At the center of the Comey firing is, it seems to me, a simple question. Is the presidency of Donald Trump a threat to liberal democracy? This has always been the question. It’s why his presidency is different than any other. Yes, there are policy goals that can be debated — health care, foreign policy, mass immigration, etc — and he can be opposed or supported on those grounds. There are appointments — or a stunning lack of them across the executive branch — that reflect amateurishness and incompetence outside the norm. There are habits — like Trump’s tweeting — that degrade the office of the president. There are skills — such as shepherding legislation through Congress — that may be absent, and their absence might even be a cause for relief. There is evidence that the president knows close to nothing about the world — see this latest jaw-dropping interview with The Economist, where he imagines you can buy health insurance for $15 a month. And there are clear indications he is off his rocker — see this staggering exchange about steam, “digital,” and aircraft carriers in an interview with Time. These are horrifying indications he is unfit for the office he holds. But they can all be handled within the boundaries of democratic electoral accountability — and, with any luck, will be in 2018 and 2020.
The core concern was always deeper than this. It was that Trump doesn’t understand the Constitution he has sworn to protect; that he would abuse his executive power, to lash out at enemies; that he would undermine the rule of law by trying to get his way, consequences be damned; that he would turn vital democratic institutions, such as the Justice Department and the FBI, into mere handmaidens of his own interest, rather than guarantors of the public’s. And it is clear to me that the firing of Comey — while within the president’s Constitutional powers — falls squarely into this category. To fire someone who is conducting an investigation into your own campaign cannot help but be seen as an interference with the rule of law. It is to cast doubt on the integrity of that investigation, and its future. It undermines public confidence that the executive branch can enforce the law against itself. It politicizes what should not be politicized. It crosses a clear line.
And it also crosses a line when you keep lying brazenly about why you did it. You don’t pin it on Rod Rosenstein. You don’t pretend it’s about “showboating.” You don’t ludicrously argue that you’ve just finally realized that Comey did Hillary wrong. You don’t also say that you were going to fire him anyway. You don’t say the FBI was in turmoil under Comey, when it wasn’t. And you don’t say you want to get to the bottom of the matter when you have already declared the entire story a hoax. More to the point, you don’t lie about all these things and then go on television and blurt out the truth: “When I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russian thing with Trump and Russia … is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election.” Read that again. The president has just said on national television that the Russia investigation was in the front of his mind when he decided impulsively to fire Comey. He has admitted he wanted to remove the FBI director because his investigation — which is fast intensifying — was targeting his campaign. That is called obstruction of justice. His spokeswoman yesterday reiterated that, after the Comey firing, the administration hoped the Russia investigation, which was trivial, would be wound up soon.
We also learned overnight that, according to sources close to Comey, just seven days after his inauguration, Trump invited the former FBI director to a private dinner. At the dinner, he twice asked him for his personal loyalty. Comey demurred, as any decent FBI director should. But the very idea that a president should ask the FBI director this is astonishing and deeply disturbing. It’s an attempt — just a week into his presidency — to control an agency he absolutely must not control.
All of this is simply unacceptable. An attempt to obstruct justice is an impeachable offense. And Trump has just openly admitted to such a thing. When, one wonders, will the patriots in the Republican Party stand up and confront this? If Clinton had done such a thing, the House would be drawing up articles of impeachment right now. We saw their pusillanimity last spring as this malign buffoon manhandled his way to the nomination. It has not abated. Comey may have made mistakes; he may have had a Messiah complex; he may go down in history as a self-righteous prick who interfered in an election. But he is obviously and transparently independent — the key criterion for any FBI director. He has angered both Democrats and Republicans over the years — and this very ability to stand up to the Bush administration and the Clinton campaign at critical moments made him someone you could count on to get to the bottom of the Russia affair. I might add: I’m a skeptic about whether there’s anything there on the Russia stuff that directly implicates Trump in criminal dealings. But Comey was my reassurance that someone would have the tools to get to the bottom of it, whatever it was. Now, if I am not to be stupefyingly naive, I have to assume the president is guilty of something and is busy rigging the system to stymie any attempt to bring potential traitors to justice. And yes: This is about the possibility of treason against our democratic system. And the president, chumming it up with Lavrov and Kislyak the next day, seems incensed that there is even an investigation at all.
If this is swept under the rug, we take one giant step toward the authoritarianism Trump has always threatened. When a democracy believes its own president can put his finger on the scales of justice whenever his own interests are at stake, and get away with it, it is on its way to disintegration. I hope the Senate understands that this is not a drill. There needs now to be an independent prosecutor to take charge of the FBI case. If there isn’t, the checks in our system will have failed.
At the beginning of last week, we were all waiting for a religious freedom executive order that would destroy any remnants of gay rights in America. At least, that’s what you were expecting if you were cursorily scanning the press, or getting emails from various lobby groups. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern laid out the potential terrifying consequences a few days before: “A homophobic government employee could refuse to process a same-sex couple’s tax returns or Social Security benefits; federally funded religious charities could refuse to serve transgender people or women who’ve had abortions; and government contractors could fire all LGBTQ employees, as well as any workers who’ve had sex outside of marriage.” It looked grim. Mike Pence had apparently learned nothing from his religious-liberty fiasco in Indiana last year. Gay groups and the ACLU were on high alert.
