American politics are in a trough. The Trump administration has passed the one-year mark while midterm elections are still nine months off. So there’s nothing for Congress and the press to do for the moment other than snipe, complain, and engage in intricate maneuvers on Capitol Hill. The result is a steady state of boring, low-level hysteria. Typically, Trump will do, say, or tweet something that rouses liberals to a fury. They’ll then scream and shout that they can’t stand it anymore before going back to sleep for a day or two until the next outrage occurs. Tweet, scream, repeat. It’s a mindless cycle that promises to go absolutely nowhere.
Indeed, Trump sometimes doesn’t have to do anything at all to get the ball rolling. An example occurred Tuesday when Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and other intelligence heavyweights appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify about Russian cyber meddling. Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Democratic tech magnate from Virginia, led the charge:
“What we’re seeing is a continuous assault by Russia to target and undermine our democratic institutions. And they’re going to keep coming at us. Despite all this, the president inconveniently continues to deny the threat posed by Russia. He didn’t increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so. He hasn’t even tweeted a single concern. This threat I believe demands a whole of government response and that response needs to start with leadership at the top.”
Next up was Coats: “Frankly, the United States is under attack…. While Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea pose the greatest cyber threats, other nation states, terrorist organizations, transnational criminal organizations, and ever more technically capable groups and individuals use cyber operations to achieve strategic and malign objectives. Some of these actors, including Russia, are likely to pursue even more aggressive cyber attacks with the intent of degrading our democratic values and weakening our alliances. Persistent and disruptive cyber operations will continue against the United States and our European allies using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy, sow discord, and undermine our values.”
And so on for more than two hours. No evidence was offered, no facts presented, merely faith-based assertions that the Kremlin is “engaged in a coordinated attack to undermine our democracy,” as Warner put it, and that something must therefore be done.
But notice that it wasn’t anything Trump said or did that set Warner off, but what he didn’t, i.e. the fact that he didn’t tweet, didn’t impose sanctions, and didn’t display that the requisite remorse that he’s in the Oval Office and Saint Hillary isn’t. For Warner, this amounts to a failure of “leadership at the top.” Warner, whose presidential ambitions are well known, seemed saddened by it all. The New York Times seemed concerned. As it worriedly noted in the next day’s news story:
“The warnings were striking in their contrast to President Trump’s public comments. He has mocked the very notion of Russian meddling in the last election and lashed out at those who suggested otherwise.”
How disturbing. Bad as this was, a follow-up editorial on Thursday was even worse. Entitled “Why Does Trump Ignore Top Officials’ Warnings on Russia?,” it began by declaring: “No one knows more about the threats to the United States than” Coats, Wray, Pompeo, et al., “so when they all agree, it would be derelict to ignore their concerns. Yet President Trump continues to refuse to even acknowledge the malevolent Russian role
But of course Trump refuses to acknowledge Russia’s role – presuming it even exists – since doing so would mean agreeing that he was illegitimately elected. This strange refusal to place his own head on the chopping block proves that he’ more illegitimate than ever.
The Times flailed away at the president for failing “to confront an insidious problem that strikes at the heart of the democratic system,” which is to say Russian interference, and for refusing “to impose sanctions for election meddling and aggression against Ukraine.” It thus blames Trump for refusing to escalate an international conflict that is already dangerously out of control. Then came climax. Why has Trump failed to act? “Some have said he is giving Russia a green light to tamper with the 2018 elections,” the editorial concluded. “That would have once been an absurd suggestion. It can no longer be dismissed out of hand.”
Trump, you see, has invited Russia to mount a hostile takeover of US democracy. It’s no longer out of the question that he’s helping a foreign power to wage war against his own country. That’s means he’s not just a lousy president, but something far worse.
How seriously are we to take over-the-top rhetoric like this? After all, it’s the winter doldrums when politicians and editorial writers will say anything to stave off the boredom. But the answer, unfortunately, is that it’s worth taking seriously indeed — very seriously. It’s rather like Trump’s absurd sabre rattling toward North Korea. It may not result in an actual shooting war now. But it will eventually if he keeps at it long enough.
Calling Trump a traitor obviously makes the Times feel good about itself. It makes it feel like it’s doing something – speaking truth to power and all that. But the effect is to undermine democracy as much as anything done or said by Trump. After all, a traitor is not someone you vote out of office, but someone you take outside and shoot. Accusing the president of acting in concert with a hostile foreign power means that the time for talk is over and that moment has come to pick up the gun. The more the American system breaks down, the more US society is beginning to resemble the antebellum period when the only way to resolve a constitutional deadlock over slavery was via civil war. Is this really where the Times wants to go?