As a presidential candidate last year, Donald Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” He didn’t shoot anyone, but proved that he could say whatever he wanted and still become president, without apology or explanation.
This week, when he suddenly fired FBI Director James Comey, Trump made a version of the same boast. The administration said publicly that Trump fired him for his handling of Clinton’s e-mails. But everybody understood that what he was really saying was, “I can fire the head of the FBI, give a ludicrous reason, and nothing will happen.” The ludicrousness of the reason was not a mistake on his part — it is an essential part of the power play.
Trump doesn’t lie the way that other American politicians lie. This is the insight of Masha Gessen, a Russian and American journalist who is bringing her decades of studying the Kremlin to bear on modern American politics.
Normally, politicians lie because they want to persuade us of the truth of what they are saying. A candidate for Congress will claim that he earned a medal of honor when he did not, so that we will love and revere him. A mayor will claim crime is down, hiding the numbers that show the opposite, so that we will believe he is protecting us and reelect him. When we catch them in a lie, they lose credibility, and we vote them out of office.
But Trump — like President Vladimir Putin of Russia — doesn’t use words to persuade us of their truth. As Gessen says, “They don’t lie to hide the truth but to assert their power over reality.” Trump doesn’t start with facts and then veer from them — he operates outside of truth, attacking the possibility of truth, and doesn’t care if he is fact-checked; he succeeds the more that we all accept that words are tools, not referents for reality.
He uses words to express power, and to undermine the legitimacy of the state.
When Trump explained firing Comey because of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, of course he was lying. But he wasn’t lying because he thought we would believe him. If he wanted to persuade us, why not come up with a better reason?
Instead, because Trump lies to assert power, using the flimsy Clinton excuse is essentially saying, “I can do whatever I want for whatever reason I want.” Being obliged to give a reasonable reason would actually be bowing to a kind of constrained power — the presidency limited by reason, by logic, by reason-giving. He wants us to know he is unconstrained. He wants us to know he can exercise power arbitrarily.
Firing Comey may be the most Trump-like thing Trump has done: His campaign, his rhetoric, it is all about destroying the legitimacy of government institutions. He rails against courts, but he cannot fire judges; he rails against senators, but he cannot fire them, either. Most of the time, he uses words; this week, he used action. He fired the most powerful fireable man in the country, without good reason. He struck with one blow to turn the FBI into an political institution. As we’ve seen with the Supreme Court, once an institution becomes fundamentally political it is hard to turn back.
Republicans in Congress have been anxiously sitting on the fence for four months, trying to decide whether Trump has gone too far, and they should flee from him. But running away from him — as with all leaders with dictatorial tendencies — is dangerous; he will not hesitate to use whatever tools he has to punish those who are disloyal. So instead of leaving him, they use complex sentences that call out, “Not yet, not yet!” His firing “raises questions,” and we “might” need an independent investigation. These are the cowards with enormous power over the future of our country.
This may be bigger than Russia, bigger than the health care repeal, bigger than tax laws, because it attacks the heart of the promise of America: a nation ruled by laws and reason, a thoughtful, human nation. We fought a revolution to free ourselves from arbitrary power and the whims of a monarch. We now must fight a new revolution to protect it.
Zephyr Teachout is an associate professor at the Fordham School of Law and the author of “Corruption in America.”