Only Donald Trump Gets To Lie Like This
11:01 AM EST on December 23, 2020
You have probably not seen the Staten Island-based bitcoin apostle, conservative activist, and Newsmax TV studio host John Tabacco's appearances on Joe Piscopo's morning radio show, but they are exceedingly easy to imagine accurately. Close your eyes or open YouTube and you can see Tabacco sitting next to Piscopo's co-host Frankie Five Boroughs, wearing a suit and tie and talking about whatever has Staten Island upset at that moment. For the last four years, that has generally been the people who insist on Being Unfair To Mr. Trump on television. Tabacco knows how to do this in the same way that dogs will shake hands or roll over if there's a treat in the offing.
This is a load-bearing suit, which Tabacco told Piscopo that he wears both because he’s been “walking these streets in Lower Manhattan for 25 years” and you never know who you’re going to meet and maybe Do A Deal With, and also because being that person—a man in a suit, who does deals and supports others in the deal-doing community—is just who he is. “When it’s time to let loose, I know how to let loose,” he told Piscopo in 2018, “but five days a week I get up, I shave, I comb my hair, I do a full layer of Rhino Shield on my hair to hold it in place, and then I put on my suit and my tie, I make my tie knot, look, it is what it is, but I got my uniform.” As a professional Trump Guy, he also knows his orders.
In the absence of any meaningful national politics outside of Trump's own beeves and peeves, the outsourced prosecutions of Trump's endless prissy vendettas first competed with and then largely supplanted political discourse. Every president, even one as howlingly absent and multiply uninterested as Trump, shapes the tenor and ambient everyday mood of the nation. It reflects the stagy and unworkable multi-front capitulation of our current politics that Trump's moment has been so vacuously brutal; it fits the man in the office that Trump's signal achievement has been making the nation not merely privy but prisoner to his every blowzy clubhouse feud, forever, in an endless reflexive escalation that exists primarily in defiance of the idea of an ending.
Pushing all that on his behalf is a lot of work, because that escalation just keeps on escalating, but it is not really very rigorous or especially demanding work. This is where John Tabacco and Newsmax and Fox News and the rest of the sprawling Trump-specific noise pollution complex comes in. The most important, and fundamentally the only truly important thing about the Trumpian project, which has been reduced over the last month to a frantic casting about for ways to make his electoral defeat into another Big Win, is that it cannot be permitted to stop. It matters that the increasingly sweaty arguments that Trump and the media apparatus that exists to exhort and amplify him and the passel of opportunistic goblins and demi-goblins drafting off it all are not coherent or consistent, at least insofar as it has prevented them from succeeding in various courtrooms. But also, as there is always some other specious argument out there to make, it doesn't really matter at all. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you lose badly, and then you simply do it again the next day.
If you're Trump, that is. Because he is the president, and because he exists in a consequence-free zone of great privilege and pure shamelessness, Trump can and reliably has said whatever comes to mind about the various parties he believes conspired and still conspire against him. He goes through his progressions like a happy-footed quarterback, frantically checking down and checking down and checking down. In the early-late stages of his current endgame, the man and his favorite TV stories have locked onto a voting machine manufacturer called Dominion and a software company called Smartmatic as new villains, or at least as new targets for the seething open-ended speculation that long ago took the place of any other argument. The absence of any meaningful evidence is less compelling than the exhaustion of other options. There is nothing there, but also there is nothing else.
And again, for Trump, that's more or less fine. It does not work, obviously, but it plays well enough to keep him engaged. But for the networks stitched into this human centipede with him and the acolytes clamoring to be buried with him, the work of feeding and processing all this is necessarily messier and more fraught. This is because networks—like Fox News, and the even more overtly Verhoeven-ish upstarts like Tabacco's Newsmax clamoring to get closer to Trump than Fox—can be sued for defamation for repeatedly saying demonstrably incorrect things about companies like Dominion and Smartmatic. And so, earlier this week, after receiving a 20-page letter from Smartmatic's attorney demanding "a full and complete retraction of all false and defamatory statements and reports,” those networks began to do just that.
On Fox, that meant a strange and stilted three-minute segment that aired at the end of programs like Lou Dobbs Is Having An Episode, Freak Out America! With Judge Jeannine Pirro, and End Of The Road With Maria Bartiromo in which an expert named Eddie Perez responds to a disembodied voice directly asking the questions that Dobbs, Pirro, Bartiromo and others have fervidly hinted at for the better part of a month. On Newsmax, it meant poor John Tabacco explicitly disclaiming all the things that his network had previously claimed in the tone of a child being made to apologize to an aunt after breaking a vase. "Dominion has stated its company has no ownership relationship with the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's family, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's family, the Clinton family, Hugo Chavez, or the government of Venezuela," Newsmax clarified in a post bearing the byline Newsmax Wires. "Neither Dominion nor Smartmatic has any relationship with George Soros."
It is worth considering the people who might have believed those things, which are no more convincing separately than when listed together, but not for very long. They, like Trump, absorb all this from a position of perfectly passive abstraction; they're watching a show on television in which the main character fights and defeats his enemies every day, and all they expect from the show is that it delight them with new villains and twists. It is both the most important thing imaginable—the same apocalypse every day, good and evil locked in the ultimate battle for control of the direction of the next hour of programming—and totally meaningless dross, a careening soap opera in which every character is old, confused, and upset in ways that make them look ridiculous about things they've clearly not tried very hard to understand.
As with every other Trumpian apotheosis, this is all much funnier in the abstract than it is in this beleaguered moment. There is an obvious reckoning in it, but no catharsis. The promise of Trumpism was, like everything else about Trump, never difficult to make out. In essence, it was the promise that the big man would take care of you if you took care of him, less by affirmatively doing anything to help you than by punishing the people who were not you, and not like you, and who you did not like. This was always and intentionally easy to mistake for the promise that those who supported Trump would be able to enjoy, by association and through his generosity, some of the bulletproof impunity in which he glories every day.
This was false, of course, but so was all the rest of it. The violence and damage was real, but there was never any quid coupled to the demands of Trump's unrelenting quo. Or none, anyway, but the hope that the rules that so flagrantly do not apply to Trump might also not apply to those who lifted him up. That is not how the man does business, though. Loyalty runs uphill only; his feints towards generosity originate in refracted spite and self-interest, and are always only feints. He remembers every offender and every offense against himself, but forgets everyone and everything else so easily.
To serve him loyally means not just to deny this, but to embrace it. To put on Trump's uniform and fight in his negligible honor is a very stupid choice, if also one that makes a bleak sort of sense in a culture as warped by vacant power-worship and insecurity and so reflexively servile that it could literally make Donald Trump president. But the terms of enlistment are clear, and to go to war for him in the way he demands is to consent to leave everything on the battlefield. Trump's drowsily vengeful command and his idiot lies are his by divine right; the consequences that come with them are, as they have always been, for other people to wear.