The Comey Affair

James Comey

The big news these days is the firing of FBI director James Comey. The announcement last week took everyone (including Comey himself) by surprise. Cue the hot takes from every talking head across the media spectrum.

Perhaps the most entertaining was Jeffrey Toobin doing pretty much everything short of actually bursting into flame on CNN. The consensus in the responsible media was that this was a moment of seismic significance. It is certainly the most severe challenge to the institutional fabric of the republic since Richard Nixon’s firing of independent prosecutor Archibald Cox (referred to in the parlance of the American polity as “the Saturday Night Massacre”), and perhaps it eclipses even that.

Amongst the worried liberal hand wringing, one could also detect a the buds of a smug relieve, verging on triumphalism. This, so one frequently hears, is the moment of Mr Trump’s fatal overreach. The consequences of his arrogance will now arrive. A special council must, MUST be appointed to look into the matter. Finally, the day of the republic’s delivery from evil is at hand.

Certainly, Mr Comey’s firing evinced the penchant for ludicrous spectacle characteristic of so many of the actions of the current administration. From the fact that Comey himself learned of his dismissal from TV screens while giving a speech to FBI employees to the assertion (for which risible barely suffices as an adjective) that the (or even a) cause for the move was Comey’s handling of the affair of the Clinton emails, the level of absurdity was about what one had come to expect.

As if to emphasize the point, the redoubtable Kellyanne Conway was retrieved from whatever cold storage unit in which her human form is preserved, defrosted, and trotted out in front of the media to utter a series of demonstrable falsehoods. In short, it was just par for the course on another day in Trump’s America.

But for all that, there are some significant problems for the narrative that casts this as the point at which the good ship Trump founders on the shoals of its own mendacity. First and foremost, the assertion that the appointment of a special council must be the consequence of these events seems blithe to overlook the fact that said special council would have to appointed by the Attorney General (or his deputy) or by the Republican-controlled congress.

The question that needs to be asked is what is the motivation for any of those named above to institute such an investigation? If respect for the institutions of the republic, or some sort of commitment to justice and civilized values were matters of concern for Sessions, Rosenstein, or any of the hard-right zealots in the GOP congressional delegation, then a lot of things would be different. Sadly, they aren’t.

Sessions and Rosenstein are far more interested in turning the Justice Department into the legal wing of their local klavern to concern themselves with the minutiae of the administration’s intramural politics. As for the Republicans in congress, they’ve concluded (almost certainly correctly) that their base doesn’t care, and so they don’t either. There is simply nothing within the realm of human conception that could detach the rank and file Trumpistas from their dear leader.

Among the more moderate elements of the Republican base, Trump’s willingness to hold the line against the encroachments of Clinton/Obama socialism covers over a multitude of sins. For the rest, the GOP leadership clearly believes (once again probably correctly) that the combination of misinformation, gerrymandering, and voter suppression will get them over the hump with the balance of the electorate.

So benighted are the conditions of liberals and progressives in this country, that the astronomical unlikelihood of their fondest dreams of Mr Trump’s downfall ever becoming reality is insufficient to jar them out of their buoyant mantra. “They” will not allow Trump to get away with this. “They” must now recognize that firing the man leading an investigation into oneself is unacceptable.

Putting aside one’s own personal suspicion that the investigation in question is unlikely to produce anything more than a handful of magic beans, it is entirely unclear to whom this oft-invoked “they” actually refers. Instead, the words are incanted to all and sundry in the hopes that their very repetition will make the fondest of progressive dreams come.

Closely associated with the hope that arcane Russian kompromata will wash away the humiliation of Mr Trump’s presidency is the altogether thaumaturgical approach to politics involved in the attempt to breathe life into the bloated carcass of the Democratic Party. The Democrats are a truly peculiar institution among the major political organizations of the industrialized world.

Unlike in France, Germany, or Great Britain, where parties tend to have membership and to represent particular class fractions, American political parties have no membership and represent differing (though often overlapping) segments of the top of the income distribution. This commits them to certain decision-making processes and excludes certain kinds of politics.

This works well in the case of the Republicans who have managed to co-opt popular anger at the decline of economic position and prospects of the bottom 99% of the income distribution through powerful appeals to white racist solidarity. This was the Democrats’ stock in trade for the bulk of the period between the end of the Civil War and the late 1950s. Since abandoning overt racism in favor of a certain of flabby northeastern cosmopolitanism, the Democrats have struggled to keep the left wing of their base on board.

Lacking the visceral appeal of race, and unable to embrace serious redistribution by the necessity of keeping their funders onboard, the Democrats have settled on a narrative of thin liberalism. This involves a commitment to creating equal access to capitalist enrichment be compelling the system to come through on its universalist obligations. The party is constitutionally opposed to offering anything in terms of a substantive critique of capitalist accumulation, arguing instead that increased access to education and abolishing discrimination will result in a broad-based pattern of advancement, a rising tide that will lift all boats rather than swamping most of them.

In the age of automation and slow growth, this narrative has increasing difficulties finding traction. The unwillingness of the party to address disparities of outcome for non-whites, either in terms of economics and of the likelihood of being killed by the police, has sapped their ability to get their minority constituents to the polls.

They can’t critique automation, since that is a legitimate and “natural” outgrowth of the development of the capitalist economy, and they can’t employ the “brown people are taking our jobs” canard so favored by the Republicans. This was the fundamental problem of the Clinton campaign. There was no kind of change for which it could consistently argue, and thus it had no way of addressing the pain of people getting jammed by automated neoliberalism.

The moribund state of the party is badly timed for liberals. Most of the mainline democratic base has failed to notice that 2016 was the crisis point for the old liberal democratic system. There has been a fundamental change, one which has seen the evaporation of what might at one time have been described as the nostrums of a civilized democracy. As the mendacity of the Nixon administration became increasingly obvious in the course of 1973, congressional Republicans recognized that the misdeeds of the administration were seriously undermining their brand.

But no such recognition is in prospect. The party has indemnified itself with myriad safe seats and laws to keep down the political influence of non-whites. Moreover, there is no longer a generally held moral sensibility in American politics. Given the growth of the right-wing propaganda machine, in the form of Fox News and outlets further to the right, there is simply no basis for a consensus in the public sphere on what is actually happening, much less how it might relate to some sort of value order common to the republic.

It is certainly apposite that a new version of The Handmaid’s Tale is current airing on cable in the United States. Dystopian fiction has often served as a sort of wake-up call to people in the present about the possible outcomes of processes currently in action. In the case of classic works such as 1984 or Brave New World, certain features of the present day are vastly intensified in order to cast their dangerous aspects in relief.

The truly alarming thing about the situation in which we now find ourselves is that Margaret Atwood’s novel might become actual within our lifetimes. Avoiding this outcome will require are more cold-eyed realism that is currently in prospect on the left. The first step in this direction is the concede what has been lost, to recognize we are already far past the horizon of a new political order and that waiting around for the old days to return is the nadir of vanity.

Photograph courtesy of the Brookings Institution. Published under a Creative Commons license.