The writer John Cassidy warned in his excellent, initial assessment of the first act of the past week’s melodrama surrounding President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, that at moments like these, “it is important to express things plainly.”
This, for a long-winded gas-bag like me, is a challenge, but let me do my absolute damnedest:
The next few weeks – call it May, 2017 – will be remembered either as (1) the moment we, the United States of America, began to push back against an authoritarian assault, to show that our democracy, our democratic ideals, are stronger than one depraved, hideously emboldened “strong man”; or (2) the moment we surrendered, and gave the “strong man” permission to dismantle our democracy, to cede our position as leader of the free world, to do whatever the fuck he wants.
If that sounds hyperbolic or alarmist to you, then – and I say this with honest, true respect, as humble and earnest a plea as you can imagine – please, for the love of God, for the love and sake of this country, grow the fuck up and start paying attention.
This…only serves to confirm that President Trump’s own sense of loyalty, such that it is, lies somewhere other than with American democracy.
Plenty of “ink” has been spilled about the gravity of this moment: for a timeline of events, try this; for a blow-by-blow of the series of lies the White House perpetuated regarding the firing, there’s this; and here is a detailed account of our mad president, asking aids how to stop the investigation, screaming pathetically at his television, before making the decision. Meanwhile, here is a quick and dirty recount of the President summoning the FBI director to dinner, and demanding a pledge of “loyalty,” here is a nice breakdown of the shady, bizarre meeting with Russian representatives the day after Comey’s dismissal, and for good measure, here is WaPo’s running timeline (up to and including the bombshell today regarding F.A.T. giving highly classified information to Russian emissaries) of what we know of the entire sordid Russia affair.
Finally, for a take on the myriad ways that President Trump’s actions are an immediate and existential assault on American democracy, there is a veritable chorus of our very best, brightest and wisest, shouting from this from the rooftops, but for a happy visual, you can’t go wrong with Fareed Zakaria yesterday morning:
When you cut through the noise, President Trump’s actions are a stunning obstruction of justice, a direct effort to undermine the independence of a very real, very serious, investigation, and only serves to confirm that President Trump’s own sense of loyalty, such that it is, lies somewhere other than with American democracy. It is also, plainly, a transparent and unprecedented effort to politicize the FBI, to install a “loyal” FBI director who will do President Trump’s bidding, rather than answer to the rule of law.
And this fits with the baseline theme and tension of the Trump presidency: our institutions, and our democracy (in the form of a vocal Resistance) have had moderate success in curtailing some of President Trump’s worst instincts, but the President’s response to that successful resistance has not been to adjust course, or try to achieve success within the established parameters of American democracy. Rather, President Trump’s resounding message has been “fuck democracy, fuck the Constitution, I will do whatever I want, and now I’m the President, so good luck trying to stop me.”
We’ve already seen this attitude from President Trump – this “fuck you” to the most basic principles of American democracy – repeatedly throughout his young presidency, including in: (i) his continued attacks on, and threats against, the judicial branch; (ii) his blatant, unprecidented efforts to milk the presidency for every dollar it’s worth; (iii) his repeated attacks on our free press (including this, which was unfortunately buried last week); (iv) his successful efforts to neuter and bring to heel the Republican Congress; (v) his transparent and baldly dishonest attacks on the fundamental American right to vote; (vi) his willingness to lie, brazenly, to his supporters, and to throw his supporters under the bus, in order to pursue his ends; and of course, (vii) his continued, open admiration for dictators and authoritarians who espouse those same “fuck democracy” principles.
This man comes across as, and is, a buffoon, and so we have a tendency to write this stuff off as “Trump being Trump,” just another unsettling character quirk in a sea of madness. But for all his buffoonery and weakness, F.A.T. still has access to immense power, and how he views that power is more than just a quirky, slightly batty, character tic. So when President Trump makes his disdain for democracy this clear, it would behoove us to take that very seriously.
