Political Rubbernecking

I discontinued my New York Times subscription about a year ago in favor of The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I never thought it because of dissatisfaction with the Times, but rather as part of an attempt to orient myself toward longer-form journalism. I’d much rather read Michael Gerson’s ten-page analysis of political evangelicalism than a barrage of headlines from the politics desk – what Saul Bellow called “crisis chatter.” My wife still keeps an online-only local news subscription (it is our local newspaper), but it makes me feel like I understand things a little better, a separation of signal from noise. I read the anonymous Op-Ed the Times ran this week and felt simultaneous relief that I’d unplugged from such bullshit and disappointment that the editorial board had taken the “rare step” of publishing such an essay without attribution. Still, here I am.

Newspapers source information from anonymous parties all the time, but I’ve never seen an outlet like the Times allow such a source to give an uninterrupted account of events in their own words. I’m sure it’s rare that a source is purely (or even mostly) altruistic. But that implies that sourcing journalism is a constant act of balancing the motivations of the source with the reliability of the information. I can’t understand how the Times determined that balance to be adequate.

Adam Serwer writes for The Atlantic in his piece “There's No Coup Against Trump:”

But the Times op-ed is not resistance, it is public relations. It’s a first-person version of the anonymously sourced pieces claiming Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been restraining the president’s worst impulses. And it joins an avalanche of efforts by Trump officials, afraid the walls are closing in on his presidency, to save their own skins.

But Serwer makes a wider claim as well:

The real threat to American democracy comes not from self-aggrandizing current or former Trump officials who take to the press to burnish their legacies, but from the president’s authoritarian impulses, and a unified Republican Party that has abdicated its constitutional duties to ensure that executive power is not turned into a partisan weapon. President Trump believes that the Justice Department should allow his allies to get away with crimes but maliciously prosecute his enemies, that it should be illegal to criticize or read criticism of him, and that religious and ethnic minorities have no rights he is bound to respect.

Serwer is absolutely correct. The greater threat to American democracy is an authoritarian president and a Republican Party that is, at best, indifferent to his impulses so long as it achieves its ends and, at worst, actively supportive. But the title of his piece betrays a certain disregard for the secondary danger: how the country reacts to the threat.

I had a dramatic Driver’s Ed teacher in high school who was fond of one particular image. “How many collisions do you initiate when you wreck your car?” Three: car against tree, body against car, organs against body. I’m not sure what that was supposed to illustrate to a sixteen-year-old prospective driver. I suppose there are only so many ways to tell a kid not to drive like a maniac. But as a metaphor, it tends to work.

The collision you see from the sidewalk only damages the car. When the airbags deploy properly or the car holds up the way it’s supposed to, they mitigate the damage from the second crash. Even still, there’s the third crash. Beyond broken bones, ripped skin, and contusions, there’s the danger of damage that no one sees immediately: concussion, internal bleeding. The easiest way to prevent the damage is to drive the damn car safely and right now there’s a maniac with his foot on the gas. That is the greatest danger at the moment. But, in attempting to assure the public that his own steady hand is on the wheel, our anonymous hero also announced that the airbags aren’t functioning, the brake fluid is low, a couple tires are flat, the “check engine” light may or may not be working, and there’s a sour smokey smell coming from under the dash. Never fear.

In the author’s words:

“Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over”

Only a Republican official in this administration could write such a paragraph.

David Frum writes:

“Impeachment is a constitutional mechanism. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment is a constitutional mechanism. Mass resignations followed by voluntary testimony to congressional committees are a constitutional mechanism. Overt defiance of presidential authority by the president’s own appointees—now that’s a constitutional crisis.”

Serwer argues that there is “no coup against Trump,” but that's not entirely true. The danger of an authoritarian is certainly what he will do, but Serwer is wrong to dismiss the peripheral damage. The country and its institutions aren’t inert. They’re made up of people who react to threats and to signals, often irresponsibly. We should never dismiss the danger Trump poses to actual human beings for the four or eight years of his term. That should be our first focus, always. But the ripples – the damage to institutions and the culture of the office, the dysfunction in the West Wing, the partisan divisions he inflames, the sort of discourse and politics he brings into the mainstream – are dangerous as well and will extend far beyond his tenure. Stripping the office of the tools which give its democratically elected future occupant the means to govern is one such danger.

The president himself poses the greatest threat at this moment, but a cowardly group of self-serving bureaucrats is stripping the office for parts while it’s still hurtling toward a ditch.