Sunday, May 12, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Growing up, I was always fascinated with the magician-psychic Uri Geller, who was famous for bending spoons with his supposed supernatural powers. I’ve been thinking about him lately as I’ve watched an even more profound magic trick playing out in our politics.
In so many cases, President Donald Trump has been able to take people who came into his orbit and just bend them to his lying ways the way Geller bent spoons. The latest is Attorney General William Barr, who, in only a few weeks, got bent into becoming Trump’s personal lawyer. Trump previously took Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, who’d been bent against him, and bent them into fawning sycophants.
How does he do that trick? Surely the answer lies partly in Trump’s energy source: Fox News, Breitbart and Trump’s own Twitter feed keep his base in a state of constant agitation and high partisanship, and Trump leverages that energy into bending so many Republicans to his will. With a few exceptions, like Jim Mattis, Trump also has a knack for picking people who are bendable.
And bendable people — people who, like Trump, were always outsiders or never on the A-team — are attracted to him to get ahead.
“Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Trump and that adds up to something they will never recover from,” former FBI Director James Comey explained in The New York Times. “It takes character like Mattis’ to avoid the damage, because Trump eats your soul in small bites.”
What worries me most right now is that if Trump gets a second term, he’ll also bend all the key institutions that govern us. Already he’s softening the steel in many of them.
Look at the dishonest crusade he has begun against the FBI for “spying” on his campaign and how we need to “investigate the investigators.” Trump is ready to wreck any institution that gets in the way of his re-election or unfettered exercise of power.
For America to stay America, Trump has to be defeated.
I don’t want him impeached. He has to be voted out. Only that will restore the faith of the world that America has not lost its mind and maybe, maybe, will force a much-needed debate among Republicans, titled, “How did we let this grifter take over our party?”
But defeating Trump won’t be easy, so I am hoping for three things. First, we desperately need a third party. No, no, no — not that kind of third party!
I don’t mean a third party that sits between Democrats and Republicans. We need a Republican third-party candidate who won’t just primary Trump but will get on the general election ballot and challenge him in 2020 in all 50 states — but do it from his right, not from the center.
Yes, we need a Republican who will do the most high-minded, patriotic thing I can imagine today — fall on the Trump grenade. That is, run against Trump from the right in the national election as, say, a libertarian — who could oppose Trump for his tariffs, his piling up of the national debt, his opposition to immigration and his immorality. This could siphon off just enough Republican votes for Trump to lose close races in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Florida. We need a Republican who will do to Trump what Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in Florida in 2000.
Second, we need some dutiful people to bear witness. There is now a club of people who have served at the top of Trump’s administration in the past two years who either quit, because they would not bend, or were forced out after Trump could bend them no longer: Mattis, Don McGahn, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, Kirstjen Nielsen, John Kelly, Jeff Sessions and Reince Priebus. (We also need to hear from Robert Mueller.)
We need them all to bear witness to the dishonesty, indecency and dysfunction they saw while serving Trump and to his unfitness for high office. We can’t wait for their memoirs or anonymous, ineffective leaks. They don’t have to take sides left or right. We need them to side with the truth. That is the essence of acting honorably.
Finally, most important, we need a Democratic candidate who can appeal not only to Democrats but also hold the independents, moderate Republicans and suburban women whose votes shifted the House to the Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and whose support will be vital for any Democrat to win the presidency.
A lot of people are frightened that the country is getting pulled apart at the seams. It starts with Trump: His extreme language and behavior, now amplified by social media, fuels extreme reactions. And this is heating up the society and stimulating some fringe actors on the right to physically attack people they believe Trump has identified as “enemies” of the state.
Yes, virtually the entire GOP political/media apparatus is now a Trump-bent spoon ready to serve up whatever alternate universe he constructs. But the country is not. If Democrats don’t fight fire with fire, they lose. But if they just fight fire with fire, we burn the whole house down.
You also have to summon people with a message of unity and respect; there are moderate Republicans and independents whose support is vital. It’s a tricky balance, and the Democrat who gets it wins.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.