Does anyone think that President Trump – if he is successful in purging our FBI and our intelligence agencies and installing agents “loyal” to him – would think twice about directing their considerable power to pursue his personal agenda?
Is it so hard to imagine President Trump, emboldened by stifling the Russia investigation and bringing Congress to heel, ordering his “loyal” intelligence officers to attack his political opponents?
Does this man have the restraint or fortitude to not “lock her up,” if he felt it would further his personal ends?
And if you’re a supporter who thinks that sounds like a swell idea, do you really think he would stop there?
Has President Trump shown any signs that he sees the U.S. military as anything more than a toy, a means to create distraction and chaos?
Does anyone think President Trump wouldn’t mobilize his “loyal” military to smother protests? That he wouldn’t purge millions of American voters from the voting rolls in order to “win” in 2018 or 2020?
We fell all over ourselves admiring the “peaceful transfer of power” in January, but does anyone think that, if F.A.T. were to lose a future election, he wouldn’t be willing to tear this country apart, to refuse to recognize the “rigged” results, to barricade himself in the White House, and turn loose these guys:
who are, I am sorry to say, objectively deplorable, and burn our great nation down?
And if you’re saying to yourself, “oh come on you silly liberal S.O.B., he would never do all of that, this is America,” then, again, respectfully, you’re not paying attention.
The Constitution is designed to reign in the worst and most dangerous abuses of power.
So what do we do?
I fear the Narrative is already shifting ominously in the direction of what I’m calling the “Fallacy“: the notion that, “well shucks, there’s nothing we really can do,” because, “heck, he is the president, and the Constitution gives him the power to, you know, do stuff.” (this was, incidentally, Maverick John McCain’s initial line of attack in closing ranks around his President after the Russia intel disclosure broke today).
The Fallacy is what allows Nikki Haley – ostensibly a relatively “independent” voice in the Trump administration – to say things like “he’s the CEO of the country,” and “he can fire anyone he wants.” Respectfully, Nikki, the United States is not a corporation. And even using that ham-handed, bullshit analogy, if a CEO of some corporation fired someone in this manner – blatantly admitting that it was to serve that CEO’s personal interests, giving off an overwhelming stench of corruption and lawlessness – do you really think the CEO wouldn’t face consequences for that? Let’s take it a step further: the world is mocking us, every day, because of the actions of our boy President, and that’s without a doubt bad for “business”; if a CEO pulled that shit, do you think he or she would still be CEO?
And that is one of two fundamental flaws in the Fallacy: nothing about this is normal. The President of the United States is very clearly unfit for the job, may be mentally unstable, and he talks, daily, like a man who is eager to dismantle our democracy, just to show that he can. When the Media throws up its hands about how the Constitution gives the President immense power – “shucks, what can we really do” – it gives short shrift to the increasingly obvious fact that the Constitution is under direct attack, and the Constitution was specifically drafted to fend off those types of attacks.
Imagine King George III had somehow manipulated the election of 1804, and managed to supplant Thomas Jefferson with some Tory stooge who would urge “reunification” with Britain. And imagine that stooge-President then proceeded to shit all over the Constitution, marginalizing Congress, attacking the judiciary, in order to curry favor with the Brits and build his own personal wealth. Would our vaunted founders have shrugged their shoulders and said, “well hells bells, the Constitution does give him that power?” Of course not. The Constitution gives power, but it is designed to reign in the worst and most dangerous abuses of that power.
Which brings us to the second flaw in the Fallacy: the notion that “we” are hamstrung, unable to do anything in the face of our mad king. If by “we,” we’re talking about the Resistance, Democrats, the many segments of the Media still desperately sounding alarms, then yes, there’s not much “we” can do.
But this is not, despite what Republicans would like us to believe, politics as usual, and the Fallacy conveniently overlooks that reality. This is an attack – in James Clapper’s words, an “assault” by internal forces – on our institutions, our democracy. And in that context – a proud nation whose proudest and most enduring feature is under attack – is it so unreasonable to expect that our definition of “we” should include the Republicans in Congress, and the roughly 46% of Americans who prop them up?
