Before he ventures into the depths of the Belgian-colonized Congo in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the novel’s narrator, English sailor Charles Marlow, visits a doctor who is only meant to declare him fit for travel. But the doctor has other interests — namely insanity. “Ever any madness in your family?” he asks Marlow, suggesting it may set in “out there.” As, indeed, it does, deep in the jungle where European officers and ivory traders have wrought vast and senseless savagery in the supposed service of Western civilization.
Marlow’s is a civic kind of going mad, where the veil is lifted from politics and what lies beneath makes participation in ordinary political life with a quiet mind impossible. By the time he returns, what once seemed placid and unremarkable seems sinister and false — and it is.
We’re about there, I think — perhaps not every single one of us, perhaps not just yet, but the conditions are right and the summer is long. The entire 2016 episode has been, in some sense, an introspective journey into America’s own innermost parts, with Donald Trump’s victory prompting a nervous self-inventory of what we value, whether our institutions work and to what degree we ought to trust one another. The full contents of that inward odyssey have yet to unfold. But on the question of institutional functioning, the news is unequivocally grim. Like Marlow, even after this particular chapter has ended, we are likely to find ourselves changed by what we’ve seen.
There is the obvious side of the scandal: Russia clearly took steps to interfere with the 2016 presidential election and, to some incalculable extent, probably succeeded. It appears to have meddled by way of dirty persuasion, purchasing (somewhat bizarre) anti-Clinton Facebook ads, launching (truly bizarre) pro-Trump Twitter bots and, the pièce de résistance, hacking into several Democratic National Committee members’ email accounts and publishing thousands of missives on WikiLeaks. Trump’s campaign may or may not have been actively involved in the plot to scuttle Hillary Clinton’s chances (maybe the plot wouldn’t have gone so well if it were?), President Trump may or may not believe Russia interfered whatsoever (his mind changes day to day), and Trump may or may not have won anyway. All of that’s secondary.
The primary things are these: It just wasn’t that hard for a foreign power to tinker with our deliberative democratic process, which suggests that it just isn’t that hard, full stop, for anyone to tinker with our deliberative democratic process. And if Trump’s campaign played along, those who benefited when he won don’t really seem to mind. Republicans will issue all sorts of official-sounding tweets and news releases decrying the subversion of America’s hallowed institutions, but they’ve got their tax cuts and Supreme Court seats, and they’re not going to initiate impeachment proceedings or primary Trump come 2020. A neutral observer couldn’t be blamed for concluding that the rich and powerful people who contend for control of the country don’t much care how public offices wind up in their hands, so long as they do.
And this is true across the board. Those emails the Russians loosed upon the electorate were damning precisely because they revealed a similar scheme operating in miniature during the Democratic primary campaign: The supposedly neutral DNC functioned as more or less a Clinton campaign organ, subsisting off Clinton campaign funds and musing behind the scenes about targeting then-primary contender Bernie Sanders for being a secular Jew, how best to discipline his campaign for complaining about the DNC’s partiality and, ironically, how to properly dispel the appearance of a DNC conspiracy against Sanders.
The gravity and legality of the two exercises in meddling differ, certainly. But they both operate to wound our faith in democratic legitimacy. It has gone this way before. It took several incidents, from Vietnam to Watergate to scattered episodes of civil unrest, to permanently damage American trust in government; but as distinct as each event was, they all fractured the same essential faith. We haven’t returned to consistent levels of pre-’70s levels of trust in 40 years, and I doubt this current civic unease will fade much sooner.
This particular horror — Trump and his failures, whatever ridiculous thing he has said or done today, whatever international incident he causes on Twitter tomorrow, however authentic the next panic is — will pass. What will last is the frank revelation of a point that, while ugly and dark, is at least true: You really don’t have the choices you ought to in American democracy, because of decisions made without your consent by people of wealth and power behind closed doors. It’s possible to continue to participate in a democracy after that. But not with a quiet mind.