Present Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is testifying in front of congress today. On the surface, this is an attempt to get to the truth of Trump’s misdeeds as a candidate. Cohen has intimate knowledge of his actions and character, and give a first hand account of hush money payments, WikiLeak conspiracies, and even potentially possible Russian collusion. Republicans, not surprisingly, have been quick to paint Cohen as a quite literally unbelievable. Yet the picture, Cohen provides of Trump is both credible and shocking.
It is all to easy to hear this testimony and conclude that our democracy has reached new lows – where ideals and governance have been replaced by political grandstanding and scandal.
The testimony will most probably be best remembered for Cohen referring to the President as a “conman” and a “racist”. These are not new claims to be sure. However, hearing them backed up with such rich ancedotes as Trump getting pleasure out of underpaying or not paying for services or questioning whether black people could successfully lead countries in private conversation, reinforces an image of him as morally corrupt and ethically despicable. It is all to easy to hear this testimony and conclude that our democracy has reached new lows – where ideals and governance have been replaced by political grandstanding and scandal.
Predictably, Cohen’s statements have been met with very different responses by Democrats and Republicans. For Democrats, he is a former liar turned truth teller, a patriotic turncoat who is starting to expose Trump’s misdoings in detail. For Republicans he is not to be trusted – a greedy, selfish, ambitious, charlatan who will say anything for his fifteen minutes of fame and lucrative prospective book deal. Where one stands is less an indication of Cohen’s veracity and more a referendum on one’s own political positions.
Yet this partisan battle ignores the deeper questions that Cohen’s testimony should raise for all of us. Namely, how did such a conman successfully come to power? What does this say about the state of our political and economic system? Quoting the famous American journalist H.L. Mencken “‘Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” We could add to this famous insight, that knowing what the people want and get is often the key to understanding the system that they are ruled by.
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If there is one thing that everyone from all sides can agree upon, in this regard, it is that Cohen’s testimony is certainly salacious. He is recounting tales of sex, money, and power. Of Trump using charity money to secretly have someone buy a portrait of himself for huge amounts of money at an auction. Of him bragging that the government was so stupid for giving him 10 million dollars in tax refunds. It is also political theater at its finest. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are grabbing the spotlight to condemn or defend the sitting President. It is revealing though that it has already been reported by NBC News that “Google Trends shows Cohen vastly overshadowing North Korea in public interest”. In the face of nuclear annihilation, climate change, and global inequality – it is the superficial that continues to most capture our political attention.
Trump was the perfect distillation of the freemarket system that he so politically and economically profited from.
There is something even more profound though at stake. It is that Trump was the perfect distillation of the freemarket system that he so politically and economically profited from. If he is a conman his lies pale in comparison to the official con that greater wealth to the rich would trickle down to the poor. If he is a grafter, then he is a perfect gambler in our era of “Casino Capitalism”. If he is a corrupt executive, then it speaks volumes about our contemporary values of our “CEO Society”.
It is crucial to dig deeper than just giving into partisan outrage. It is undeniably disturbing that an entity such as WikiLeaks could use its subversive powers to hurt Clinton for Trump’s advantage. However, it is also worrying that everything it released about Clinton was in fact true. And even more so, that the mainstream media has failed for so long to critically uncover the systematic corruption of elites and the status quo. It is the absence of an independent media that gives birth to such rogue and unregulated viral leakers.
Nevertheless, Cohen is already being celebrated by many in the media for exposing Trump and his hypocrisy. He is a whistleblower for our times. Someone who is dirty enough to know the real dirt. Yet while Democrats and their liberal media supporters are quick to congratulate themselves, their own moral hypocrisy is placed out of public sight and mind. They conveniently forget that Obama put a record number of whistleblowers in jail for exposing the government’s crimes of mass surveillance. It is an inconvenient truth that we are more comfortable shaming Trump than confronting the broad based conspiracy of a government that is seeking to monitor and control us.
If history is anything to go by, Cohen’s testimony will be popularly framed as an opportunity to damn Trump in the court of public opinion. The New Yorker is already running the headline that “Michael Cohen Reminds Us of Trump’s Crimes and His Character”. And for many of his critics, this is the first step on the road to actual impeachment. Obviously, bringing Trump down is necessary and welcome. However, it is even more important to hold in contempt the broken system that empowered and enabled him.