A Shining Comey on a Hill
Can the former FBI director lead us back to our better selves?
“The statue of justice has a blindfold on.” Is it absurdly idealistic to think that a corny reminder from former FBI Director James Comey will resonate long after his statement that “those were lies, plain and simple” has faded into obscurity? The blindfold, Comey said, reminds every Justice Department employee that “you’re not supposed to peek out to see that your patron is pleased with what you’re doing.” These are fundamental ideas: You’re not supposed to have a patron. You serve the law, not a man. Your integrity lies in the idea of a principled neutrality.
Comey’s testimony may come to be seen not only as a dagger aimed at a morally corrupt White House but also as a powerful drug administered to a very sick patient — ourselves. When U.S. Army lawyer Joseph Welch asked Sen. Joseph McCarthy, in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, “Have you no sense of decency?” he effectively ended the senator’s red-baiting career and helped bring a nation to its senses. Our national disease is not paranoia, as it was then, but rather a collective flight from the idea of a common good, of shared understandings, of neutral institutions. Comey incarnated for the American people what that posture of neutrality looked and sounded like. I suspect that was his intention.
In the arresting scene that Comey described in his written testimony, where the president tells him, “I expect loyalty,” and Comey “didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way,” we have an iconic moment in which the master of a patrimonial system confronts the servant of an impartial institution. Because Donald Trump really does understand the world in terms of patronage; the idea that in a democracy a public servant owes loyalty to the institution he serves rather than his boss was genuinely confounding to him. Comey clearly understood this, at least intuitively, which is why he could offer no response save silence.
If we have never before had a president so fully prepared to subvert our institutions, that is because we have never before had so little collective faith in the principles that Comey was defending. The idea that Democrats and Republicans both represent the people of the United States, albeit with very different views of the public good, has become quaint. Trump became the Republican nominee because he captured the public mood of bitter resentment more effectively — and more shamelessly — than his rivals did. His battle cry against Hillary Clinton to “lock her up” echoed the broad feeling on the right that the other side wasn’t just wrongheaded but criminal.
Trump has been able to undermine the credibility of putatively nonpartisan institutions because so much of the public has bought into an ethic of demonization. It has become almost the leitmotif of his presidency. Trump insists that the mainstream media isn’t just biased but “fake.” If a judicial ruling goes against him, he publicly holds up the judge or the court to mockery as a tool for liberals. And he proclaims that science, which depends upon the application of a method designed to systematically test hypotheses, is a fraud whenever its findings discredit his policy positions. In Trump’s world, the idea that a news report or a judicial ruling or a scientific finding can best be explained by reference to the institution’s truth-seeking principles is simply another piece of special pleading.
The liberal state cannot long survive without common space. Liberalism is less a set of policies than a set of attitudes toward public life, at the heart of which lies a commitment to the impersonal, unbiased process of truth-seeking. In On Liberty, English philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that society must protect freedom of expression for its own good, for each of us is so deeply inclined to believe what serves us best, so unwilling to learn from our adversaries, that only by allowing all forms of speech can we have any hope of reaching the truth. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell argued that the moment we lose our commitment to straightforward language we began to surrender to propaganda. Karl Popper insisted in The Open Society and Its Enemies that the scientific method was the only dependable bulwark against totalitarianism.
Liberal political systems feature checks and balances so that no one faction can gain total control over another, but they also depend on institutions that stand apart from the battle of partisanship. That’s what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said, given a choice between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, he’d prefer the latter. In Jefferson’s day, the press was vastly more partisan and reckless than it is today, but whatever the merits of any individual organ, it could still be accepted that the press served as a collective check on power. Try telling that to the “fake news” crowd.
The loss of faith in the idea of principled neutrality begins with the left, with the assault on universities and the government in the 1960s, and then with the attack of the deconstructionists on “structures of power” — i.e., on everything. But it has gathered force on the right at least since the late Ronald Reagan years, when Newt Gingrich routed the moderate, go-along GOP and declared a holy war against liberalism. Many of the evangelicals whom Gingrich and others conscripted did not accept the secular truth-seeking principles of the liberal state and were not about to concede good faith to their ideological rivals. Barack Obama was never so deluded as when he forecast an end to the red-state/blue-state divide, for that divide was not simply partisan but teleological. Donald Trump inherited a whirlwind, and that storm has threatened to uproot not only settled policy but the foundations of our institutions. He wants to tear the blindfold off the Lady of Justice.
I come back to my hope, forlorn as it is, that James Comey will begin the process of restoring us to ourselves. The Democrats who hated Comey last fall, and now idolize him, need to see that in each case he has acted from the same principles of impersonal justice — even if he made profoundly the wrong judgment call when he publicly announced the “resumption” of the investigation against Clinton in October 2016. The same is true, in reverse, of people on the right. We don’t know Comey’s politics. Like many public servants — and quite a few reporters, for that matter — Comey takes the position that he would undermine his legitimacy by showing his partisan colors, whatever they are. That feels more and more like an honorable position at a time when the domain of the nonpartisan has shrunk almost to nothing. Of course, since Fox News resolutely ignored Comey’s deeper message, we can assume that most people who don’t believe in impersonal justice will treat the testimony as just another fusillade in an endless propaganda war — i.e., fake news.
Last year was liberalism’s annus horribilis. This year has seen a slight uptick. In March, the center-right beat back a nationalist challenge in the Netherlands. Last month, a genuine liberal, Emmanuel Macron, thrashed the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen in France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is almost certain to be re-elected this September. It’s hard to know how to interpret Britain’s striking repudiation of Prime Minister Theresa May, but it certainly weakens support for Brexit. The United States is the great anchor dragging down all the world’s hopes. Donald Trump is not going anywhere, and neither are the wing nuts in Congress. But it may be that some of the millions of people who watched James Comey’s testimony were reminded of something they used to believe and even hold dear. If so, he will have rendered an inestimable service.