If you missed last night’s BLOCKBUSTER interview with James Comey on ABC, you’ll want to read Roger Sollenberger’s excellent recap here. It was an interesting performance from Comey, and to be honest, after watching it live and browsing the full five-hour transcript, I still don’t really know what to think of the guy. On one hand, for all his tough talk about potential collusion and Trump’s morally unfit character, it would have been nice if he had ever once managed to stand up to the guy in person, rather than being weakly evasive (“I’ll give you my honest loyalty”) or outright capitulating. And Stephanopoulos did such a good job grilling him about his ego during the “chastise Clinton” speech (the opening act of the three-part Comey-Clinton email saga) that I’m pretty convinced Comey added his extra flourish because he enjoyed the spotlight, at least to some degree. On the other hand, traces of ego aside, he struck me as pretty thoughtful, and I left at least semi-convinced that every move he made—in the Clinton and Trump dramas both—was at the very least done in good faith.
But I want to talk now about another part of his interview that generated some controversy. Late in the hour, when Stephanopoulos asked him whether he thought Trump should be impeached, Comey gave a nuanced answer. Here it is in full:
Yeah, I’ll tell you, I’ll give you a strange answer. I hope not because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly. People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.
We’ll fight about guns. We’ll fight about taxes. We’ll fight about all those other things down the road. But you cannot have, as president of the United States, someone who does not reflect the values that I believe Republicans treasure and Democrats treasure and Independents treasure. That is the core of this country. That’s our foundation. And so impeachment, in a way, would short circuit that.
In other words, we got ourselves into this mess, and the resolution won’t be as meaningful unless we get ourselves out. As far as I’m concerned, he’s bang on the money.
One of the hobgoblins of the centrist liberal mind, ever since Trump took office, is the yearning for some father-like figure to rescue us from the Trumpian nightmare in deus-ex-machina fashion, with a single decisive blow. Embedded within this urge is not just hatred for Trump, but hatred of having to care, and having to work. The impeachment fantasists want a convenient reset button that somebody else can hit, thereby restoring a status quo that—at least for them—was comfortable enough to keep politics out of their daily lives.
These are not people built for activism…these are people built for sipping bloody marys at brunch. And the idea that Trump’s ascension to the oval office is indicative of a serious systemic problem that has been building for years, and will require enormous expenditures of time and resources to “fix,” overwhelms them. They want the simple story—a villain seized power, unilaterally and independent of history, and now a hero must unilaterally remove him.
You may have seen the recurring Twitter joke that gets re-hashed each time Trump fires someone from his team: “Michael Flynn, welcome to the #resistance.” “Reince Priebus, welcome to the #resistance.” “Anthony Scaramucci, welcome to the #resistance.” And you may have seen tweets like this one, after Paul Ryan announced his impending retirement:
To that sort of soft, porous brain, we are living in a morality tale in which Trump is the ogre who has captured the princess of American democracy and keeps her tied up in a cave. And anyone, regardless of ideology, can be the white knight who rescues her. As such, men like Paul Ryan or Reince Priebus, who are directly and provably responsible for the conditions that led to Trump, suddenly become potential heroes the moment there’s even a hint of a split between them and the dark lord. The fact that every major Republican political figure since at least 1980 has laid the groundwork for Trumpism in America, and the fact that the Democratic party’s abandonment of the working class has laid the groundwork for Trumpism in America, and the fact that we have an immensely popular cable news station that has spent decades explicitly encouraging the rise of Trumpism in America…this escapes the #resistance liberals. All they really want, deep down, is for a return to innocence. In reality, of course, we can no more do that than we can return to the womb, but somehow the idea of impeachment makes tangible what is in truth a chimerical delusion.
The one good thing about Trump is that he’s finally woken us up. It has become impossible not to pay attention to the ruinous aspects of American imperialism, or the cruel racism inherent to our immigration policy, or the continual and perhaps irreversible damage we’re wreaking on the environment, or the fundamental misogyny of an entire political party, or that party’s religious commitment to enriching the already rich and immiserating the already miserable. None of these problems, not one, began with Trump. But his utter absence of a polite facade—the kind employed by the Paul Ryans and Mitt Romneys of the world—has laid Republican priorities bare, and has also revealed the inflexible corporate mentality of mainstream Democrats, who have totally failed to offer Trump’s base an attractive economic platform to lure them away from the siren song of racial populism.
We’re all familiar with the concept of “rock bottom”—the way in which some people have to reach a very low, degraded point in order to scare themselves into recovery. But I believe there’s also a compulsion in people, when they sense their lives spiraling, to seek out rock bottom. I’m not saying it’s an evolutionary instinct designed to stimulate recovery by getting close enough to observe the really dark side of addiction (or whatever), because too often this journey results in death. But I am saying we are compelled in that direction when conditions slide past a certain point, and I believe that instinct can be traced to nations as well. Here again, it’s a risky brinkmanship—flirt with disaster, and you may get Hitler. But it’s a risk born of hopelessness, and I think there was an urge, in 2016, to confront the darkness of where America was heading, to defy the conventional paths that had hypocritically led us to the abyss while preaching against it, and to roll the dice with something extreme. If there’s something a level below the death wish, we had it.
This is our doing, and it’s our problem to remedy. The solution doesn’t begin and end with Trump. Remove him from office in one fell swoop, and the problems that saw him rise in the first place will remain. They will produce another Trump, and he will be worse. The people that scare us now will grow in number and power, because we will have ignored the soil from which they grew.
It’s better to seize the energy that Trump has inspired, as so many Americans have done, from the Women’s March onward. It’s better to watch his ideology wither on the vine. It’s better to deprive his supporters of their conspiracy fantasies by bludgeoning him at the ballot box. It’s better to render him impotent by thrashing his party in the 2018 midterms, and then doing the same for him in 2020. I’m not saying we should ignore the rule of law if an impeachable offense presents itself—I’m only saying that it’s a half-measure, designed to prolong our delusion that there’s an easy fix for America. That path offers no fulfillment and no pride; just a passive, facile sense of rescue from above. Better by far to send him out the same way he came in, and empower ourselves in the process by proving that American democracy isn’t broken by hatred, by fear, by Russians, by anything. Trump may be the death of us, but until he delivers the mortal blow, his bizarre presidency has done us the favor of opening our eyes. I cannot begin to understand the mindset of anyone who longs to close them again.