The WTF moments related to the dawn of the Trump age arrive like artillery fire, daily, hourly. There are so many of them that their effect is overwhelming and numbing. You read something—that thing about Kuwait being pressured by Trump Organization officials to blow off the Four Seasons and hold its inaugural event at Trump’s hotel. You start getting worked up about it—and you should; it alone would be grounds for a special Benghazi-like committee if it were the Clintons and they happened to own a $700-a-night hotel.
But then you read that the Trump sons, whom I’ll never again think of without thinking of these sickening photographs, were going to sell chunks of their father’s time on inauguration day to benefit a “charity” they invented. We know about the Trumps and charities; their record is nearly as appalling as the rapacious smiles pasted on their faces after they’ve killed those beautiful animals. This is another one that would have had Republicans screaming impeachment.
It’s impossible to keep up. And if it’s impossible to keep up, it’s impossible to fight. It’s impossible to sustain outrage. After a while you just run up the white flag. It’s like the dogs in the old learned helplessness experiments. We’re the dogs in Group 3, learning that there’s nothing we can do to stop the shocks being administered.
And yet—one outrage does stand out. And it’s not even about Trump directly. The revelation about Jim Comey’s flimsy warrant for Anthony Weiner’s laptop, which quickly followed his announcement 11 days before the election that he was reopening the then-closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, is a stand-out outrage, one worth pausing over. It’s a triple-decker.
Deck one: Of course it changed the election. Yes, yes, a lot of other things did, too, some of which were Hillary Clinton’s fault. But when the top law-enforcement man in the country says in late October that one of the candidates is again under federal investigation, well, that’s more than a thumb on the scale. It’s a whole hand. Or two. Late deciders broke heavily for Trump in most key (and close) states. I don’t think that was because Hillary wore the wrong pantsuit on Nov. 7.
Deck two: And now, with the warrant (or affidavit) revealed, thanks to attorney Randy Schoenberg of Los Angeles, we see that it was a complete crock of shit. There was no “probable cause” to think that this batch of emails contained classified material. The FBI had reviewed many thousands of Clinton emails and found at most three that had the scarlet “C” on them. Three out of thousands makes for probable cause? The mere existence of emails does not mean, many legal experts have said since the warrant’s release, that a crime is likely to have been committed within them. And the warrant offered no evidence that it had reason to suspect that a crime was committed.
If you still want to say well, the bureau was within its rights to go over the emails for the sake of thoroughness, OK, say it. But that certainly doesn’t mean Comey had to announce it publicly.
Deck three: Applied beyond this case, the affidavit has potentially enormous consequences and reach. Josh Gerstein wrote this up in Politico. Since there was no actual probable cause, an affidavit like this has the potential to allow the government to execute such warrants any time it has a vague hunch that a person—a journalist, a whistleblower, an activist of some kind—may be in possession of some emails that may contain a classified sentence or single fact. There need be no evidence-based suspicion that a crime occurred. Someday this precedent will bite a Republican in the you-know-what, and then and only then, conservatives will consider it outrageous.
It’s just amazing. But wait—this one’s actually a quadruple-decker. The fourth deck is that there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about any of this. The election was run; the damage done. Think about what happened here. Comey, evidently, was under enormous pressure within the bureau to find a way to “get” Clinton. Some agents hated her. So Comey felt pressured to go public with his late-October announcement. Which means in turn that some FBI agents who hated Hillary Clinton may have decided the election. That is to say, allegedly nonpolitical law-enforcement officers may have determined a “democratic” political outcome.
That’s Third World stuff, like something that would have happened under Hosni Mubarak or Ferdinand Marcos. And it will go mostly unexamined (the press will move on to new outrages) and completely unpunished. And, in time, we will accept it—not in the sense that we’ll endorse it, but in the crucial sense that we will reluctantly come to accept the idea that our democracy is now no better than this.
That is what we’re up against. Millions of Americans are appalled by what happened in this election and the way Donald Trump has set off this chain reaction that’s debasing our institutions and norms. And millions of American will, in their own ways, dedicate their lives to fighting Trumpism. There’s no doubt of that.
But every day, or maybe not literally every day but certainly with numbing regularity, Trump or someone in his broader orbit is going to do or say something outrageous, something with no precedent, that’s going to pull another brick of out of the wall. As the wall grows weaker and weaker, we’ll get angrier.
But I worry that a part of us, a part we won’t wish to notice or acknowledge, will adapt. Adapting, after all, is what human beings do. It’s what Trump is counting on. And it’s the one thing we must guard against.