The Man in the Tinfoil Hat

Correct me if I’m wrong, but is it possible that Donald Trump has been president for a full 61 days and not once claimed that 9/11 was an inside job?

I’ve scoured the internet for possible examples of such a statement from the sitting commander-in-chief, and so far, I’ve come up with nothing.  (For our purposes, we will discount this interview, since it was given on 9/11 itself, before anyone knew anything.)  As it turns out, in the decade-and-a-half since the worst terrorist attack on American soil, Trump has been totally, weirdly consistent in his view that the World Trade Center was brought down by Osama bin Laden and his minions in al Qaeda—and not, say, by a controlled explosion orchestrated by George W. Bush.  As far as our dear leader is concerned, the basic facts of 9/11 are settled science and not worth questioning further.

In light of all the nonsense that this administration has forced us to confront on a daily—if not hourly—basis, let us take a moment to appreciate the grace and maturity exhibited by the 45th president, vis-à-vis September 11, in accepting incontrovertible evidence as objective truth when there are other options open to him.

After all, this is the same guy who glanced at the cover of National Enquirer and proclaimed that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice in the Kennedy assassination.  The guy who propagated the theory that millions of non-citizens committed voter fraud because a German golfer told him so.  The guy who pushed hard for birtherism based on sources he never named, and who just recently accused President Obama of illegally wiretapping him based on documentation he has never produced.  And on and on and on.

Given all of this irresponsible rumor-mongering—this obsessive-compulsive embrace of political fairy tales when empirical facts are readily available—we are left to wonder:  Why isn’t Trump a 9/11 truther?  If he can so easily be made to believe that Obama could surreptitiously “tapp” the phones at Trump Tower, what’s stopping him from buying into a Bush administration that could surreptitiously blow up the World Trade Center to justify a war in Iraq?  As the leader of the free world, shouldn’t he be chomping at the bit to expose the would-be greatest crime of his least favorite Republican president once and for all?

You’d think he would be, and if Trump’s rank gullibility and ignorance aren’t sufficient reasons for him to be suspicious, surely his ongoing association with avowed 9/11 truthers would eventually do the job.

That’s right:  At this very moment, there are bona fide 9/11 skeptics within the president’s inner circle.  No, not his chief of staff or secretary of state—I’m talking about people he actually listens to and whose ideas he regularly repeats.  People like Alex Jones—aka the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh—who uses his radio program to scream about how the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and the government is using chemicals to turn frogs gay.  (Google it, kids!)  Or people like Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News contributor who originated this week’s bizarre claim that the (fictional) wiretaps in Trump Tower were the work of British spies.

These men are cooks, yet Trump’s ear seems to hang on their every word.  The president has come to view their hysterical ravings as gospel, thereby nudging paranoid gobbledygook into mainstream political culture.

We already know how pointlessly disruptive the presence of conspiracy theories can be on the daily operations of the U.S. government.  As we speak, actual intelligence officials are being paid actual wages to “investigate” something the president tweeted several weeks back at 3:35 a.m.  Two days ago, the director of the FBI was compelled to discuss those investigations in front of a congressional committee, all of whose members—like every other person in America—already knew those tweets were BS and hardly needed James Comey to confirm it.

The question now isn’t whether anything substantive will be gleaned from these mad accusations.  (It won’t.)  Rather, the question is how Trump will react to being proved a liar in half a dozen different ways.  If his past behavior is any indication—and it always is—he will continue insisting upon the rightness of his wrongness right up until every member of his administration abandons him, at which point he will sheepishly concede that no wiretap took place, quickly adding that he’s proud to have stubbornly suggested otherwise, since the ensuing investigation was the only way for us to know for sure that President Obama isn’t a criminal.  (As you’ll recall, this was roughly how he handled being humiliated about Obama’s birth certificate in 2011.)

However this particular national embarrassment is resolved, we can take it as a moral certainty that life under Trump will only get dumber from here, and you can take it from me that the longer he remains president, the greater the odds are that he will openly question 9/11.

