The Turning Point in a Cult of Personality: Everyone Starts Copying the Leader's Insanity

Here is part of a recent statement issued by Donald Trump's campaign spokesman:

Joe Biden is responsible for all this antisemitic hate on campuses across the country. Whereas there has been no bigger friend to Israel and the Jewish people than President Trump, and his strong record reflects that.

And here is a key sentence from a letter sent by Samuel Alito to two United States senators:

I am confident that a reasonable person who is not motivated by political or ideological considerations or a desire to affect the outcome of Supreme Court cases would conclude that the events recounted above do not meet the applicable standard for recusal.

The stylistic and substantive similarities of the two statements -- the insulting self-righteousness and the assertion that up is down and day is night -- are jarring, to say the least.  In the first quotation, the smear of President Biden is blunt, so I suppose it now counts as "good judicial temperament" that Alito's response to Democratic leaders on the Senate Judiciary Committee at least did not literally call them political hacks.

Alito's smugness is especially rich, given that he made news just last week by writing the controlling opinion in a case that reversed the finding by a panel of federal judges that South Carolina's bright-red state legislature had engaged in racially motivated gerrymandering.  Alito piously insisted there that, as Professor Dorf described Alito's argument, "federal courts must bend over backwards to assume good faith by state legislatures lest they interfere with the legislatures' political judgment."

Again, Alito was scolding the lower court for not sufficiently assuming good faith by the state legislature -- even though those presumptively unbiased federal judges had heard evidence and issued a final order applying the law to the facts after providing the state the benefit of full procedure.  But two senators who say that a Supreme Court justice's neutrality might reasonably be questioned under the increasingly shocking set of facts that have recently made national news?  Based on nothing other than that they are Democrats and are asking him to do something that he does not want to do, Alito says that they are either politically or ideologically biased or wish to change the outcome of cases.  That is not only insulting but non-responsive, a classic fallacy of relevance in the form of a clumsy ad hominem attack.

Alito's "I know you are, but what am I?" response is unfortunately no longer surprising.  We should be happy, I suppose, that he has not yet stooped to the level of Trump's spokesman, who routinely denigrates people with personal attacks, including saying a few months ago that Ron DeSantis had "cuck[ed] himself in front of the entire country" and that DeSantis was "a desperate eunuch."  Even though DeSantis deserves to be mocked, the point is how Trump's attacks on his rivals are framed.  In response to "X said something negative about Trump," Trump's avatar says: "X sucks!"  In response to "Y and Z said that Alito's neutrality can reasonably be questioned," Alito himself responds, in essence: "Y and Z only said that because they blow!"

I have no idea how long it will take for Alito to take the final step and simply start using the gutter language that Trump has mainstreamed within his movement.  Antonin Scalia once insulted his colleagues by calling their arguments "pure applesauce."  Will Alito soon issue a letter or opinion in which he calls people who disagree with him, I don't know, "dumbshits"?  At this point, as Slate's Mark Joseph Stern put it in a recent interview, Alito is a "troll in robes."

To be clear, I am not so much concerned here with what counts as PG- or R-rated language.  After all, it is possible to be insulting and intellectually dishonest without cursing -- as Alito has already demonstrated.  The larger issue is that Alito is merely another example of a MAGA true believer who not only unwaveringly supports a wannabe fascist but who does so by mimicking the way in which Trump undermines all reasoned discussion.  There is no "on the merits" engagement in that world, only insults and attacks.  They will not allow themselves to say, for example, that Trump lost in 2020 but that he will try to win next time, nor will they admit that the judges in his legal cases are giving him fair process.  Everything is rigged, everyone is corrupt, and the only thing that matters is whether Trump gets his way.

Importantly, we are not talking about back-benchers or minor players in the political trenches who sometimes become overexcited and embarrass their candidates.  The recent "unified Reich" controversy might or might not be an example of that kind of thing.  According to reporting in The New York Times, "[t]he Trump campaign said in a statement that the video had been posted by a staff member while Mr. Trump was in his criminal trial in Manhattan."  It is a good thing that even Trump's people decided not to own that one, but in any event, there are plenty of examples in U.S. politics of inappropriately aggressive moments by underlings who break norms.

That is not what is happening here.  Again, Alito himself is acting like a political brawler, and although he is willing to hang his wife out to dry on some aspects of the story, he is the one who is most definitely mimicking Trump's content-free approach to political engagement.

And then there is the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  In a column that I wrote shortly after Mike Johnson was given that job (where I suggested that his name is so generic that it might be an alias, along the lines of a Steve Davis or a Bill Smith), I noted that Johnson had said some particularly uninformed things about retirement policy.  That makes him an ignoramus, but is it in the same category as Trump and Alito offering empty insults without bothering to offer evidence or logic?

