The Lessons of History

General Flynn pleaded guilty to a felony, to avoid the likelihood of being convicted of even more serious felonies. Apart from the delicious irony of the man who self-righteously led the Republican mob chanting “lock her up” even as he was committing felonies, or the legal implications to the Trump cabal, there are some interesting lessons from history that are immediately apparent. I’m not talking about John Dean or other more contemporary parallels, although the implications of Flynn cooperating with the Special Prosecutor do suggest a parallel. I’m talking about the figure of Flynn, his actions and understanding their significance. I’m talking about another famous general: Benedict Arnold.

Both Arnold and Flynn were respected generals. Both were fired from their jobs and became resentful and bitter as the result. Both men felt they were intellectually and morally superior to the men who hired and fired them, and both became secret agents of a foreign country for personal gain. Their cause became personal enrichment and vindication. Both of their treachery were uncovered as the result of intercepted communications. In the end, both men acknowledged their crime, but not their wrongdoing. Their narcissism prevented them from admitting they were wrong as much as it led them to their betrayals in the first place. Theirs was not the fate of the tragic hero who falls because of a fatal flaw. Theirs was the fate of men who served themselves above all else. Their motivation was rooted in narcissism, not altruism or any genuine concern for the common good. They strove for recognition, admiration and enrichment. When they failed to get what they believed they deserved, their rage translated into self-destruction.

There is one important difference of course. While both deserved to be fired from their jobs, their bosses were markedly different. George Washington was a man with an ego kept in check by his conscience, and President Obama had a similar character. Both Washington and Obama were alarmed by the self-serving ambition, the duplicity and destructive effect of their generals and fired them. Flynn’s most recent boss however, lacks both a conscience and any sense of judgment of their abilities other than personal loyalty before loyalty to Country. Even though Trump knew that Flynn had betrayed the country, he kept Flynn on until the public exposure necessitated letting him go. For Trump, self-enrichment involving betrayal of the country was not troublesome until the public opinion began to affect his own stature. That’s the alarming aspect of how Trump handled Flynn, and maybe a portent of what is to come. He didn’t care that Flynn had been compromised by foreign intelligence agencies and had broken the law. Trump kept him on in one of the most sensitive intelligence positions of any Administration even knowing Flynn was a foreign agent. That should worry all of us. That error of judgment would never occur to Trump and worry him. At least not nearly as much as the cooperation of Flynn with Mueller. In fact, Flynn may be nothing more than a moral reflection of Trump and consequently the reason why he was willing to tolerate Flynn’s lawlessness and betrayal of the Country.


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