Humans are tribal animals. As Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind, even—perhaps especially—the smartest and best educated among us don’t look at a body of evidence dispassionately, drawing logical conclusions from objective data. Instead, we approach any question with strong priors. If we want to believe some proposition because it fits our general worldview, we ask: “May I believe it?” If we know that it would challenge some of our long-held beliefs, we go: “Do I have to?”
This is why a sliver of plausible justifiability is a key tool in the authoritarian playbook. Populists don’t transparently attack democratic institutions; instead, they claim that they are fighting to institute true democracy. They don’t admit a wish to overstep the boundaries of the powers accorded to them by any constitution; instead, they say that they are bringing under control hostile institutions that have already done so. And they don’t fire subordinates for being unwilling to turn themselves into loyal henchmen; instead, they make up flimsy cover stories that blame forced resignations on invented or exaggerated failings.
Donald Trump seems to be mastering this playbook more and more effectively. During his first months in office, the White House was engulfed in chaos. Now, he is succeeding in portraying unprecedented attacks on independent institutions, like the FBI and the Department of Justice, as mere partisan squabbles between Democrats and Republicans. At first, Trump threatened to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in an open attempt to shut down the Russia investigation. Now, he is purging the law enforcement community of nonpartisan professionals by seizing upon their supposed wrongdoings.
The brilliant manner in which the administration has undermined Rod Rosenstein’s position is only the latest example of what political scientists call authoritarian learning. It is possible that the deputy attorney general really did act foolishly, seriously discussing the possibilities of wearing a wire to incriminate the president, of removing him from office by invoking the 25th Amendment. It seems rather more likely that he made those comments in a sarcastic manner—and that the administration leaked his alleged remarks to the New York Times to create a sliver of justifiability if it should decide to oust him.
Either way, it would be a mistake to zero in on the question of whether or not Rosenstein really was culpable of wrongdoing. For while we likely won’t know the answer to that for a long time to come, one thing is already obvious: The president’s blatant hostility to the separation of powers has created a situation in which the nation’s trust in the rule of law, already seriously damaged, depends on the job of one single individual. [Continue reading…]