The Scorpion King

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Trendsetter Engineering Inc. on November 2, 2023, in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (including any of you who wish you were a little taller),

In HBO’s The Wire, an ambitious drug dealer named Marlo is determined to “wear the crown”—i.e. become the undisputed top dog of Baltimore drug dealers. To get there, he needs to rely on some of his rivals—for access to better product, and to learn how to successfully launder money and bribe politicians. But once he figures this stuff out, he realizes he doesn’t need them anymore. So he kills “Prop Joe,” dismantles the “co-op”—a cartel of various Baltimore drug dealers—and consolidates power. 

There are better analogies—from history, politics, etc.—for what we’re seeing in Trumpworld. The story of various historical figures rising to power by relying on existing stakeholders only to eliminate or marginalize those stakeholders once they attain power is very old. Joseph Stalin edged out Leon Trotsky, for instance, by forming a triumvirate within the Politburo with Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. After forcing Trotsky out, Stalin then went to work on marginalizing his former partners. He played similar games with various generals, relying on their independent power and status while he needed it, then eliminating them precisely because they had independent power and status. By the time of Stalin’s Great Terror, the most dangerous thing one could do was to have any status or power that wasn’t entirely dependent on proximity, and loyalty, to Stalin himself. Of course, the second most dangerous thing one could do is have any power at all, because Stalin was so paranoid, he saw anyone with power and influence—even if it flowed from him—as a potential danger. 

A very similar story can be told of Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping, Saddam Hussein, and countless other criminals and despots. Play the game on the way up, rewrite the rules of the game once you get there.

Now, I want to be very clear: I don’t think Trump is Marlo, Mao, Saddam, or Stalin. He’s not a mass murderer, nor is he that smart.

I just think it’s easier to illustrate the dynamic in those contexts. I have no doubt there are countless titans of industry and more conventional politicians who could provide illuminating examples of this approach to the quest for power.

Donald Trump the businessman is one such example. On his way up, he made deals with other businessmen he needed. Once he got what he wanted, he screwed them. (He even brags about it in Art of the Deal.) For instance, Trump made a big name for himself rehabbing the Wollman Ice Rink in Central Park. He persuaded Art Nusbaum, owner of HRH Construction, to do all of the work for free in exchange for lavish publicity for doing such civic-minded work. But while Trump routinely held press conferences touting the progress “he” was making restoring the rink, Trump never mentioned Nusbaum or HRH once. It was all Trump’s doing, according to Trump. He always claims a monopoly on credit and he always assigns blame elsewhere.

When Donald Trump was campaigning for president in 2015 and 2016, he made promises to every stakeholder on the right that he would be their loyal servant and champion. That was the point of signing a pledge to appoint Supreme Court justices selected by the Federalist Society. That was the thinking behind picking Mike Pence as a running mate—signaling to the evangelical and pro-life communities—that he would carry the ball for them. Whenever anyone asked about guns, Israel, abortion, whatever, he would respond “nobody will be better” on whatever their concern was.

Trump, a glorified condo salesman, had spent his life saying “yes” to any question that would close the sale. And once the dotted line was signed and the check handed over, he couldn’t care less about his obligations.

In a closed-door meeting with legislators in July 2016, the presumptive nominee was asked if he would protect “Article I” powers—i.e. the powers of Congress under the Constitution. “I want to protect Article I,” he reportedly replied. “Article II, Article XII—go down the list.”

The fact that there is no Article XII in the Constitution should have been a sign not only that Trump had no idea what he was talking about, but that he had no interest in, or knowledge of, Article I prerogatives. 

But, as would happen thousands of times over the course of his presidency, most Republicans heard what they wanted to hear. “I think he was confusing Articles and Amendments. Remember, this guy doesn’t speak from a teleprompter. He speaks from the heart,” Rep. Blake Farenthold explained, as if an explanation was synonymous with an excuse. 

