On October 31, 1938, a New York writer named Howard E. Koch woke up in his West Side apartment. It was his day off, and and he decided that he would get a haircut.
On the way to the barbershop, he overheard snatches of frantic conversation about “invasion” and “war.” “I thought Hitler had made a move,” he wrote later. “I rushed into the barbershop and said to the barber, ‘Are we at war or something?'”
Laughing, the barber showed Koch a newspaper. The night before, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air had broadcast a radio drama of phony newscasts, based on H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, that had spread a panic around the country.
Koch had written the Mercury radio play but missed the broadcast. Now he was one of the final victims of his own hoax.
The world in 1938 was on edge. The Munich agreement had been signed a month earlier; Hitler would march into Czechoslovakia only a few months later, and by the following September Europe would be at war. The world was primed for news of an “invasion,” and mistook one from Mars for one ordered in Berlin.
Historians debate whether the fear was as widespread as the news account claimed. All I know is that I was born more than a decade after the broadcast, and people on my block still recalled which neighbor had packed his car to flee, pausing only to beg his mother-in-law’s forgiveness for all his slights over the years.
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.)
The executive branch, meanwhile, has become—in matters like surveillance, whistle-blowing, assassination of American citizens abroad, prosecution of supposed domestic espionage, and even war and peace itself—a law unto itself.
The ballot—which is supposed to control political misbehavior—has been abandoned by the Court and is increasingly available to citizens only at the whim of legislators eager to retain power. As of October, it is also under assault from a candidate determined to claim widespread fraud if he loses. State governments—once the supposed “laboratories of democracy”—are hollowing out too, degenerating into semi-democratic one-party satrapies (look at Kansas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin).
Higher education, once a source of critique and inspiration independent of business and politics, is systematically being whittled away, with further surgery planned; even the elected state courts are increasingly under the sway of unregulated money.
The institutional media is now a shadow of itself. In the rise of Trump, cable news was an eager collaborator. How could it be otherwise, when the audience for news is shrinking and Trump brought them ratings? The number of newspapers offering original coverage shrinks by the year.
Deny these things if you will; but doing so betrays an inability to compare society today with that of 50, or even 20, years ago. Americans are losing the will to run their own affairs. How long till others volunteer to run them?
“The War of the Worlds,” Orson Welles said at the time, was just a light-hearted prank, like “dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’” But it misfired, because it foreshadowed catastrophic danger ahead. The FBI’s Halloween trick was not intended light-heartedly, and it may be a harbinger of the same.