Mesmerized, Intoxicated, and Ambitious: Michael Cohen and the American Dream

I’d been waiting for the thing. Because that’s how things used to work. When powerful people did dumb things, one of those things would become a thing, and then their days of doing dumb things would end. For a time. At least.

I thought grabbing pussy would be the thing. Or firing Comey. Or separating children from parents — then letting them die, and raping them. Or praising Nazis — then condemning their victims. Or insulting American hurricane survivors — then abandoning them. When Helsinki wasn’t the thing, I stopped waiting for the thing. There wasn’t going to be a thing. Things don’t work like that anymore.

So I knew the Michael Cohen testimony wasn’t going to change anything. I’d simply be watching a liar tell the truth; that is to say, fact, fiction, and fraud would mingle indecipherably.

In his opening remarks, Cohen detailed his ten years of loyal service to a man he knew to be “a racist,” “a conman,” and “a cheat.” “He is capable of behaving kindly,” he told us, “but he is not kind. He is capable of committing acts of generosity, but he is not generous. He is capable of being loyal, but he is fundamentally disloyal.”

Three times he confessed his complicity with the refrain, “And yet, I continued to work for him.”

He seemed to anticipate our question: how could he fix things for a racist, a con man, and a cheat and not be all those things himself?

Cohen offered three excuses. He was “mesmerized,” “intoxicated,” and “ambitious”: mesmerized by a charismatic man, Trump; intoxicated by the idea that “you felt like you were involved in something greater than yourself — that you were somehow changing the world”; and ambitious for the usual, I suppose: power and money.

Then, using the same logic he used to condemn Trump, he forgave himself. “I have lied, but I am not a liar. I have done bad things, but I am not a bad man.”

However one interprets his words, Cohen cast himself as a cautionary tale: “… people that follow Mr. Trump, as I did, blindly, are going to suffer the same consequences that I’m suffering.”

While his remarks seemed to admonish fawning Republicans, I heard in them a Casandra-like warning to all Americans. “Mesmerized, intoxicated, and ambitious” could be the mantra of our nation after all. We insist on being mesmerized by charismatic leaders whose interests may not align with our own. We are so drunk on the myth of American exceptionalism that we dismiss the injustices we participate in perpetuating. And, while we tell ourselves we are dutifully chasing the American dream, that’s just a nice way of saying that we’re in it for the money.

“Mesmerized, intoxicated, and ambitious” also describes much of my experience in corporate America. I once had a job at a startup, for example, whose charismatic CEO talked intelligent investors into giving him millions, well-known content providers into signing lucrative partnerships, and experienced professionals like myself into working for him.

The CEO’s mission statement was Kool-Aid. We would be “democratizing education.” Our product would let “anyone, anywhere, learn anything.” We would be deconstructing the Matrix and freeing trapped minds.

And. He paid us. Extremely well.

With the millions of dollars that could have gone directly to schools or teachers or students who continue to lack wifi and laptops and desks, we padded our portfolios and built vaporware.

I eventually saw the naked emperor and lost my job for pointing at him. But for months I allowed myself to be manipulated. They had found my price: enough of a mission that I could tell myself I was doing good and enough of a salary that I didn’t question the mission. As exceptional as I like to think I am, my price was the same as everyone else’s.

I left that job years ago. But the calculus of the American dream or, more accurately, the White American dream, continues to haunt me. We stay complicit in a system we know harms others, because we love the comfort that system gives us. We assuage nagging concerns for the system’s egregious failures with regurgitated platitudes: “No system is perfect.” And even as our choices hurt others, what we generally don’t recognize, what Michael Cohen did not recognize until it was too late, is that our choices are also hurting ourselves. By doing an evil man’s bidding, we do evil. By ignoring the suffering of others, we char our own souls. And when the shit hits the fan, as it invariably does, we are their fall guys.

Cohen’s public profile was big enough and his deeds illegal enough to land him three years in prison. Mine aren’t. But what seems to haunt him also haunts me: we both knew better.

Look at the world we create when we who know better, when we who are “not liars” and “not bad [people],” let ourselves be so easily swayed.

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