Being thousands of miles away from home in Portugal, a country that 45 years ago was in the grasp of a brutal dictatorship, gives me an interesting perspective on former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Wednesday testimony and on the now nearly forgotten — was it only a week ago? — racist call for four nonwhite congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from.
I worry that we — the media, voters, Congress — are dangerously unserious when it comes to preservation of our democracy. To spend hours of airtime and write hundreds of print and online reports pontificating about the “optics” of Mueller’s performance — when he confirmed that President Trump accepted help from a hostile foreign power and lied about it, that he lied when he claimed exoneration, that he was not completely truthful in written answers, that he could be prosecuted after leaving office and that he misled Americans by calling the investigation a hoax — tells me that we have become untrustworthy guardians of democracy.
The “failure” is not of a prosecutor who found the facts but might be ill equipped to make the political case, but instead, of a country that won’t read his report and a media obsessed with scoring contests rather than focusing on the damning facts at issue.
Many well-meaning figures continue to beat the drums of impeachment rather than demand that Trump be voted out of office for betraying his country and lying to voters to conceal his crew’s unpatriotic sellout to Russian actors.
Trump reads from the same hymnal of disinformation and recites the same slander of democratic institutions that 20th-century totalitarians deployed, yet too many in the media call him the “winner” because Mueller did not pass their ridiculous tests (e.g. add new information, persuade Republicans).
Trump’s authoritarian liturgy, like that of many 20th-century despots, also co-opts religion, abandons universal liberal values including a free press, substitutes corporate cronyism for democracy and excludes from the body politic those who disagree with the government. Given his druthers, this president would exile critics just as dying colonial regimes would send off dissidents without hope of physical return.
And despite all this, too much of the chattering class remains dangerously unfocused and frivolous. It deploys irony and cynicism when clear-eyed explanation and morally defensible perspective are essential. Democratic presidential candidates and voters had better get their act together to find someone to beat Trump. If not, Trump with the complicity of a craven party and the indulgence of those who know better will further fray our tenuous attachment to democracy and truth.