November 17, 2016

The first rule of Trump Club is: You do not talk about Trump Club

by

“I have the best ziggurats. You never saw ziggurats like this.”

“I have the best ziggurats. You never saw ziggurats like this.”

Another day and the news is still bad. I can’t bear to make the world look at another photograph of the disheartening fellow recently elected president, so instead I’ve found a way of framing this story so that a beautiful clay tablet inscribed in Sumerian cuneiform will make an apt illustration.

True fact: cuneiform was humanity’s first writing system. Today, so much of it survives, and so few people are able to make sense of it, that only about 1/10 of that writing has been read in modern times. (Turns out it’s mostly cookie recipies.) As scholars make their way through the backlog, they periodically uncover some long-forgotten piece of literature — like last year, when twenty new lines of the Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered in a museum in Kurdistan.

Now, Donald Trump. One of the reasons it’s not easy to talk about the prospects for Trump’s presidency is that he, and those around him, demonstrate such stunning contempt for the law, and brandish such ignorance of American and democratic norms, that it can be impossible to keep pace. Trump and his cronies are indeed so unhinged and anti-democratic, and harbor views so scandalous to the conscience of liberty—and they are all so talkative about it—that they’ve left a gigantic record of statements for journalists to comb through, like so many diligent cuneiform scholars (see?). And sometimes, important tablets turn up, like yesterday’s news that Steve Bannon, more than a year ago, complained Silicon Valley houses too many Asian CEOs, or last week’s recirculation of reporting from the summer about Newt Gingrich’s wet dream of a reborn HUAC.

Here’s another one. Back in April, when disbelief was still disclaiming the knowledge that Trump had become the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination, he sat down, along with his son Donald Trump, Jr., campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and press secretary Hope Hicks, for an interview with the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

It’s worth reviewing this excerpt:

Robert Costa: So, sticking on this presidency theme for a second, I don’t think a lot of people know that much about how much you value discretion, loyalty within your business.
Donald Trump: Great loyalty, yes. Great discretion, great loyalty.
RC: But it’s different when you’re running the federal government.
DT:  Well, it’s . . .  .
RC:  And one thing I always wondered, are you going to make employees of the federal government sign nondisclosure agreements?
DT:  I think they should. You know, when somebody — and I see it all the time….  And I don’t know, there could be some kind of a law that you can’t do this. But when people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that. I mean, I’ll be honest. And people would say, oh, that’s terrible, you’re taking away his right to free speech. Well, he’s going in….  I would say… I do have nondisclosure deals. That’s why you don’t read that….
Bob Woodward: With everyone? Corey has one, Hope has one.
DT:  Corey has one, Hope has one. Did you sign one?
Hope Hicks: Of course.
Corey Lewandowski: Stephen [Miller, Trump’s policy adviser] has one.
DT: Stephen has one.
CL: [Donald Trump, Jr.] has one.
Donald Trump, Jr: I don’t have one. I’m in the middle of the book. [Laughter]
CL: Don has two. [Laughter]
DT: I know, I forgot, he’s the one I’m most worried about.
DTJ: I’m not getting next week’s paycheck until I sign one.
DT: I have a very, very, very prominent businessman who’s right now got a person — he’s involved in litigation, terrible litigation with somebody that worked for him in a very close level. And I said why are you….
BW: Do you think these are airtight agreements?
DT:    Yeah, totally. I think they’re very airtight. They’re very….
BW: And that no one could write a book or….
DT: I think they’re extremely airtight. And anybody that violated it — let’s put it this way: it’s so airtight that I’ve never had… you know, I’ve never had a problem with this sort of thing.
BW: Let us ask this….
DT:  By the way, this man called me, he said, how is it that you don’t have — as famous as you are? And I sent him a copy of the agreement. He said, this is genius. And he now has people that go to work for him. I don’t like people that take your money and then say bad things about you. Okay? You know, they take your….
RC:  But it’s so different when you’re in the federal government.
DT:  It’s different, I agree. It’s different.
RC:  But you are recommending nondisclosure…
DT: And I tell you this, I will have to think about it. I will have to think about it. That’s a different thing, that I’m running a private company and I’m paying people lots of money, and then they go out and…
BW: The taxpayers are paying the other people in the federal government.
DT:  Sure. Sure. They don’t do a great job, and then you fire them and they end up writing a book about you. So it’s different. But I will say that in the federal government it’s a different thing. So it’s something I would think about. But you know, I do right now — I have thousands and thousands of employees, many thousands, and every one of them has an agreement, has a… I call it a confidentiality….

Chummy as the tone of this is, make no mistake — it should terrify us. Trump is quite right that “there could be some kind of a law that you can’t do this.” In fact there is such a law: the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. If there’s one thing that document makes clear, it’s that anybody—anybody—has the right to write a book about you when you’re the president of the United States. Unlike, say, disclosing their tax returns, or declining to bring open white nationalists into the White House, American presidents acknowledge the right of others to write books about them not as a norm or tradition, but as a clear, founding principle of the document that gives their job meaning.

It is absolutely crucial that we not normalize this, wave it away as a wisp of corporate thinking that has trailed an admittedly unconventional leader into the Oval Office. It is not that. It is a suggestion antithetical to every decent civic aspiration, one more assault in Trump’s ongoing blitzkrieg against basic liberal institutions. We must normalize none of this, and fight all of it.

 

 

Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.

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