(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 17, 2017.)
Every time I sit down to write about something I want to write about—like how to find meaning in a secular age, or the significance of the imminent birth of my new granddaughter—I find my reverie interrupted by the political turmoil surrounding me.
Yesterday’s firing of FBI director James Comey, the most important law enforcement official investigating the Trump White House not appointed by that administration, is more than deeply disturbing. For if no truly independent investigation is forthcoming, then we will never know the extent of the current regime’s crimes. With control of the White House, both branches of Congress, law enforcement, increasing control of the judiciary and law enforcement, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and all the rest, we may really be moving to the unthinkable—a banana republic with one party rule, show trials, and kangaroo courts. And don’t say it can’t happen here; that America is exceptional. It can and America is not.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum caputured the fundamental issue in, “This Is Not A Drill,” published in The Atlantic. Frum wonders if the integrity of our government is being fatally undermined: “If this firing stands—and if Trump dares to announce a pliable replacement—the rule of law begins to shake and break. The law will answer to the president, not the president to the law.” So which will it be? If it is the former, if the rule of law is null and void, then there is nothing left to protect any of us from the autocratic whims of the President and his apparatchiks.
And in The New York Times Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the previous three Republican administrations, pleaded with his fellow Republicans in “Don’t Be Complicit:”
A powerful, independent person Mr. Trump did not appoint and whose investigation he clearly feared has been summarily fired. Given his volatility and vindictiveness, his Nietzschean ethic and his overpowering narcissism, this is exactly what one would expect of Mr. Trump.
The fear many Trump critics have had is that he is, as I put it just after the inauguration, a transgressive personality and a man of illiberal tendencies who was unlikely to be contained by norms and customs. He would not use power benevolently but unwisely, recklessly, and in ways that would undermine our democratic institutions and faith in our government.
I desperately hope a few Republicans will heed Mr. Wehner’s pleas, but I’m skeptical. No doubt many congressional Republicans despise Trump, but they all want to be reelected too. Unfortunately to do so they need the support of Trump’s devoted and delusional fan base, so almost all future candidates will probably continue to follow the party line. (Notice that no congressional Republicans have yet called for an independent prosecutor, and only a handful have expressed even the mildest concerns.) I seriously doubt that they will do anything that would be harmful to the Republican brand.
On the other hand, perhaps congressional Republicans will let an independent prosecutor be appointed in the hope that Trump might resign before being impeached. Then Pence would become President, something that many of them would undoubtedly prefer.
Still I doubt that too. With the goal of near complete control of government within their grasp, powerful Republicans will not suddenly retreat. Those attracted to power rarely let principle intervene when on power’s doorstep. The Republicans find their newfound power exhilarating, and all they want to do is use it. Orwell taught us this years ago:
Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
As for negative public reaction, I don’t think the Republicans care. The public is pretty much disenfranchised anyway—by gerrymandering, voter suppression, big money in politics, and 24/7 propaganda. I hate to say it, and I’m sorry that some of my predictions seem to be coming true, but we are now live in a kleptocracy. In the meantime the wealthiest will get their tax cuts, ordinary citizens will be denied health-care, the poor will still be incarcerated in high-tech dungeons, the environment will get more polluted and the climate more extreme, the mentally ill and the unlucky will continue to live on the streets, and more wars will be fought and bombs dropped.
With moral and intellectual excellence denigrated, with power and hyper masculinity praised, the nation itself, like so many of its desperately suffering citizens, is increasingly psychotic.