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Gary Cohn sacrificed his reputation and dignity to get tax cuts for his rich friends

Tariffs were the straw that broke the camel's back, not Trump's bad behavior or his defense of racists.
Image: Gary Cohn
Gary Cohn waits to speak during a briefing at the White House on Sept. 28, 2017.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

Gary Cohn is not scum.

This, one assumes, is what Gary Cohn's internal life coach repeatedly tells him — if not to help him get through the day, then because the word alone seems like a category error. Gary Cohn probably believes that he is rich enough to have evolved past having words like "scum" applied to him, but he is not rich enough to have evolved beyond being wrong. And he was very wrong.

Cohn's departure from his role as Donald Trump's chief economic advisor, chased from the halls of power by the president's 30-year, broken-record call for tariffs, has all the stuff of martyrdom to it, like the story of Saint Thomas More if he didn't really believe in anything.

Gary Cohn will not see mankind crucified on a cross of tariffs.

Cohn once reportedly sat across the Resolute Desk from President Trump, flanked by accused two-time spousal abuser Rob Porter, arrayed against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House Trade Council Director Peter Navarro. The two groups appealed to Trump like angels and devils — Cohn and Porter trying to guide the president's wayward soul to the free-trade community, Ross and Navarro grinning like sharks and trying to lure him into perdition's protectivist embrace. Then Cohn rose and sat on the couch, thus signaling his defeat. (You can tell this is high drama because there are stage directions.)

Alas, the drama is over. Although he has nothing written down, no plans and no legislative strategy, the president has called for a 25 percent tariff on steel and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum. Gary Cohn will not see mankind crucified on a cross of tariffs; Gary Cohn cannot be expected to endure any more.

Instead, he tendered his resignation, but will supposedly stick around the White House another two weeks, perhaps lingering like a fart in a public elevator, or maybe rattling his bones and chains up and down the halls like the Ghost of Initiatives Past alongside Infrastructure Week and Jared Kushner modernizing the federal government.

Cohn was always meant to be a beard on the true face of this administration.

The markets, meanwhile, opened this morning and fell 300 points, reacting to his departure and signaling an industry-wide misapprehension of what Gary Cohn's job was and how much he had already failed openly, willingly and from the first day.

Cohn was always meant to be a beard on the true face of this administration; he was there to "rein in" the president. But you've heard that joke before, when the Bush Administration was sold to you as the highest percentage of MBAs in history, as Junior surrounded himself with supposedly wise old souls. They were all there to "supplement" the vast swathes of ignorance between the ears of one of history's great imbeciles. (Turn on Al Jazeera and see which of their fruits are blossoming today; the American-produced news stopped covering most of the violence in the Middle East around the time Obama was elected.).

Cohn somehow nonetheless didn't realize that the idiots were in charge, or that it doesn't matter how many smart and successful people are in a room if everyone is determined to only engage with the world as they imagine it to be, rather than reality. The problem with the Bush administration wasn't that everyone was stupid: The problem was that they played a game of "who lives and who dies" premised on the righteousness of capitalism and liberal democracy with the same inerrant faith that allowed them to look across their own country and ignore all the conditions that disproved it.

Cohn somehow didn't realize that it doesn't matter how many smart and successful people are in a room if everyone is determined to only engage with the world as they imagine it to be.

Today, however, the idiots in charge are actual morons, and reality is even more hostile to their worldview — which has replaced the high church of capitalism with the solipsistic and changeable cult of Trumpism. Cohn thought he could work within this, and so he signed on with a man whose three-decade evolution on tariffs involves replacing the word "Japan" with the word "China." He was just as much of a dumb mark as anyone else, except the person he hustled was himself.

Sure, he got a tax cut out of it. Sticking around to get tax cuts right is the story he told friends and told himself, and it's a good story. He sucked a $1 trillion hole in the budget and handed the results of it to some of the richest citizens on the planet, converting ordinary misery-mitigating government dollars for the disadvantaged into a wholly unnecessary cash bath for people who'd have to go at least 30 days trapped in a mine collapse before the average American could gin up the first hint of sympathy. He was fine with that immiseration, with every savage cut to the budget that would be needed to excuse his optional rich-guy-bonus deficit.

He was fine, too, with a president who looked at a white nationalist march at which an anti-Nazi protester was murdered and said that there were "very fine people on both sides." Cohn might have flirted with resigning, but he didn't.

So call him idiotic. Just don't call Gary Cohn scum.

Whatever he says, he was fine with everything else too. Like the rest of us, he watched Trump call Mexicans rapists, mock a disabled reporter, be accused by over a dozen women of sexual misconduct or assault and generally provide a home for every racist and misogynist impulse lurking behind a swastika avatar. Then he took the job. He said, "I will help this man."

He looked at someone determined to build a border wall despite the ludicrous expense and guaranteed ineffectiveness and said, "Where do I pitch in?" And he listened to someone who has said the same thing about tariffs — raise them — for as long as it takes someone to be born, accrue a quarter-million dollars in college debt, get married and realize they can't afford children, and he said, "I can change him."

Perhaps that dumbfounding blindness can be chalked up to personal hubris, but that's just a poetic way of romanticizing self-love to the point of idiocy. So call him idiotic. Just don't call Gary Cohn scum.

He watched actual scum spend nearly 18 months oozing to the presidency, and his response was to work for scum. He saw a scummy opportunity to pass a scummy tax cut to further enrich already-rich people at the expense of what will surely be a few thousand dead poor people, and by God he sold that scummy tax cut. And he would've quit over that scummy whitewashing of Nazi scum, if it weren't for the fact that taking a stand then might have endangered that same tax cut.

Then something actually bad happened. A tariff proposal crossed the last moral frontier. It could not be borne. It should not.

Unless, of course, Donald Trump would be willing to name Gary Cohn to a higher position in the White House in the future, where he can really do some good.

So, no, Gary Cohn isn't scum. He's just its faithful servant.

Jeb Lund is the Spectacle of Trump Editor at 50 States of Blue and former political columnist and reporter for Rolling Stone and The Guardian. He has a podcast called This Week In Atrocity.