Americans forget their corruption in order to savour their innocence. When Republicans and Democrats are struggling to find ways forward and the presidency is all over the road, the combat of ex-FBI director James Comey and reality television star Donald Trump is almost heartening. For, despite partisan division and the rise of China, the drama of the American psyche survives. The puritan grips the porn-ographer, and the spirit of the civil servant contends with the flesh of the president.
The excitement over last Sunday’s ABC News interview with Comey was almost as much as that around Michael Woolf’s Fire and Fury. So much has happened since that worthy mishmash of secondhand gossip hit the remainder bins in January. At the time, Woolf claimed that his revelations would bring down the Trump presidency. Yet Trump is, in the words of another eccentrically coiffed entertainer, Elton John, still standing, and better than he ever did.
Comey also has a book to promote. It is called A Higher Loyalty, to remind us which character he plays in the Manichaean combat. Jacob against the Angel, Bunyan’s Christian against Apollyon the Fiend, and now Comey the attention-grubber against Trump the pussy-grabber. True to casting, Comey called Trump ‘morally unfit’ to be the President. ‘A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they’re pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it — that person’s not fit to be President of the United States, on moral grounds. And that’s not a policy statement.’
Comey has a point. But A Higher Loyalty is not a book of revelations about Trump. Americans already know that he is unworthy of the office dignified by Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. This time around they knew about the President’s failings before he moved into the White House. They voted for him anyway.
Hours before Comey’s interview aired, a Washington Post/ABC News poll reported that 32 per cent of Americans have ‘a favour-able view’ of Trump ‘as a person’, but 46 per cent ‘approve of his handling of the economy’. That is a policy statement, and a moral statement too. When policy has failed the ordinary American, morals are as much of a luxury as health insurance.
A Higher Loyalty is, however, a book of revelations about Comey. The Democrats blamed him for weakening Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in 2016. His investigation of her private email server was a gift to Trump. So was closing the investigation with a press conference at which he accused Clinton of ‘extreme carelessness’ and then reopening the investigation a week before the election. Comey says ‘any book written about one’s life experience can be an exercise in vanity, which is why I long resisted the idea of writing a book of my own’. He was fired 11 months ago.
Speaking to his confessor, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Comey regretted using words like ‘extreme carelessness’ in relation to Hillary Clinton and her emails. But he didn’t suggest an alternative and he stood by his judgment of Clinton: ‘This wasn’t your ordinary bureaucrat who mishandles some document.’
The revelation here is that Comey wasn’t an alt-right enabler. He was a bipartisan bungler. Like the rest of Washington, he just thought Clinton would win. ‘I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump,’ he told Stephano-poulos. Although Comey wasn’t ‘consciously’ aware of it in 2016, he reckons he must having been thinking: ‘She’s going to be elected President, and if I hide this from the American people, she’ll be illegitimate the moment she’s elected, the moment this comes out.’
With similar integrity, Comey did not hide his thoughts on the second-most important issue in American politics. Do the Russians, Stephanopoulos asked, ‘have something’ on Donald Trump? Comey replied that it was ‘unlikely’ but ‘possible’. But anything is ‘possible’ with Trump, so the defender of the Republic thought it best to discuss the most important issue of all on prime time: a purported videotape in which women pee on Trump at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow.
‘I’m a germophobe,’ Trump told Comey. ‘There’s no way I’d let people pee on each other around me.’ Eminently reasonable, and an example of the keen intelligence necessary for high office. But imagine for a moment that the President’s idea of water sports is broader than waterskiing off the beach at Mar-a-Lago, and that the story of Muscovite micturation is true. Would it make any difference?
The public know that Trump is a scoundrel. One of the reasons for his popularity among white males is that his idea of fun is theirs, and that he has only done what they would do. The press holds those voters in such contempt that it feels it must prove that Trump is a scoundrel. But the greater the predictions of a legal takedown, the less plausible they seem.
The media are crying Wolff. Trump is already a moral disgrace, but his policies are quite popular, and becoming more so. Unemployment is low, the Dow is high and wages are starting to rise. The Democrats are signalling virtue and drifting left. There is no reason why Trump should not win again in 2020, if he can be bothered. Trump is not Nero, but if American politics continues to roll in the gutter, then sooner or later, we will all be piddling while Rome burns.