And let the record show, what was obvious in theory in 2016 became manifest throughout his presidency. He couldn’t care less about congressional prerogatives, as demonstrated by his attempt to declare a national emergency to go around Congress and build a border wall. 

The mastermind behind that idea was Russell Vought, a conservative activist who served as Trump’s director for the Office of Management and Budget at the end of his administration. He now heads a MAGA think tank, the Center for Renewing America, and is a leader of Project 2025, a Heritage Foundation-backed effort to dismantle the administrative state and bring all executive branch employees under the direct authority of the president.

Now, I am no fan of the administrative state, and I have sympathies for some of the arguments made by this crowd (when made in good faith). I do think many federal agencies are on autopilot and need to be subject to more political—i.e. democratic—accountability. So, I don’t want to associate myself with a lot of left-wing critics of unitary executive theory

But the argument doesn’t end there. Those agencies are creations of Congress, not the executive branch, and I’d rather that political accountability come largely from Congress reasserting those Article I powers Trump claimed to care about. Congress established and pays for these agencies, and so the job of making sure they don’t act like a fourth branch of government should be done by the branch—the first branch—of government that created them and pays the bureaucrats salaries.

More to the point: If there’s a single argument against a maximalist unitary executive theory it can be summed up with the words, “Donald Trump.” You know what article of the Constitution Trump loves? Article II, of course. And here was his interpretation: “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”

Which brings me to an article in the New York Times this week about how Vought &. Co, no longer have any use for Federalist Society lawyers. You see, Vought told the Times, “The Federalist Society doesn’t know what time it is.”  

Knowing the time.

The Know-Nothings were a nativist political movement in the 1850s that was convinced of a vast papist conspiracy to undermine (white protestant) democracy in America. They were called “Know-Nothings” because of the standing rule to say “I know nothing” whenever members were asked what their agenda was. As paranoid populist movements go, it had a lot going for it. Know-Nothings weren’t antisemites. They were split on slavery. They supported progressive labor reforms and expanded rights for women. They just really didn’t like Catholic immigrants and the pope in Rome. 

I only bring them up because the Know-Nothings and the Time-Knowers have some interesting similarities. They share an apocalyptic belief that sinister forces—often fueled by immigration—are destroying America. They also share a belief that their enemies are ruining America on purpose and therefore they must be stopped by any means necessary, or at least with the same means they use. 

This is all a natural outgrowth of Michael Anton’s “Flight 93” nonsense. The passengers of Flight 93 knew what time it was and did what was required of them. As David Reaboi, a champion of Chrono Awareness, explains: “Knowing ‘what time it is’ is realizing that these institutions are crumbling, with or without you, and the surest way to get to something better is to allow them to crumble—and for as many people as possible to recognize that these things are, indeed, crumbling.”

This isn’t conservatism, it’s radicalism. Radicalism is the view that the existing society is corrupt and that it would be better to burn it down—or let it burn—because whatever comes next would have to be better, so long as we’re in charge. Indeed, among the many, many problems with radicalism is that it invariably gives license to people who just want power. 

When I hear people ask, “Do you know what time it is?” I’m reminded of that scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where Gary Shandling whispers, “Hail Hydra!” It’s a shibboleth for people auditioning to use, and abuse, power. Heck, as Robert Redford—who plays a Hydra agent—explains, “To build a better world, sometimes means tearing down the old one.”

When you read the Time-Knowers’ stuff, one of the things that comes through is the palpable envy they have for their enemies on the left. The left clawed its way into power, abusing the openness of the liberal order and then slammed down the curtain behind them. I agree with a lot of this stuff, to one extent or another. Many of the institutions that are supposed to be the most liberal—universities, newspapers, the ACLU—have become remarkably illiberal. Where I part ways is at the “therefore what? stage. Because it invariably boils down to, “We should do that too!” Saul Alinsky went from a demonic figure on the right to being a role model. 

