October 1938’s surprise was not political, and left no lasting effects on that year’s congressional elections. We can’t know how history will treat October 2016, with its unending succession of ghastly pranks; but I suspect that history will not be as kind to the authors of recent events as it has been to the late Howard Koch—and, in particular, to James Comey, the formerly respected FBI director whose maladroit handling of a fresh email “discovery” threatens to change American history. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the rise of Trump is a sign that the Constitution is “gravely, perhaps terminally, ill.” I underestimated how far the rot has spread and how hard it will be to cure. A constitution is not simply a collection of words, or even a set of rules; it is a complex focus of text, history, values, and institutions. And as the nation forsakes the values and devalues the history, the institutions—for all their marble majesty—are hollowing out. The Comey episode is but the latest symptom of a seriously ailing civic culture.
Comey, like Koch, has fallen victim to his own stratagem. He defied Department of Justice tradition and policy, and the advice of Department of Justice staff, to boldly tell the nation . . . essentially nothing except, “Everybody freak out!” In so doing, he has left not only his own reputation but the organization he heads sadly diminished for some time to come.
Why? I don’t know Comey, but have followed his career, and assiduously read what he and others have said about his prior service during the Bush administration. He has always seemed to me an admirable figure. The email announcement—now denounced by, among others, Democratic and Republican attorneys general, the ethics counsel for the Bush White House, and Fox News’s Judge Jeanine—seems not to have been a partisan maneuver so much as an extraordinary lapse in judgment inspired, in large part, by fear of being destroyed by partisan bullies on Capitol Hill.
It seems, in other words, like the collapse of a responsible official under pressure. And as such, it is a chilling reminder of how many such pillars of the republic have been buckling lately.
Consider that Donald J. Trump, a man incapable of a coherent English sentence, now has a lease (with option to buy) on the Republican Party. The United States Congress—where the Northwest Ordinance, the Homestead Act, The Fourteenth Amendment, the Social Security Act of 1935, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were drafted—now spends its time happily threatening to default on the national debt and refusing to confirm judges.
The Supreme Court—once vaunted as the branch that worked, is now literally hollowed out, its one missing justice having robbed it of not only its ability to decide cases but its very confidence in itself. A new step downward is now being pledged, as Senators like John McCain and Ted Cruz begin to suggest that Court vacancies should never be filled. (“[L]et the Supreme Court die out,” one conservative commentator suggested last week.)