And then it didn’t happen. In fact, the executive order was a nothingburger for the Christianist right. It merely reiterated support for political sermons — but in bland generalities. It contained no broad measures that would encourage discrimination against gay or trans people. It couldn’t actually repeal the Johnson Amendment, forbidding such sermons, because that’s a law and the president can’t just erase it with a pretty piece of paper. He simply ordered the IRS not to enforce it, which it doesn’t in practice anyway. Much of the Christianist right was therefore rightly despondent. Here’s Rod Dreher, addressing the true believers: “Religious conservatives, we’ve been had. Who can plausibly deny it now?” Ryan Anderson, the most prominent writer in favor of maximal religious freedom said simply: “Trump’s election was about correcting problems of the last administration, including religious liberty violations and the hostility to people of faith in the United States. This order does not do that.” National Review called the executive order “worse than useless.” Mark Joseph Stern was forced to follow up with a new story: “Trump’s Executive Order Spared LGBTQ People. Trumpcare will kill them.” Nice try.
The remarkable truth is that Trump is not anti-gay. For all his general hideousness, he has — so far — been the least anti-gay Republican president in history. Not exactly a high standard, but consider the following. He retained Obama’s executive order banning discrimination against gay federal employees. Ending it would have been an easy, early gift to the Christianists, but he punted. (An unrelated loosening of labor laws undermined that order and much else, but even gay activists conceded that was not the intent.) He believes marriage equality is the law of the land. He has no personal issue with where trans adults go to the bathroom. He was the first Republican nominee to mention and defend the LGBTQ community in his acceptance speech. He has held up a “LGBTs for Trump” rainbow flag. His nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, described marriage equality as “settled law” in his hearings. Gay and trans people will continue to serve openly in the military. No additional executive order on gay-discrimination issues is coming, according to the White House.
But none of this is supposed to count. Massive, historic achievements for gay rights gained only in the last few years have now been accepted by a new Republican administration — the true sign of political success — but we’re all still allegedly under imminent assault. The administration has, in fact, been “a catastrophe” for gays, according to one activist. The New York Times thundered against the “fallacy” that Trump is somehow pro-gay. Here’s their evidence: a Republican president, elected by a huge majority of evangelicals, has appointed several officials who hold views on gay issues that are in line with orthodox Christianity. The Census Department won’t count gays in 2020. And the Justice Department has withdrawn a year-old advisory asserting that Title IX mandates that trans kids in high school can go to whatever bathroom or locker room they choose. This was rightly seen at the time as a very aggressive federal stance on a highly controversial subject. Reversing it is not a radically reactionary act. And, er, that’s it.
I know there could be worse to come. But you get the sense from many in the gay-rights movement that the greater the success we have achieved in the last decade the more intolerable the remaining injustices become. The rhetoric ratchets up past 11, whatever progress is made. The hysteria never abates. I know that’s how you raise funds, get on TV, and rack up the page views. But sometimes, a historic shift really is durable. And at some point, you have to consider taking yes for an answer.
If you want to understand how deeply polarized this country is right now, I recommend watching the new Netflix series Dear White People. It’s about how black students at an Ivy League college who have a black student body president and an African-American dean are constantly struggling against white supremacy. All the reviews have been raves. Rotten Tomatoes’ critics score is 100 percent — a very rare achievement.
And it’s so bad you begin to wonder if you’re hallucinating. The clichéd set and model-beautiful actors look like they belong on a daytime soap opera. The crude didacticism of the script sinks whatever nuances there are in the performances. Each character is a cartoon figure designed to make a blunt and relentless points. The dialogue reads like a print-out from a p.c. speech generator. No one talks this way. The humor exists the way it does in, say, a mass-produced movie for evangelicals. It’s painful and always a form of instruction.
The idea of the series is a great one. It’s intriguing, even necessary, in theory, to have a show almost exclusively featuring African-American actors, with whites as crude stereotypical bit parts. (One white and appealing jock actually gets killed off right away, in a nice touch.) And the series has its moments. In one scene, for example, you see a gay kid masturbate to his straight roommate’s loud and wild hetero sex in the next room — and, for once onscreen, you actually witness a black man fucking. That kind of honesty is almost worth enduring the corniness of it all. Episodes two and three punctuate the propaganda with some nuanced, moving performances, but the actors can’t conjure what isn’t there, or escape the dreadful script. This is a huge missed opportunity. If the various character types had been written with any sophistication, rather than as two-dimensional stick figures created to make another intersectional point, and if the plot had not been such melodrama, it could have been fascinating, important viewing.
But rather than introducing us to a complicated world, with the standards of most Netflix series, it bangs us repeatedly over the head with crude lessons about systemic oppression, delivered with the tone of an afternoon special, urging the kids off white supremacy. Its plot is about as subtle as a Rob Lowe movie from the 1980s. And it simply doesn’t feel faintly real, or even contemporary. It comes off rather as desperate to be seen as hip, which is why its knowing references, like using Miley Cyrus as a transitive verb, come off as so contrived — and dated. The attempt to include hashtags and DMs is just lame. Reviewers hint at all this dreck — usually in an aside — but rave nonetheless. It reads to me as virtue signaling, or the soft bigotry of low expectations. And the show has no interest in persuading anyone not already firmly in the SJW tent. If you’re already woke, it’s an exercise in self-satisfaction. If you’re not, you find yourself either immediately switching back to the Netflix home page, or cringing with embarrassment. If we are learning more and more that the last election was fueled by a backlash against the endless p.c. lectures delivered by the elites, then this series is more fuel on the populist fire. It’s almost designed to get voters out to reelect Trump. It would more honestly have been called “Dear Deplorables.”
Which is why it’s interesting to me to find that the actual audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a mere 57 percent. Almost half the audience ratings are five stars; the other half are the lowest score you can get — a mere half-star. There’s almost nothing in between.
See you next Friday.