As someone who believes that the liberal order of the Constitution is one of the greatest boons to humanity in all of human history, I have little patience for people who say, “They broke the rules, so we have to break them, too!” The problem with Federalist Society lawyers, according to the Time-Knowers, is that they insisted on following the law and the Constitution. Mike Pence’s great sin was in refusing to know what time it was on January 6. The legitimate accomplishments of the Trump administration, for the Time-Knowers, are now seen as evidence of how much more Trump could have accomplished had he not been stabbed in the back by Time-Ignorant cucks who wanted to have government work within the bounds of the law and Constitution. 

They’d rather have lawyers who say yes to whatever Trump demands. If the courts smack it down, they can either ignore the courts or claim that those judges are part of the institutional rot that needs to be swept away. 

That’s why I have even less patience for people who think Donald Trump is the anointed vessel for rectifying our corrupt institutions. That’s the thing, I can have thoughtful, interesting, and productive conversations with some of these people until they say, “And that’s why Donald Trump needs to be in power.” 

Donald Trump doesn’t care about any of this stuff. He’s like a Far Side dog who hears “blah, blah, blah, blah, POWER, blah, blah, blah.”

Trump has spent his life getting ahead by telling people what they want to hear—when he needed them. But when his needs changed, he didn’t think twice about betraying those people. Everyone in his universe who actually believes in, or is loyal to, anything—the Constitution, the law, conservatism, democracy, or even their own political or legal self-interest—becomes a Prop Joe or Zinoviev the moment they prove inconvenient to Trump’s personal desires or needs. 

It’s really amazing. Many of the same people who said we have to elect Trump because he will appoint conservative judges, fight for the unborn, and protect the Constitution are now utterly unfazed by Trump’s disdain for judges that were more loyal to the law and Constitution, his willingness to abandon the anti-abortion cause, and his demand to terminate the Constitution to be reinstalled in power. Trump has cut out the middle men. The Republican apparatchiks who thought it was necessary to support Trump for the good of the party now define the good of the party as what is good for Trump. He doesn’t need evangelical leaders, because he has evangelical voters. He doesn’t need pro-life leaders, because he has pro-life voters. He doesn’t need the Federalist Society crowd, or the military men he surrounded himself with, because the people who were once reassured by the presence of grown-ups in the Trump White House to keep his  ego and ignorance in check now want to see it uncaged. 

Even more amazing: Many of the leaders of these movements and causes have given up trying to protect their movements and causes because the voters and donors who keep them employed don’t want them to get in Trump’s way. They tell themselves they can just keep carrying the scorpion to the far shore where power will be there for the taking. Besides, the scorpion would never sting them.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I think second only to the Fourth of July, Halloween is the most stressful holiday for the dogs. There are no scary booms, but tiny little humans in weird costumes are constantly entering the perimeter and ringing the intruder bell. Zoë must have yelled, “get off my lawn” 5,000 times the other night. She was exhausted. Pippa joined in, but yelling “back off interloper!” loses a lot of its power when you follow up with, “also, I love you.” I was out of town for a night and the Fair Jessica came down with COVID (she’s doing fine). So Kirsten agreed to watch the dogs and they had a grand time with the impromptu sleepover. They also had fun in the field. They were also very happy to see me when I got home. Pippa would very much like it if the clocks would get fixed so she doesn’t have to go out in the dark. Meanwhile, Chester continues to stalk Gracie


Last Friday’s unsettling G-File

Last weekend’s revolutionary Ruminant

Why institutions need editors

The Remnant with Greg Lukianoff on the rise of cancel culture

The MAGAfication of the left

The Remnant with Franklin Foer on Biden’s presidency

The Dispatch Podcast welcomes Jamie Weinstein

And now, the weird stuff

American horror stories

Computer love

“Results can be ruff”

Domestic disturbance

Total bull

Down to the root

Spirit weeks

The parent trap

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