And if we include those folks, if we assume Republicans’ basic sense of patriotism, and expect and demand that they become part of the “we” charged with stopping this attack on America, then there actually is an awful lot “we” can do.
Yes, impeachment is a word on plenty of tongues, and frankly, it is still not being discussed nearly seriously enough. But even if we stop short of that for now, it would take a half dozen Republican senators to, tomorrow, jointly state that they will not approve any new FBI director unless and until: (1) an independent commission is established to investigate the Russia situation; and (2) the nominee is an independent, non-political candidate who can earn the vote of at least 60 members of the Senate.
That there are not 5 or 6 Republican senators (or even one!) who are willing to take this most basic, abundantly reasonable step is shameful. The only way to change this is to reject the Fallacy and steer the Narrative to accurately reflect these extraordinary and dangerous times:
(i) the United States, and our democracy, is under attack from a President who, based on his own public statements, is dangerously uninformed, hostile to democracy, and absolutely smitten with foreign dictators;
(ii) thank goodness, our Constitution gives us – We, the People – a number of avenues for beating back precisely that kind of attack, including two other branches of government that can check the President’s power, and options for removing the President from power in extraordinary circumstances;
(iii) but gosh darnit, even though We, the People, have the power under the Constitution to fight back this attack on America and its democracy, there are a select few among us – Republicans in Congress – who just refuse to pull the trigger!
Republicans in Congress would love nothing more than to see headlines next week along the lines of “Congress Approves Trump FBI Pick Amidst Partisan Concerns,” or “Dems Fail to Block FBI Nom Based on Russia Questions.” They will lean heavily on the false notion that this is partisan politics as usual, they will cling to the Fallacy – “look, he’s the President, it’s not our place to tell him what to do” – until it is no longer supportable, until the headline becomes: “Republicans Cave to Trump’s Power Grab.”
If we have we have any hope of beating back this attack, we need to work, every day, to convince Republicans to be patriots again.
So how do we get to that point, how do we ensure that fair, accurate headline? How do we reject the Fallacy, and shift the Narrative to reflect the sad reality that, even though We, the People, have ample means to stop this attack on America, the Republican representatives we’ve elected to hold that power have flatly refused to be patriots, and use it?
As a starting point, we’re going to need to steel ourselves, and try to be just a little more like this guy:
Republicans, and President Trump, draw their strength from a steadfast base of Republican voters. The wise Dem who sent me that linked article has been warning for years that the conservative media bubble is corrupting our Republican friends and neighbors, creating an environment where loyalty to party “trumps” all else. That’s manifested itself in an insane way in the Trump era: no matter what this man does – no matter how dramatically he undercuts conservative values, Republican values, and age old American values – it’s okay if it drives “liberals” crazy.
At moments like these, it is important to express things plainly: this zealous Republican orthodoxy, this allegiance to party above all else in the face of an existential threat to the United States, is the antithesis of patriotism. And if we have we have any hope of beating back this attack, we need to work, every day, to convince Republicans to be patriots again.
Remember the run up to the Iraq war, when the conventional wisdom, the Narrative, was that anyone who expressed doubt was not sufficiently “patriotic”? That was pretty messed up, but we can, and should, take some cues from that.
We may not necessarily need to ratchet it quite up to the decibels of that charming gentleman from New Jersey, but we need to take a page from his playbook, and stop being so damn polite.
We should be under no illusions: it is likely to fall on deaf – even hostile and dismissive – ears, but we need to persist. The Fallacy that we are merely at the mercy of this President’s worst, most destructive instincts, solely because he’s President, is a lie. The Constitution gives us all the tools we need to stop this attack on our democracy.
But the Constitution relies on the premise that enough of us will prioritize patriotism over party. Our looming tragedy is that we are not there yet, and we’re running out of time.