In one way, Johnson was in that instance doing something similar to what I am describing in this column, because he was merely offering a word salad in the service of the Republicans' ultimate goal of gutting and privatizing Social Security and Medicare (based, in Johnson's case, on a weirdly illogical alternative history in which Roe had never happened).  But that is not particularly Trumpian so much as it is merely repeating talking points, which Republicans are particularly prone to do.  (Did you know that the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago last year was an assassination attempt by Biden?  Did you?!  Did you?!!  Or that Biden insulted Christianity by putting Trans Visibility Day on Easter Sunday?  If you are a Republican, you are apparently supposed to believe all of that and more.)

Johnson, however, has started to simply parrot what Trump says, often verbatim.  He received a fair bit of negative notice two weeks ago when he stood outside the Manhattan courthouse where Trump is being tried, attacking the justice system in terms strikingly similar to Trump's.  And that was not a one-off.  In a press conference last Wednesday, a reporter asked Johnson this question:

You've been very clear about your disdain for the hush-money case, but what about the underlying alleged conduct of paying off a porn star to keep this extramarital affair allegedly quiet.  You're a deeply religious man, a moral man.  Does that alleged conduct cause you any concern about the former president's character?

I cannot help but remind readers that there is plenty of reason to doubt that Johnson (or any of his fellow theocrats) is "a moral man," even if we limit ourselves to measuring him against the standards of what he claims is his own religious faith.

Beyond that, however, that kind of question is obviously not one to which Johnson was going to provide an answer.  Like Mike Pence and everyone else who has perfected the art of changing the subject in the most smarmy way possible, Johnson was going to bob and weave.  He even deserves minimal credit for admitting as much up front, as he began his reply with this: "Look, I'm not gonna comment on that."  It matters, however, that Johnson then went on to bless his listeners with this:

What we've said about what's happening in Manhattan is, I've called it a disgrace because it is.  It's clearly "lawfare," they're clearly going after President Trump because of who he is, because you know, he'll soon to be officially the nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States.  They've had him tied up for weeks in a courthouse when he should be out, have the ability to speak freely and to campaign, and to be around the country.  This is clearly by design.  These prosecutors in these various locations are clearly coordinated with the Department of Justice in Washington.  Everybody knows what's going on.  Everybody!

If you look at this objectively, there's no way to look at this in any other way.  The case is patently absurd.  You've had every legal analyst across the board acknowledge as much.  It needs to be handled quickly, and I hope that he will be fully acquitted there and we can move forward.

But the damage has been done.  They're doing real damage to our system of justice itself.  You've heard me say many times that's my greatest concern.  If the people in a constitutional republic do not trust that justice is fair, and that you have equal justice under the law, then we lose a very important element of what is required to maintain a republic like ours.  And so we've got a lot of repair work to do, I think, to the institution itself and to our system of justice after this madness.  So, with that, we'll leave you.  Thank you so much.

My apologies for the painfully long quotation, which is excruciating to read (and worse to listen to), but it seemed important to make clear that this was the entirety of his answer.  The last paragraph is an especially good example of the kind of projection that Republicans have perfected in recent years, which is its own story.  Moreover, the factual assertions in Johnson's non-answer are uniformly laughable.

What I am pointing out here, however, is not merely that Johnson is supporting Trump with bad non-arguments.  It is that he is supporting Trump with bad non-arguments in exactly the form that Trump makes them.

This goes beyond merely repeating talking points and carries over into Trump's many obsessions.  The suggestion that Trump does not "have the ability to speak freely" and that this is all "coordinated" from Washington are outrageously wrong.  But then it becomes much Trumpier, with the words "everybody knows" leading into a statement that is not only untrue but that more than half of the people in this country do not believe (much less know).  And it is impossible not to hear Trump's voice saying that the case is "patently absurd" and that "every legal analyst across the board acknowledge[s] as much."  Yes, every one.  No exceptions.  Yeesh.

It should be possible for someone like Johnson to explain whatever concerns him about the New York trial without riding every one of Trump's hobbyhorses.  If he truly believes there is a problem, Johnson should explain what about the case seems legally deficient to him.  Recall, however, that Johnson was the moving force behind the amicus brief in the 2020 case in which Texas sued to try to get some of Biden's electors thrown out in other states.  Legal argument is not Johnson's forte.

Like Alito, however, we are not merely looking at a person who is making bad arguments -- when he even bothers to make arguments at all.  Trump's effect on his followers is not only in getting them to set aside whatever objections they once had about him and to defend the indefensible.  It is in getting his followers to sound like him -- to eschew arguments in favor of bombast, to accuse everyone else of bad faith, and to attack results that they do not like for the simple reason that they dislike the results.  In a cult of personality, it is not enough to support the leader.  One must try to change oneself to be like the leader.