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November 16, 2018

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OPINION:

What if Trump did actually shoot someone on Fifth Avenue?

Sept. 3 (AP) — President Donald Trump stopped his motorcade in Manhattan today, jumped out of his limousine and shot a man on Fifth Avenue who was shouting anti-Trump epithets. The shooting was recorded by the White House press pool as well as by dozens of bystanders with cellphones and by security cameras in the area. When asked for his reaction, House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “We will need more information than is available at this point.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said through pursed lips that he “was not going to comment on every up and down with this president.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said he already had information indicating that the man whom Trump shot “worked for the Clinton Foundation and may have been a relative of former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin.”

Fox News did not cover Trump’s shooting at the top of its broadcast, which focused instead on the killing of an Iowa woman by an undocumented immigrant. Fox’s only reference to the fact that the president shot a man on Fifth Avenue was that “a New York City man died today when he ran right into a bullet fired by the president.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham quipped that “Trump shoots as well as he putts” and that this incident would not cause the South Carolina senator to cancel his coming golf round with the president at his Bedminster, N.J., course.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that she was looking the other way when the shooting happened so she had no comment, adding: “I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with the president. I’ll get back to you if I have something. But the president has stated many times that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. So he’s just keeping a campaign promise. He did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. And even though I have no comment, and he has no comment, we’ve commented on this extensively.”

Hours later, though, the president tweeted: “Actually, some people are saying that a man who looked a lot like Barack Obama did the shooting. I’m not saying that — but some people are. It also could have been somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds who fired that shot. Like Rudy said: Truth is not truth — unless I say so.”

Jerry Falwell Jr., a top evangelical leader, announced that his movement would be holding a vigil this evening, praying that the president had not stressed himself too much by having to shoot a man on Fifth Avenue. Falwell added, “This would never have happened if Jeff Sessions were doing his job.”

The day ended with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos declaring that the fact that the president could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight “only proves again why we need to arm all of our schoolteachers.”

My biggest challenge in writing all of the above? Worrying that readers wouldn’t realize it was made up.

That’s because we all now know that Trump was right when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would stick with him. We’ve seen him get away with too much by now. No restraint on Trump will ever come from his party or his base — especially after the passing of John McCain. So save your breath. Trump will be restrained only if his party loses the House or the Senate. That’s what is at stake in the midterm elections — so vote accordingly.

And for those Republican moderates, independents and suburban white women who voted for Trump in 2016 and are considering voting against GOP House and Senate candidates in November to put some limits on the president and show their disapproval at GOP lawmakers’ failure to act as an independent branch of government, let me describe the stakes in another way:

America, we all know, won the Cold War. Our values and economic system proved superior to Russia’s. But what is at stake in the 2018 midterms is who is going to win the post-Cold War.

Yes, that question is back on the table. Because what we are seeing in the behavior of Trump and his toadies in the GOP is the beginnings of the Russification of American politics. Vladimir Putin could still win the post-Cold War.

At the Cold War’s height, noted Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future and an immigrant from the Soviet Union, Americans took seriously the notion that we had to serve “as a contrast” to the Russians.

Because the Soviets claimed to have built a worker’s paradise, it was important that we had strong unions, a strong middle class, less inequality and an adequate social safety net. The Soviets did not have the rule of law. So we had to have it more than ever.

“I came here from Russia in ’75,” Gorbis added, “and it was remarkable to me that in this society, there were laws and norms and principles, and people abided by them. The idea that people actually paid their taxes was kind of remarkable to me.” In the Russia she grew up in, said Gorbis, “we did not have that; if there was a law, there was always a way to bribe and get around it.”

But with the Cold War now far back in our rearview mirror, Trump has not only insisted on bringing America closer to Putin’s Russia geopolitically, but also politically. This, despite the fact that our intelligence agencies and biggest internet companies have confirmed multiple times that Russia interfered in our 2016 election and continues to meddle.

Trump still refuses to show us his tax returns long after his “audit,” which can only mean he is hiding something. His campaign chairman Paul Manafort is a convicted tax cheat who was trying to keep Putin’s stooge in power in Ukraine. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen is another confessed tax cheat.

And the first two House Republicans to endorse Trump in 2016 — Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins — were both just indicted on corruption charges. They are hardly the first government officials to be arrested; Democrats have not been immune to fittings for handcuffs. But one has a stronger feeling than ever that with a moral vacuum at the heart of the Trump White House — and with the president assaulting the media and the judiciary on a regular basis, not unlike Putin — everything goes, so grab what you can, because no one’s looking. The cat’s away.

“The Russification of America under Trump, it’s not just about collusion, corruption and money laundering,” Gorbis said. “It is about his behavior” — crass language, simplistic slogans reminiscent of the Soviet rhetoric, use of terms such as “enemy of the people,” and his insistence on personal loyalty over loyalty to the Constitution or institutions.

Maybe that’s why Trump and Putin understand and appreciate each other — and why so many Russians like Trump. They say, “He is just like us — no better and no worse.”

There are other parallels between Trumpism and Putinism: the glorification of oil, gas and mining over science and technology; the elevation of white, Christian, nationalist values; and the neutering of the legislative branch — today’s Republican-dominated Congress behaves just like the rubber-stamp Russian Duma. Worse, this Russification of politics is also spreading — to the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and maybe soon to Brazil.

A few more years of this Russification of America and the rot will be everywhere. Russia will have won the post-Cold War, and the fictional story at the top of this column will become nonfiction — just like that. Remember that when you vote in the midterms.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.