Remember:  Trump’s solution to any big scandal is to create an even bigger scandal, and at the current rate his presidency is unraveling, it won’t be long before he burns through every other shiny object in his playbook and all that’s left is the Hail Mary.  Yes, the pushback will be fierce, and yes, the calls for his resignation will reach a veritable fever pitch.  But what would that matter to a man who believes he can generate his own reality and dismiss all opponents as the instruments of “fake news”?

In other words, the nation is currently engaged in a staring contest with someone who has no eyelids.  For all the unpredictability baked into our 45th president, we can be absolutely sure that a man who has skirted personal responsibility for the first 70 years of his life is not going to change course by the time he turns 71.  As Newton might’ve said, a president under a delusion will remain that way unless acted upon by a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate.

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Cruz Out of Control

Is it just me, or is Ted Cruz the most transparently cynical politician on planet Earth?

In the interest of charity, let’s say it’s just me.  After all, there are plenty of cynical people in politics, and picking out the cynical-est of them all is a bit like choosing which Oscar nominee is the most Caucasian:  In the end, why not just call it a tie?

Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, even among the most craven of presidential contenders, the junior senator from Texas is in a league all his own.  While this has been true from the moment he appeared on the scene, his steady ascension in the polls has made his abject wretchedness a matter of national concern.

Indeed, the sheer chutzpah infused in every sentence that comes out of Cruz’s mouth is a wonder to behold, as you realize we’re dealing with someone who will say and do just about anything to become the next Republican nominee—and, presumably, the next president—and who apparently has no understanding of the word “shame.”

If we wanted to be succinct about this, we could merely cite his recent Duck Dynasty-themed TV ad and call it a day.  (Seriously, how many hours were devoted to that face paint?)  Or we could revisit that time he cooked bacon by wrapping it around the muzzle of a machine gun and firing away.  (No, dear reader, that moment was not a hallucination.)

Truly, in the realm of primary season pandering, Cruz is a visionary and a prophet.  You sense that if he could win 15 more votes by skinning a live raccoon and wearing its carcass as a hat, he would do so without a moment’s pause—with a big, fat smile on his face.

Which brings us to the $1.6 billion question:  Is Ted Cruz as stupid as he looks?

Answer:  Absolutely not.  A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law and a nationally-recognized debater at both, Cruz is arguably the most intellectually formidable person in the GOP field, capable of processing complex ideas in ways that most other public figures don’t even attempt.  If you’re a Republican voter who values smarts above all else, Ted is most assuredly your man.

Herein lies the paradox and the punch line, which is that Cruz’s long-term electoral success depends almost entirely on garnering the support of idiots—folks who, at best, don’t give a rat’s ass about a fancy Ivy League education and, at worst, are openly contemptuous of those who have one.

Cruz understands as well as anybody that his only hope of winning the nomination is by pretending to be a total dunderhead, and damned if he isn’t giving it the old college try.  He is not going to let a little thing like dignity get in the way of becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

In this sense, Cruz doesn’t employ cynicism so much as he embodies it.  While the word “cynicism” has been used rather haphazardly in our public discourse over the years, it can best be defined here as purposefully saying something false in the understanding that your audience is too dumb to know the difference.

Up to now, Donald Trump’s birtherism has arguably been the gold standard on this front.  From the beginning, Trump knew perfectly well that Barack Obama was born in the United States and was constitutionally qualified to be president.  And yet, once he made the calculation (rather brilliantly, I must say) that there were enough ignorant rubes with whom he could build a base of support for his eventual foray into politics, he embraced the “Obama was secretly born in Kenya” conspiracy theory whole hog and—presto chango!—he is now the most popular Republican in U.S. politics.

Into this deranged, noxious atmosphere, Ted Cruz materialized last fall with possibly the most cynical public pose of all:  Embracing Trump as a swell guy with a lot of really good points.

Recall, if you will, that while Trump was inexplicably rising in stature with one galling, infantile comment after another, all of his GOP counterparts denounced and distanced themselves from him—except for Ted Cruz.  As Trump was called a “blowhard” by Jeb Bush and a “buffoon” by Rand Paul, Cruz all but linked arms with the Donald, insisting that the latter had his finger to the GOP winds and should not be so quickly discounted as some kind of unhinged carnival barker (thank you, Martin O’Malley).

