If my liberal friends on Facebook are to be believed, the American democratic experiment is on the verge of collapse. Indeed, last night the Acting Attorney General was purged. Steve Bannon is preparing for a coup. Congressional Republicans are prepared to step aside and let the President act unilaterally.
This is not at all obvious.
The experience with the now terminated Acting Attorney Sally Yates is the clearest example of hysteria running away from reality. To talk about Yates, however, I want to remind everyone about Kim Davis. Davis was a Christian fundamentalist in Kentucky who refused to do her job as County Clerk because it required her to issue marriage licences for same-sex couples. This blog is staunchly pro-marriage equality, so let’s be clear: I have no love for her principles. But it is worth praising her effort as she preceded to put herself on the line to oppose what she saw as unjust Federal interference. She went to jail for her principles, and I must wonder how many people Tweeting #DoYourJob and memes about her clothes would do the same. That her principles were wrong is in some ways besides the point. Part of why I can afford to be magnanimous is because the courts gave her a simple three way choice: she could resign, she could issue marriage licences, or she stay in jail. Ultimately (and somewhat satisfyingly after her grandstanding) she caved to the #DoYorJob option.
Basically any argument for removing Davis, an elected official, is an argument for removing Yates, an appointed one. Unlike Davis, I wish to give her ideas aid and quarter; the Executive Order in question was unconstitutional, cruel, and poorly crafted—each a sin its own right if your job is Justice. Without reservation, she did a morally defensible thing. But to describe her firing as a purge misses something important here. When the Executive’s chief lawyer refuses to do her job, there really is only one acceptable course of action for the executive. She must be replaced. Our justice system requires defense of the guilty, and that includes Donald Trump and his odious executive order. Yates was replaced for announcing she could not in good conscience pretend it was defensible—unfortunate, but not a purge.
I won’t rehash at length Sunday’s blog post on the same theme, but there I argued that we need to be careful about calling things a Constitutional crisis until they are. Saturday’s fiasco and Sunday’s game of Constitutional chicken—the White House took nearly 24 hours to settle on a Constitutional response to the court orders—brought out hyperbole as well. Unlike with Yates, however, at least the interpretations were plausible. This did look like a coup trial, but mostly because floundering in legal incompetence looks like a coup trial in the United States.
Bannon’s resumé is unimpressive for his position. Breitbart is a fringey, paranoid cesspool of conspiracy theories in addition to actual praise for actual Indiana-Jones-punched-these-kinds-of-folks Nazis. Under his leadership, they routinely published false material about how the Federal government worked both in theory and in practice. I’d cynically wondered if he was publishing what people wanted to hear, but the steady stream of legal mistakes from the White House suggests that he really is not familiar with how the government works. If someone grabbed an electric fence to see if they got shocked, you would not assume they knew how the fence works. That’s how Sunday’s fiasco looked to me. An incompetent pundit promoted above his station blundering in full view of a suspicious nation. No wonder we have a flood of anxious posts about coups!
The final example—of many—I’d like to plumb is the myth that Congress is not listening. That’s not exactly what is happening here. Your Representatives and even Senators are a bit like cockroaches. They have a plan to survive anything, and Trump looks an awful lot like political nuclear holocaust. (Possibly a real one, but that’s a different post.) Consider the Executive Order. First, a fair number of them probably like the order regardless, but they are getting an unprecedented number of phone calls. The worry is that in 2018 this is going to turn into Democratic votes. But caving could inspire the rage of donors, conservative voters, and the President’s tiny-Twitter fingers.
The prudent thing to do is to wait. Let the courts sort out the Constitutional matters; it’s their job anyway. Let the White House decide how to handle implementation; it’s their job anyway. Its not a principled position, and I support efforts to call Senators and tell them to come out from under their rock. But it should not be read as anything unusual. Congressional efforts to hobble a president of the same party would be unusual. Nixon’s Articles of Impeachment appeared suddenly—after a bunch of tepid Republican responses about “wait and see” about the evidence. Coordinated Republican action against the President will come swiftly and from all sides. That McCain and Graham have broken ranks means they think they will have help if this goes somewhere. As an ethical dictum, I agree that to be silent is to be complicit. As a way of reading Congress, silence often means seeing if they can avoid controversy. The simplest way to read the deafening silence of Congressional Republicans is as fear.
Let’s step back and look at the form of the last three examples. I call this way of looking at things “calibration”. It is a simple method of considering the worst interpretation, the best interpretation, and then seeing what remains as a commonality between them. What remains between the two is often the most expedient part to attack because it requires the least suspension of disbelief. Likewise, it is often validated—and both the worst case and best case interpretations usually are not.
Sally Yates Was Fired
Worst Case: This was political payback for taking a stand against an unconstitutional order.
Best Case: She was fired for failing to perform her duties, which were defending an unconstitutional order.
Calibrated Response: The Executive order is indefensible.
The White House’s Handling of the Executive Order
Worst Case: This was an attempt to test the boundaries of executive power and is preparing a major seizure of power.
Best Case: The White House is unaware of the finer points of the Constitution and is blundering into huge mistakes.
Calibrated Response: The White House’s behavior is out of line with the US Constitution and tradition and so, regardless of intent, presents a clear and present danger to due process, separation of powers, and other democratic norms.
Worst Case: They agree with everything that is happening and plan to leave a clear path for it to happen but don’t want association to tarnish reelection chances.
Best Case: The fear being associated with controversy and will let this play out how it does so as not to tarnish reelection chances.
Calibrated Response: Dragging Congress into this fight will force them to be more responsive to public opinion. Call your Senator and Representatives to tell them you do not approve of their silence.
I would not dismiss the worst case scenarios out of hand. Indeed, one thing I like about calibration is that it forces me to consider what the worst interpretation of the evidence is. I cannot say with certainty that Bannon is not testing for weaknesses in the checks and balances of the Federal Government. But trying to guess what Trump’s Rasputin means to do can largely be sidestepped by looking at the practical effect of what he is doing.
It will also make you feel better without feeling complacent. Vetting the best case scenario will give you a less apocalyptic view and a sense that catastrophe, while possible, is rarely the most likely future. After all, the best case scenarios I have outlined here warrant marches, letters to Congresspeople, and a general sense of urgency. Calibrated responses are less emotionally taxing because they do not run on fear, nor do they require some kind of enforced optimism. Finally, to be done effectively, they require you to do some research about what people are saying is the best and worst case. Calibrated responses are informed ones.
We’ve got 4 more years of this, folks. In the first 11 days, we are already shouting ourselves hoarse and telling people the worst is all but upon us. A lot of bad things are happening—calibration cannot sugar coat that—but the very darkest predictions circling right now are very unlikely.
Let’s fight the bad things and not the most terrifying things we can conjure from our minds.