[President] Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One that he had commuted the sentence of Blagojevich, noting he’d seen Blagojevich’s wife advocate for him on television and that the Democrat had appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice.”“He’ll be able to go back to his family after serving eight years in jail, which was a powerful and ridiculous sentence in my opinion,” Trump said.
Why would Trump do this? After all, Blagojevich was a Democrat, and not a longtime friend who was convicted of crimes in Trump’s service, like Roger Stone (though there was that predictably pathetic four-episode run he had on “Celebrity Apprentice” while awaiting trial). Was the president motivated only by his strong sense of justice?
Maybe somewhat (and before your jaw drops, I’ll explain). But there’s a strategy at work too, one that relates directly to this fall’s election.
Given everything we’ve seen from the president, it’s almost certain that Trump sincerely believed Blagojevich’s sentence was unfair. So he tried to shake down a children’s hospital, using state funding as a way to extort campaign contributions. What’s the big deal? That’s just shrewd deal-making. Would we really want to live in a world where public officials can’t wet their beaks?
But more than that, what Trump is really after is the normalization of corruption. The fact that Blagojevich was a Democrat makes it all the better. Trump would never argue that Republicans are clean and Democrats are dirty; he wants to convince you that everyone is dirty. In fact, it’s a key part of his reelection strategy.
In politics, we often argue that some misdeed a politician commits will thereafter make it impossible for them to criticize their opponents for doing something similar. In this view, hypocrisy is something to be avoided, since it is assumed to be politically damaging. But Trump always operated on exactly the opposite principle: Not only can I accuse my opponents of the very thing I’m guilty of, it’s even better if I’m guilty of it.
So this spectacularly corrupt candidate accused his 2016 opponent of being “crooked.” The man who had been accused of various degrees of sexual misconduct and assault by two dozen women held a news conference with women who had made similar accusations against Bill Clinton. And the president who appointed his own daughter and son-in-law to key White House positions argues that it’s just awful that Joe Biden’s son got to sit on a corporate board while his father was vice president.
The point was never to say that he was innocent. It was to say that everyone’s guilty.
If you believe that, Trump’s own behavior no longer seems aberrant, nor does it mean you shouldn’t vote for him. The worldview Trump wants us to accept is one in which there are no rules, no morals and no principles that must be obeyed.
This applies to more than just corruption. You may recall the time in 2017 Trump defended Russian President Vladimir Putin’s habit of having his critics murdered by saying “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” His argument was not that killing is wrong and we should clean up our own act, but that Putin shouldn’t be condemned because killing is a fact of life.
It’s critical to understand that this is also a demobilization strategy for 2020, one that Trump will use on whoever is the Democratic nominee. Begin with Trump’s assumption, probably correct, that his base of support is so loyal and so moved by fear and hatred that they will come to the polls no matter what.
With their participation secured, Trump can move to convince other people not to vote at all, by trying to convince everyone to be as disillusioned as possible.
The most cynical ideas about politics — all politicians are crooks; government is never used to benefit ordinary people — not only support the broader conservative view and undermine Democrats who try to convince people that government can be a force for good, but they’re particularly beneficial to Trump himself.
Why get angry about him pressuring a foreign government to help his campaign, or trying to give himself a multimillion-dollar federal contract, or using the Justice Department like a crew of personal enforcers? Everybody does it, and nothing will change. Might as well stay home on Election Day.
This is also why Trump will go after his opponent with claims meant specifically to make Democratic voters withdraw in disgust and decide not to vote. As Amanda Marcotte argues for Salon, “The strategy for doing this will be to attack the Democratic nominee from the left, by accusing that person of being racist, sexist, corrupt or, most likely, some combination of the three.”
Trump won’t care whether liberals call him a hypocrite for doing so. Isn’t everybody a hypocrite? All the more reason to wash your hands of the whole thing.
Watching Trump commute Blagojevich’s sentence is enough to make you feel like the system is beyond help. Which is exactly what Trump wants you to feel.