Why is Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban taken somewhat seriously as a potential presidential candidate, an idea he dangled publicly again on Fox News Sunday? And why was Michael Avenatti, the disgraced attorney—who was just temporarily released from jail over coronavirus fears—also once considered a viable presidential candidate? Probably for the same reason that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to issue a stay-at-home order during a global pandemic—until Trump's "demeanor" changed.
It's called "trickle-down Trumpism." And it has redefined our perception of what is appropriate and acceptable.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not just limited to billionaires with a healthy ego, sketchy trial lawyers, or Southern populist politicians. Trumpism has wormed its way into all sorts of institutions, not the least of which include the U.S. military.
Consider the case of the acting Navy Secretary who reassigned the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and referred to him as "stupid" during a speech to the ship's crew.
Just as the mob boss doesn't have to explicitly order a hit ("nice house you got there, it’d be a shame if something happened to it…"), Trump didn’t have to ask, "Who shall rid me of this troublesome captain?" for Navy brass to know exactly how to treat Captain Crozier, whose letter pleading for help with a coronavirus outbreak on his ship risked embarrassing them—and the president. Indeed, one danger of not acting as quickly as Trump would want is that failing to do so might invite his intervention.
Most people fall in line. IBM employees of the 1970s wore crisp white shirts to conform to the standards of their corporate overlords, and airline pilots mimicked the drawn-out pauses of flight hero Chuck Yeager to signal coolness and competence. Is it any surprise that people who need Trump’s approval would adopt his attitudes, shibboleths, and priorities?
And what are those priorities? Trump values attributes like toughness, loyalty (to him), and (the perception of) winning. He has no interest in things like the rule of law, fighting corruption, or prudence. And he hates it when other people grab the spotlight, blow the whistle (on behavior that reflects poorly on him), or otherwise raise topics that might be inconvenient.
Trump’s style and priorities are contagious—even absent direct contact. It’s a culture of corruption that is infecting even our most revered institutions.
I'm old enough to remember when social conservatives breathlessly warned that gays in the military or women in combat roles might undermine troop cohesion. It's hard to imagine that any left-wing social engineering regime could have done more to undermine troop morale and esprit de corps than what Donald Trump has done as commander in chief.
Consider the case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was accused of war crimes. He was granted clemency by Trump after his comrades risked their careers to report his alleged atrocities. And what about the Navy Secretary who wanted to remove Gallagher’s Trident, thus preserving some semblance of proper discipline and adherence to a normal chain-of-command? He was removed. A victim of the ultimate cancel culture. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down. That’s how we are being trained to conform to Trumpism.
Trickle-down Trumpism doesn't just prove Hayek's maxim that in an authoritarian regime, the "worst get on top." It’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the filthiest. It also proves the notion that "no good deed goes unpunished."
So if you're Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and you've been compelled to testify, and you tell the truth, you're removed from your White House post. If you’re Mitt Romney, and you cast a brave, if lonesome, vote to impeach, you’re mocked and ostracized. And if you're the Intelligence Community’s inspector general, and you appropriately follow the law in regard to a whistleblower's complaint, you get fired.
Ironically, this is coming to a head at the very moment when the tragic consequences of a culture that punishes truth-tellers have never been more apparent and terrifying.
Just as Li Wenliang, the doctor who tried to warn China about the dangers of coronavirus, was reprimanded and forced to sign a confession (before dying of the virus), Trump has created a culture that figuratively murders the messenger and rewards the executioner.
The moral of the story is obvious. And if Trump loses re-election in 2020, it might end up being the cautionary tale that comes to define his presidency.