Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Squirming

What I think is so jarring about Trump's firing of Comey is that it reminds us in a brutal way of how fragile the constraints on Trump are. We're squirming as we realize that he is probably going to get away with it, and there is (practically) nothing we can do about it.

The key point here is that laws are necessary, but they are not sufficient. People are constrained in the first instance by norms, and only in extremis by actual written law. Moreover, when the time comes to enforce the law, it is necessary for the people charged with enforcing it (and the judges who hear the cases) to be public-spirited and non-corrupt. In this area, it's useful to read the first section of Matt Levine's day-after-election-day newsletter.

I want to make several points about this. The first is that our system is not generally as fragile as it might seem from my description. In general, politicians want to be popular, judges want to maintain their reputations, prosecutors want to bring career-enhancing cases, and so forth. The general norms of behavior, and the patterns of behavior, are much better than a cynic would expect.

The second point is that formal laws are a bit like Roman walls. It's better to have a wall than not to have a wall, but to rely on walls is a sign of weakness. When the legions are the undisputed masters of the territory, the walls are irrelevant. It is only when the hordes are approaching that the walls come into play.

Or another analogy. I spent a week when I was a teenager helping maintain a trail in a national park. The ranger who was working with us told us about another group where they had a chainsaw they were using to clear small trees or whatever. The volunteers wore hard plastic guards on their thighs in case the saw slipped. But one idiot wouldn't even bother to keep the saw from bouncing off his leg, he let it happen all the time. Sure, the plastic leg guard protected him, but it's supposed to be there for true accidents, not as the first layer of defense. You don't actually want to be testing the leg guard all the time!

But this is the thing about Trump. He's like that guy, except the leg is our society, and Trump's slashes with the saw aren't careless. He's constantly probing the basic institutions that protect our way of life, looking for weaknesses. And he's finding them! Not so much in the rule of law (yet), but in the basic norms that are supposed to constrain the behavior of our public officials.

I think the crucial question is why. Why is he so confident that he can get away with it? And why is he in fact getting away with it so far?

I don't have anything resembling a complete answer to these questions, but the thing I'd focus on is the public's attention span and its general ability to process information. It turns out that if you keep enough Republicans "on side," and if the conservative media doesn't defect (which it almost never does), then it is possible to keep any public consensus from emerging. And in the absence of a public consensus, the mainstream media will generally "report the debate," enabling or actively engaging in false equivalence.

People have been making these points for years, and I'll admit that for a long time I didn't take them very seriously. I now think this is the fundamental problem with our system, and I am pessimistic that we will make any real progress in addressing it.

And so we squirm at the mercy of a saw-wielding maniac who is actively looking for the gaps in our plastic armor.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

“People have been making these points for years, and I'll admit that for a long time I didn't take them very seriously. I now think this is the fundamental problem with our system, and I am pessimistic that we will make any real progress in addressing it.”

I personally have been making this point (to you, and more generally) for almost 20 years at this point. Having now been vindicated, I hope you will learn the necessary lesson and think twice before failing to uncritically accept the opinions of anonymous online comments sections.

1:50 PM  
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