A Cold Take on Comey’s Firing


Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, Saturday Night Live

by Justin E. H. Smith

Until the American media and public stop simply lurching from one outrage to the next, with apparently no cumulative wisdom or even memory, we will continue to live in an outrageous political reality. In this respect Donald Trump is the president that the culture of non-stop social-media outrage deserves, of hot takes and instantly dropped potatoes. Viral videos of Stephen Colbert never in fact destroy Trump, as they are announced to do, each and every time. The waves of people declaring that they simply cannot believe what the president just said, that they are speechless, that ‘OMG. No. He. Didn’t.’, really in fact ought to be able to believe it, because it never differs substantially from what he has been saying now for a very long time, what it is simply in his nature to say, given the species of evil being he plainly is and plainly always has been.

The essentially reactive character of anti-Trump sentiment in the United States sustains him more than it challenges him. This is why I, for one, have come to feel that it is not only not helpful, but probably harmful, to participate in the call-and-response culture of constant commentary. Trump is a rotten, dangerous, unredeemable wretch. I have known this since 1987, when I was a teenager on an isolated rural route in the western US, and I didn’t know much of anything about anything. One glimpse of him on the nightly news, vindictively and obviously lying about the Central Park Five, was enough for me to make an essentially accurate judgment of character that would not change in the slightest over the following thirty years.

This latent bit of a priori knowledge became, in turn, a salient fact about our political reality in 2011, when he made his grand entry into the political arena by means of a patent lie concerning Barack Obama’s place of birth. But this was already far too late in his career for any lucid person to suppose that he was revealing anything new about himself. Trump has never been capable of operating in any way outside of the mode of kayfabe. Nothing that has happened over the past few days should be cause for surprise, let alone for wishful thinking: if it has been perfectly obvious all along what sort of creature he is, and how he operates, and nonetheless he managed to be elected president, why on earth should we suppose that the latest demonstration of his essential nature is going to be the thing that does him in?

If you want to bring him down, then stop lurching. We are, now, a few days past the ‘unbelievable’ firing of James Comey. This topic is no longer trending on Twitter. The crowds have moved on to smaller questions. They’ve followed out the rivulets —will Comey’s permanent replacement be the sycophant Trump desires? Was Sean Spicer ‘in’ or merely ‘among’ the bushes?— only to find themselves in still and shallow water, practically praying for a new deluge.

This is in part because social media transform all of us into self-styled investigative reporters, and there is a constant, driving incentive to find the new twist to a story that no one has yet considered. The result is a Heraclitean media landscape, where there never really is a story at all: forget about dipping into the same matter twice, if all is flux you can’t even do it once. The real investigative journalists are generally ahead of the curve, but they are being goaded on by the same pressures as the masses pretending to be of their ranks: the pressures are in fact worse, as they must remain ahead of the curve in order to justify getting paid for what others energetically do for free. So they too tweet out half-cocked and ill-informed new twists that it would have taken fourteen more seconds for someone somewhere else to have thought up, and nothing, ever, sticks.

Trump is a dangerous fraud and he needs to be impeached. But this is not going to happen as a result of some new story. The story of the past few years is that no story has any staying power, but all is flux. If he is impeached, it will be because the resistance moves out of the medium and the rhythm that Trump himself prefers, and that he has chosen as the most vital tool for maintaining power. It will happen when we deny the legitimacy of this call-and-response madness; when we allow investigative journalists to do what they ought to be doing, rather than dragging them down with us into the moment-by-moment chatter; and when we stop treating the kayfabe spectacle as if it were a true contest among legitimate agonists.

Piece crossposted with