Opinion writer

Over the weekend, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley declared: “There are two groups that have created chaos more than the Russians, and that’s the Democrats and the mainstream media, who continued to push this lie on the American people for more than a year — and quite frankly Americans should be outraged by that.” A Kremlin propagandist could not have said it better. In fact, its outlet in the United States was so tickled by the remark, that it blasted it out for its own audience.

Equating political opponents and the free press with a hostile power that attacked our democracy is despicable, but entirely predictable for young aides trying to score brownie points with their boss, who says pretty much the same thing. Gidley, a well-liked operative who worked on Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign in 2012 and Mike Huckabee’s in 2016, has internalized the lessons of the Trump White House — lie, defame your opponents, treat the press as a hostile power and, by all means, defend Russia. They’ve become participants in the mad race to the bottom, the cesspool of tribal politics.

White House aides have also learned it is all about President Trump, not the country. He is the victim, not victims of storms or shootings. The Post reported:

One White House official said the [Parkland, Fla., school shooting] forced the White House to focus on critical and serious issues — like consoling the victims and trying to heal the nation — rather than getting bogged down in what they view as more trivial West Wing drama.

“For everyone, it was a distraction or a reprieve,” said the White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal conversations. “A lot of people here felt like it was a reprieve from seven or eight days of just getting pummeled.”

The official likened the brief political calm to the aftermath of the October shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead and hundreds more injured. That tragedy united White House aides and the country in their shared mourning for the victims and their families.

“But as we all know, sadly, when the coverage dies down a little bit, we’ll be back through the chaos,” the official said.

Yup, the deaths of Americans — tragedies that tear apart families — have a silver lining! The White House escapes scrutiny for a few days from the slew of bad acts, gaffes and scandals (Rob Porter’s exit, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly apparently prevaricating about the sequence of events surrounding that exit, Cabinet secretaries abusing air travel, etc.). It’s bad enough to think that way, but imagine saying it (even on background) to a reporter — without shame or sheepishness.

That mentality comes straight from Trump as well. During the campaign, Trump would claim vindication (I was right!) when tragedies occurred. As president, he constantly whines about not being given enough credit (e.g., for the response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas). And the deaths of 17 people in Florida last week were also, for him, “a reprieve” of sorts; he could blame the FBI for missing warning signs about the alleged shooter because they were too busy investigating Russia’s efforts to lift him to the presidency.

The aides have learned all too well that decency, honesty and humility have no place in the Trump White House. In adopting the White House mentality, they become apparatchiks (sorry, there’s no better word for it) in a style of politics that amounts to creepy authoritarianism. “All of the elements of Trump’s demagogic governing style are present in the production and handling of the Porter scandal,” wrote Bob Bauer on the Lawfare blog. There is the “equation of his personal wishes with the general welfare” and the obsession with serving up red meat to his shrinking but cult-like base. Bauer explained: “As Trump has so often in the past, he was looking to rile his followers with visions of an older order, one purged of the political correctness he despises: ‘Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?’ ” There can be no empathy for ordinary people — especially if his base can be whipped into a frenzy.

And then there is the incessant lying, in which Bauer said that Trump “will insist on pushing out whatever narrative he would like the press corps and public to believe, regardless of that narrative’s relationship to the facts.”

The White House staff is learning the habits of an autocratic leader, not of democratic governance. Feed the president’s ego, smear the opposition, deny the facts and don’t worry yourself over the victims. By behaving in this fashion, they sacrifice their own integrity, and worse, contribute to the decline of democratic norms and civil debate. Don’t waste your pity on them; they chose to work for Trump. Worry about the White House as an institution instead. They’re trashing the place, and it may never regain its former luster.

Read more by Jennifer Rubin:

The gun standoff can be ended. Here’s how.

McConnell owes the country a fuller explanation on Russian meddling

Two really bad defenses for Trump when it comes to Russia

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