Chris Christie and the new Trump mythology

Trump cannot fail; he can only be failed

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Chris Christie, the scandal-plagued former governor of New Jersey who left office with historic disapproval ratings, has a new book coming out later this month detailing his life in politics. The book’s title, Let Me Finish, is a nod to the disgraced governor’s self-styled reputation as a combative brute who theatrically berated his constituents, and it accurately presumes that the only person who wants to hear Chris Christie speak at this point is Chris Christie.

Christie, who is now a contributor for ABC News, wrote this book mainly to settle some old scores. Early excerpts obtained by Axios and The Guardian detail Christie’s lengthy broadsides against Jared Kushner, son-in-law and top adviser to President Donald Trump. Christie was once considered a top candidate for a senior position in the Trump White House, but he writes that Kushner interceded and blocked his ascent as retaliation for Christie’s prosecution of Kushner’s father for tax evasion and witness tampering.

Christie’s beef with Kushner is sordid but generally uninteresting. His treatment of the president and his administration, however, is worth highlighting. Per Axios, Christie heaps invective on pretty much everyone in Trump’s immediate orbit, describing a “revolving door of deeply flawed individuals — amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons — who were hustled into jobs they were never suited for.” According to The Guardian, however, “one central character escapes relatively unscathed: Trump himself. The president is utterly fearless and a unique communicator Christie writes – and his main flaw is that he speaks on impulse and surrounds himself with people he should not trust.”

This servile treatment of Trump previews a mythology we’re likely to see from right-wing figures seeking to rationalize an increasingly chaotic and disastrous presidency: Trump did not fail; he was failed by those around him.

It’s an appealing and useful fiction for figures like Christie who once adamantly opposed Trump before publicly debasing themselves to hop on the Trump bandwagon. When Christie endorsed Trump for the presidency in February 2016, his political future looked bleak: His own presidential campaign had foundered, his top aides were under indictment in the Bridgegate scandal, his approval rating at home was in the low thirties (on its way to bottoming out in the mid-teens), and the pundit class (once his most reliable constituency) was no longer marveling at the size of his shoulders. Getting behind Trump early was Christie’s longshot bid at staying politically relevant, and according to Christie, it would have paid off had Jared Kushner not sabotaged him.

Ever the striver and ingratiator, Christie’s response to the chaos of the Trump administration is to praise Trump’s vision while pushing responsibility for his failures a couple of rungs down the ladder. That way, Trump remains largely blameless and Christie gets to sidestep prickly questions about his own judgment. Trump, for his part, is a big fan of this blame-diffusing mentality.

The scenario Christie sketches is at war with itself. On the one hand, Trump is a bold and determined leader of unparalleled vision. On the other, he’s more or less a bystander to his own administration’s inner workings. The turmoil, grifting, and incompetence Christie describes at the highest levels of the administration can be corrected by precisely one person: the president. The decision to fill a White House with incompetent, untrustworthy senior staffers who violate the law can be made by precisely one person: the president. Trump’s responsibility for these failures is clear, but Christie is too much of a self-interested coward to say as much.

As the Trump presidency sinks deeper into scandal and corruption, we’re likely going to see more of this mythmaking take hold. The conservative movement and the Republican Party sold the Trump presidency as both a curative to establishment corruption and a needed exercise in bold, singular leadership -- “I alone can fix it,” as Trump himself put it during his speech accepting the Republican nomination. Both claims were ludicrous; Donald Trump’s legacy to that point was defined by corruption and failure, and his reputation for business savvy was a concoction of reality TV.

But the right aligned itself behind Trump and built up these fictions as the core of Republican Party politics. Conservatives can’t abandon Trump, and they can’t acknowledge that the central promise of Trumpism was a massive scam. The only way to maintain the myth of Trump’s leadership as it crumbles under the weight of investigation and incompetence will be to slap together still more fictions. As Chris Christie’s example shows us, that means divorcing all responsibility from the president who boasted that he was the only person capable of fixing the country.