behind the bluster revealed when Dorothy pulls aside the curtain. That said, the U.S. President has turned delusion into reality so often since 2016 that astute judges no longer underestimate his capacity to cast spells that work to his advantage and they will not rest until they see his suitcases depart the White House at noon on 20 January.

One of those judges is his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Cohen was once known as Trump’s fixer. A teetotaller like his boss, Cohen rose early each morning without the hangovers that many of his colleagues suffered and he prided himself on being the first person Trump spoke to each morning and the last he spoke to each night. Until he fell to Earth on the Road to Damascus in 2018, Cohen’s daily activities for ten years involved standing over clients, vendors and suppliers with threats of litigation, intimidation and bare-faced lies in the service of his boss at the Trump Organisation.

Following the Damascus experience, Cohen cooperated with special prosecutor Robert Mueller and pleaded guilty to numerous offences including lying to Congress. He has spent his time since then making up for the years he spent willingly doing Trump’s dirty work. From prison, he has written a book, Disloyal, which confesses to his many offences against fairness, decency, the law of the land and truth.

His successor as Trump’s fixer, Rudy Giuliani, declared that Cohen had been lying for years and everyone knew it. Appearing in Congress for the second time in November 2018, Cohen concurred with Giuliani’s character assessment of him, having admitted that he lied to Congress on his first appearance. He explained that he did that in order to protect “Individual 1”, the associate who had been identified by Mueller as directing Cohen to organise many illegal activities, including substantial undeclared payments to two women. No one doubted the identity of Individual 1, who was not named.

In the widely viewed evidence that Cohen gave Congress the second time, he insisted he was not lying on that occasion. A witness who openly admits to lying previously under oath presents a problem for those listening. How do they judge whether such a witness is lying this time other than by taking his word for it, when the standing of his word and the flawed character of the person giving it are germane to the matters in question? 

A reader of ‘Disloyal’ might ask the same question. Trump claimed Cohen was just a disgruntled former employee simply saying what the special prosecutor wanted to hear in order to get a reduced sentence. In response to Cohen’s detailed evidence against him, Trump said it was the sort of evidence that could be expected from a “rat”.

In the parlance of mobster talk, a rat is an informer who has changed sides and can bring to the table inside intelligence gained from intimate knowledge of the other side. In theory, evidence given willingly by a rat is quality evidence because the witness possesses insights not otherwise available. He can pull aside the curtain and show how the machine works.

Cohen describes two ways in which Trump compelled attention and won over believers. The first relates to the dictum “keep it simple, say it often”, a practice that has proven its effectiveness over time and is used in worthwhile public education campaigns as well as for dark propaganda purposes. The phrase “enemy of the people” is an example of the latter, a phrase that has been directed repeatedly by Trump at mainstream American journalists. It’s the same phrase used during the Third Reich in reference to German newspapers that were systematically delegitimised by repetition of the term “lügenpresse”, a word that translates in English as “lying press” or “fake news”. 

The second technique is to make a damaging assertion about an opponent regardless of evidence in support of the assertion. The idea is that by the time anyone has proven it false, a critical mass of people have come to believe it. Trump’s birtherism claims about Barack Obama employed that gutter technique and it appears again in his post-election diatribes. 

Cohen cites a number of cases in which he participated in exercises of that type. One was a sting involving David Pecker, owner of the National Enquirer, a widely circulated celebrity gossip tabloid. One of the parties involved in the sting was a young Australian journalist with the Enquirer called Dylan Howard. Cohen describes Howard as a character assassin with an exceptional talent for coming up with useful stories “pulled directly out of his backside”.

In June 2016, leading up to the Indiana Republican Primary, the polls indicated Ted Cruz was clearly leading and would be the likely winner. Pecker and Howard showed Cohen a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly taken on the day of the JFK assassination in Dallas. Oswald was pictured alongside a grainy indistinct character that Howard said was Rafael Cruz, Ted’s father. No one could clearly see or identify the other person in the picture with any certainty, but when Cohen showed Trump the picture he loved it because Pecker said it didn’t matter whether the person in the photograph was Cruz’s father or not: “All we have to do is assert that it is.”

Once published, the Oswald-Cruz story was fanned by Trump on Fox and Friends and went viral, resulting in Cruz losing the Indiana Primary 53-37, with Trump lavishing praise on the Enquirer ‘as if it had actually engaged in journalism instead of conspiring to deceive the American people’.

Cohen adds that similar stories were written at the expense of Marco Rubio, a sanctimonious Catholic presidential rival, who was depicted in the Enquirer as a gay cocaine addict running a second family, with a love child aborted by his mistress. No evidence, just assertion, but it helped end Rubio’s candidature.

‘Disloyal’ is the work of a consummate conman, one who worked intimately for a decade with the man who has conned millions in America and many more around the world who have fallen under the Trump spell. Readers need to be aware of that. Cohen spends much of the book explaining how he, too, had fallen under that spell, even though it was a spell he helped create.

The book is a portrait of a man who had lost his moral compass and is now thankful for recovering his family and a degree of ethical equilibrium. For that, he can partly thank Stormy Daniels because his fall was precipitated in part by the FBI finding a curious $130,000 debit entry on his mortgage line of credit. It’s safe to say Cohen would not have experienced his Damascus moment had it not been forced on him.

Like Cohen, the biblical St Paul was depicted as heading to Damascus with base intentions, only to be thrown involuntarily to the ground before changing his life. Cohen’s post-Damascus confession about the road he travelled from the conman’s fixer to a plummeting fall from grace as the President’s Special Counsellor to humble prisoner is sobering. He was until recently still a prisoner within a system that had tried to stop him writing the book. Having just read it, I appreciate better the phenomenon behind the relentless undermining of fact and truth and thank him for pulling aside the curtain.

Paul Begley lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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