Over the last three days, a GoFundMe account for fired former acting Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe has raised more than $500,000 for legal defense expenses. In response I’ve seen a number of people pillory the effort as a sort of liberal do-gooderism gone off the rails. Rather than flooding money on a guy who is at worst very solidly in the upper middle class, people should focus their charity on climate activism or poverty or cancer research. In a similar vein, Damon Linker has this column up about Donald Trump’s criticisms of Amazon. As he puts it, “Liberals find the president so morally repulsive and so transparently dishonest that they now respond to everything he says with instantaneous outrage and disgust, while presuming in each and every case that his statements are made in bad faith, concealing baser motives.” As he later concludes, “On Amazon, he’s indisputably right.”
I think this approach to Trump and Trumpism is wildly misguided. I credit the benign intentions and in Linker’s case I understand he is focused on the narrower point of Amazon’s business practices. But again, this whole way of looking at the matter is profoundly misguided.
Let’s review some basic points.
If we credit his account, Andrew McCabe unintentionally gave incomplete or misleading testimony in the course of an inspector general’s investigation and then corrected it as soon as he realized the error – rather than in response to further scrutiny. Let’s remember that the underlying actions he was describing were ones that – whether correct and proper or not – clearly had the effect of damaging Hillary Clinton.
On the Amazon front, readers will know from my own writing that I think Amazon is guilty of a number of predatory and monopolistic business practices. Though it’s not really the case now, there’s no question that Amazon’s rise was fueled to a significant degree by the regulatory and tax gap which allowed people to buy online without paying sales taxes brick and mortar businesses had to charge. I routinely buy things from Amazon. But its existence has decimated or destroyed almost countless retail operations and replaced them with low wage, rush-rush warehouse jobs sitting on the edges of big cities across the country. One notable thing that people seldom discuss is that with a mix of constant growth, cultivation of market confidence and restraint Amazon has managed to be one of the most successful businesses in American history and pay close to no federal taxes for the simple reason that it’s careful to always operate at a more or less a break-even P&L. In other words, on many fronts Amazon creates huge negative externalities which society at large is subsidizing.
For the purposes of this conversation, however, I would say none of that matters.
It is perfectly obvious that President Trump’s long run of personal attacks on Andrew McCabe weren’t driven by his possible unfairness to Hillary Clinton or possible misleading testimony about those actions. Trump’s attacks on McCabe are part of his efforts to attack the FBI in order to discredit the investigation into his campaign’s collusion with Russia and related crimes. McCabe has been a useful target since his wife earlier ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the state legislature in Virginia. That is useful in identifying him as an anti-Trump deep state zealot. Full stop.
The fact that the FBI is an imperfect institution, ran COINTELPRO, surveilled Martin Luther King and a million other things is beside the point. And confusing the point by raising these issues is either dishonest or blinkered. President Trump isn’t trying to even the scales for these past misdeeds. He’s trying to create a system that is dramatically worse.
It is equally clear that low wage warehouse jobs, upending of retail businesses, disintermediation of publishers or tax avoidance are not things Donald Trump cares anything about. Indeed, the one thing he really focuses on with Amazon – Amazon ripping off the Post Office – seems pretty clearly not to be true. Amazon is Trump’s target because of The Washington Post.
Amazon doesn’t own The Washington Post. But it is owned by Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. So close enough. President Trump’s attacks on Amazon are entirely part of his attacks on independent and even mildly critical media. Full stop.
When someone says it’s folly to give money to Andrew McCabe’s legal defense fund as opposed to cancer research, that might have some logic if it were really a zero sum proposition. But of course it’s not. The $20 you gave to McCabe wasn’t going to cancer research. And for the vast majority of givers being out that $20 bucks doesn’t make you any less able to give another $20 to the lung cancer foundation. Contributions are a form of visible protest as much as turning out for protests is. What’s more, buttressing the confidence of future Trump targets that they won’t be bankrupted by his attacks has a salutary effect.
But the bigger point is that it’s not really about McCabe or Amazon. Having a sitting President launching scathing personal attacks on a federal law enforcement officer and demanding his firing or imprisonment for personal and political motives is wildly outside the norms that govern the American system. Similarly, a President who routinely threatens prosecutorial or regulatory vengeance against private companies because they are not sufficiently politically subservient to him personally is entirely outside of our system of governance. At present, Donald Trump is an autocrat without an autocracy. The system mostly resists his demands because it’s not designed to operate that way and we have centuries worth of norms that are remarkably resilient. But systems change. And it’s clear that ours is already starting to change under his malign influence.
When an autocrat imprisons or kills people on his own arbitrary authority, no doubt some of the people are really bad folks. I have zero doubt, for instance, that a lot of the people Saddam Hussein had tortured or killed were just as vicious and awful as he was. We don’t say these were the cases where Saddam actually ‘got it right’ because we are or should be against autocracy and judicial murder in general and on principle. Obviously the stakes at present are less severe for us. But principle is the same. The stakes are quite high. And putting it this way captures the idiocy of this logic.
As The New Yorker’s Adam Davidson noted yesterday on Twitter: “Countries in which companies succeed or fail because of their relationship with the leader are poorer, more violent and unstable, more unequal. More everything bad. The U.S. and all nations have always, of course, had some degree of corruption. But not like this.”
The same applies to a President who so commonly disregards the rule of law in regards to individuals or government agencies. Preserving a rule of law political system from sliding into one that is corrupt and autocratic is much more important than the specifics of whether any one company is monopolistic or nefarious or the individual rights and wrongs of what some high level executive at the FBI may or may not have done. I have no idea whether McCabe lied to that IG. I’ve never spoken to the guy. I don’t really know. But there’s really no way for us to know now or have any confidence that he’s not being singled out because you simply can’t unring the bell of the sitting President demanding his professional destruction for almost a year. Whether Donald Trump happens upon an accusation that may have some merit really doesn’t matter. As long as he is acting arbitrarily, seeking protection from the law or personal enrichment for himself or demanding personal loyalty to him as the cost of protection from the state we should oppose him every time. The rule of law is the path to the solution to every other ill in our society. Not a sufficient one but a necessary one in every case.
So jumping into the breach to visibly back up the targets of his arbitrary actions isn’t some blinkered liberalism that loses the forest for the trees in its rage and opposition to Donald Trump. It’s really the only way to oppose him. Because his attack on the rule of law and democracy itself is the heart of the danger he poses for all of us.