Originally Published April 25, 2018
This week, one of the greatest horrors of the Trump administration began his book tour. While this is a public servant who only worked under the Trump administration for a few weeks, he is a figure whose entire media profile is owed not to his work in the FBI, which upon a glance is filled with the regular humdrum abuses of power common to the post-Patriot Act FBI, but to his firing by Donald Trump weeks into the #MAGA presidency. I am talking about James Comey, FBI director, the man more responsible for the loss of Hillary Clinton than even Robby Mook’s ‘don’t go to Michigan’ algorithm, and apparently now, an “ex-Republican.”
“I would say the party left me,” said Comey in an interview with Stephen Colbert, when asked about whether he still considers himself to be a Republican. This is an understandable feeling, especially when we consider how far right the Republican party has gone in the past 25 years, from Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” to the #QAnon ravings of the Republican base. Even just examining an issue like healthcare where the 90’s conservative Republican plan influenced The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a bill that is decried as the most radical socialist piece of legislation in world history by the modern Republican base.
So, just out of curiosity, when did you feel like the party left you, asked the interviewer? “I would say the party left me sometime late in the campaign. Late in the 2016 presidential race,” explained Comey, when he had become a politicized figure of ire from the right, falling into the classic conservative trope of ignoring the horror of American reactionary conservatism until it comes to affect them personally. Call it the “Portman Effect,” as in Rob Portman, the Ohio Senator who was vociferously anti-gay until one of his kids came out and, surprise surprise, he showed some empathy and humanity! When asked if there were any current Republican leaders he did respect he said “Mitt Romney”.
So nothing really set off your alarm bells in the past few years? For a man whose entire worldview is built around norms and rules, the stealing of a Supreme Court seat didn’t raise any alarms? Or the countless Tea Party Republicans wallowing in the right wing conspiracy fever swamps of Obama as a Gay Kenyan Socialist Muslim. Oh, you still respect Mitt Romney, though, so that’s good. Romney definitely didn’t advocate policy that was anything like Trump. Well, ok, he did basically advocate for everything Trump did (remember self-deportation, anyone?), but he did it in a calm voice without making fun of handicapped reporters.
You sure are so reasonable Mr. Comey!
This kind of ahistorical understanding of the American Right is a common thread among many of those whose political performances are dramatically anti-Trump. You can practically set your watch based off the frequency mainstream liberals like Joy Ann Reid will opine for a time of greater decorum between the two grand parties of capital. The death of the blue blooded matrician Barbara Bush has sparked another wave of decorum nostalgia. Considering the actual harm done average working people by Republicans and many Democrats, this kind of melancholic courtesy nostalgia feels like the withering onnui of a ruling class that has no ideas other than process.
There is no piece of media more rife with this moral proceduralist conviction than Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. The NBC drama glorified a technocratic debate club brand of politics that awards complexity and monologues from white male Ivy league graduates. In Sorkinworld, the ideal form of politics is a parlor game where you can “take it off the field” after your debate over whether single mothers should have food. This dramatic abstraction serves as much as a form of filmic catharsis as an act of religious belief to the god of “sensible bipartisan solutions”.
Early in the show’s run, the Democratic Bartlet administration hires a Republican, Ainsley Hayes, to join their liberal Democratic White House after she wrote a scathing op-ed about the president. She is a cliche right out of cable news green rooms: blonde, young, with a southern accent. Hayes is the shiksa goddess of the Bush Era liberal technocrat; she loves a good policy argument and randomly plays the trombone. Many of the show’s male White House staffers attempt to break her of her conservative views by using every tool in the Sorkin tool box: unnecessarily specific facts, literary references, and walking while screaming “well actually” at women. Hayes, through and through, is a consistently dignified and moral character whose ideological worldview is never challenged morally or even considered as anything but a polite disagreement. Agree to disagree.
How is it then, that Ainsley Hayes was based off of no one but Ann Coulter? Coulter, whose sole purpose over the past 20 years has been to “trigger the libs” by fear mongering with a combination of implicit and explicit racialized hatred. Her most recent books forsee a “browning” of America that will change the culture to becoming unrecognizable. This is no different than the beliefs of the rising nationalist far right in Europe, groups embracing an ideological worldview that destroyed continental Europe in the 1940’s, justified the horrors of colonialism, and lead to ethnic cleansing in every corner of the globe.
The irony of modern history that the Ainsley Hayes character is so off course from her inspiration shows the naivete of liberal discourse.. Comey, whether he has seen a second of The West Wing, is immersed in the political view that the show defines. The sanctity of the debate is more important than questioning the purpose of the topic being debated. It is in this chasm between ideological reality and fictionalized cannon that the contradictions of elite discourse are most Stark. By obsessively clinging to the an outdated ethics, Comey, and figures like him, ignore the intellectual and immoral blossoming of the American far right. This is why liberal institutionalists like Comey need to leave the comfort of nostalgia for a time and world that never actually existed in the first place.