Politically, it was a bold move for Cruz to align himself with a man with no apparent moral compass—someone willing to alienate virtually every racial and ethnic group in America as a means of taking over the GOP.  Like Trump himself, Cruz wagered that there were enough bigots and paranoids in the electorate to comprise a plurality of Republican primary voters, and that if those fine, upstanding citizens ever soured on Trump, why shouldn’t Cruz position himself as their next-best bet?

It seemed like an insane gambit at the time:  Trump was clearly a disaster waiting to happen and who in his right mind would tag along with that?

As it turned out—in a predictably unpredictable manner—Cruz’s low opinion of Republican voters proved 100 percent accurate, and he has benefitted from their credulity every step of the way.  While Trump remains as admired as ever, Cruz is in the best possible position to absorb Trump voters in the event of a flameout.  For Cruz, short of actually being in the lead, everything has gone precisely according to plan.

In the past few days, of course, all hell has broken loose as the unofficial détente between Trump and Cruz has officially come to an end.  Suddenly vulnerable, Trump has begun treating Cruz as disrespectfully as all his other rivals, while Cruz has finally—finally!—hinted as to what he really thinks about his party’s bully-in-chief.

While I haven’t the slightest idea how the average Republican primary voter is taking this drastic turn of events, I think I speak for most leftists and other non-Republicans in calling this the most entertaining clash of the entire 2016 race.  All presidential campaigning is crack to political junkies, but Trump v. Cruz is a veritable eight ball of excitement, and it’s going to produce one hell of a hangover when all is said and done.

Why is this fight different from all other fights?  Easy:  Because neither fighter has the slightest shred of integrity or self-awareness and—perhaps not coincidentally—both are born showmen and narcissists concerned with the fortunes of no one but themselves.

To wit:  When Trump was exchanging insults with, say, Jeb Bush, the tiff was implicitly a battle between lunacy and reason, with Bush assuming the mantle of the latter as an antidote to the former.

Against Cruz, the rules of engagement have managed to achieve an added level of ridiculousness, as neither man has the faintest interest in moderation, decorum or intellectual coherence.  By every known account, Ted Cruz is the most personally unpleasant member of the U.S. Senate, particularly among those in his own party.  It might seem odd that a man of such intelligence and education would be so detested by his fellow Republicans—that is, until you realize that he channels every modicum of his rhetorical gifts to advance his own selfish interests (read:  being elected president), often in the most heavy-handed and theatrical way possible.

Indeed, we can’t know whether Cruz means a word of what he says, because—much like Trump—every syllable is uttered entirely for effect, without regard for the consequences of turning those words into actions.

Lately, for instance, Cruz has mused about “carpet bomb[ing] ISIS into oblivion,” partly to find out “if sand can glow in the dark.”  While we have all expressed such sentiments about how we would personally handle terrorism—typically in a college dorm at 4 o’clock in the morning after 10 or 12 drinks—to hear a sober grown-up say them in the middle of the afternoon—well, it’s a bit like those closet cases who are little too effusive about how much they love women.  There is a whiff of phoniness and overcompensation in the air.

Except that doesn’t matter with Cruz, because his target audience is precisely the sort of gang that eats that stuff up and thinks all problems can be solved with apocalyptic violence.  Since Trump’s attitude on this is virtually identical to Cruz’s (on ISIS:  “I would bomb the shit out of them”), their matchup is destined to be the most childish, petty and substance-free contest in memory, and there may not be enough popcorn to get us through it.  (At least not after we leave Iowa.)

It was Andrew Sullivan in 2009 who said the Republican Party would get worse before it gets better, but I think even he didn’t foresee just how completely the GOP would disintegrate into nihilism and self-parody.  How even its highest-achieving thinkers would appeal to the lowest common denominator.

At that point, you’ll recall, Sarah Palin was the party’s great shining star—an ideological demagogue who, on the basis of her syntax, was every bit as dumb as she appeared.  How interesting, then, that the current war for the nomination is between two demagogues who, by their backgrounds, are perfectly capable of enlightened, serious leadership but, because of what their party has become, have no plausible route to success except through cynicism and bombast.

Fasten your seatbelts, citizens.  It’s gonna be a bumpy year.