Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.
“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”
Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”
– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
This past week, the recently defenestrated Director of the FBI testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee to the sort of C-SPAN audience last achieved by pubic hair contaminated Coca-Cola. The bars of Dupont and Brooklyn opened at hours usually reserved for a semifinal match between Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday. My colleague Christopher Cooke dealt ably with the substance of Mr. Comey’s remarks already, it is the mere fact of their existence that concerns me here.
Professor Timothy Snyder, of Yale University, has written a pamphlet – On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Professor Snyder, a historian of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, is well qualified to opine on the subject. As a general statement of historical fact and analysis of historical patterns, the book proves well worth the reader’s time. But Snyder’s object is not so general. He names his target explicitly: 2017 America resembles 1933 Germany, and our Reichstag fire is right around the corner. The zeitgeist thus captured, Snyder now appears for interviews hither and yon, public intellectual du moment. But the soup quickly congeals in the pot.
Au contraire the quadrennial protestations of sitcom actors and pop stars , democracy is not the bulwark of liberty – Snyder is quick to remind us of this. The protection of individual freedom instead rests on the proper functioning of multiple institutions acting in concert with – and in contravention of – each other. Since, as Madison pointed out, we cannot expect to be governed by angels, we must content ourselves with a system and process that contains misbehavior within its necessary scope. We have, let’s admit, decided as a country to test Madison’s efforts towards this design more thoroughly than many of us would like – and not only in the past six months. But whether or not the water will eventually overflow the bulkheads of our constitutional titanic, the dash for the lifeboats is decidedly premature.
Snyder understands well the importance of institutions, and rightly admonishes us to defend them. As warning, he quotes an editorial in a Jewish newspaper from February 2, 1933:
We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in [Nazi newspapers]; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check . . . and they clearly do not want to go down that road. When one acts as a European power, the whole atmosphere tends towards ethical reflection upon one’s better self and away from revisiting one’s earlier oppositional posture.
I would be fearful that Snyder would deem my own column a retread of this naiveté, but I doubt he is a subscriber to this blog in any case. More directly, one need not rely on magical thinking to determine our own situation is not so dire.
The President fired the FBI Director in order to (let us grant the more damning hypothesis for the moment) derail the pursuit of his advisors’ criminality; the result is an independent prosecutor who will likely prove even more troublesome to him. The President signed an Executive Order restricting the flow of immigration from the Middle East; the federal courts have so far denied him this authority. The President proposed a budget that would represent the most significant reorganization of federal priorities since the New Deal; it appears dead on arrival in Congress. The President retains ownership of business interests that raise serious concerns as to self-dealing; these establishments have been met with protest, scrutinized by journalists, and vandalized. He is forced to answer lawsuits filed by some of the most valuable brand names in constitutional law. His son is currently under investigation by the state of New York.
Put aside, for the moment, the heated and valuable debate as to the legal merits in each of these examples, and note the heat and the value of the debate itself. A congressional hearing focused on the potential misbehavior of our not so fearless (and ratings obsessed) leader just scored higher ratings than the NBA Finals. The system, as it were, is working. We are roughly as close to Weimar Gemany’s political reality as we are to its inflation rate.