Where Did The Uncrossed Ethical Lines That Saved Democracy Come From?
As that most toadying of Attorney Generals, Bill Bar, announces his resignation, it is fascinating to consider just which Republican appointees and politicians have had some kind of moral bottom — a point past which they would not go, however debased and far down — and those who still don’t. Barr, like Jeff Sessions before him, is a deeply immoral man who still turned out to have a capacity to draw lines somewhere, as did James Matthis and H.R. McMasters and Mitt Romney and even John Bolton. None of them are paragons of virtue — to serve at Trump’s pleasure was always to give up a claim to virtue — but at some point something stopped them from doing absolutely anything. Brian Kemp was all on board with voter suppression, but not with overturning the actual results of an election. Michael Flynn on the other hand? Ted Cruz? Lindsay Graham? They’re so on board they could be steering the ship from the bar.
Does any pattern emerge? Any sense of why?
Ross Douthat has a theory that it has to do with the degree to which the people involved have actual responsibility for carrying out the subversion of democracy, as opposed to just play acting treason to crowds. He writes:
The Republicans behaving normally are the ones who have actual political and legal roles in the electoral process and its judicial aftermath, from secretaries of state and governors in states like Georgia and Arizona to Trump’s judicial appointees. The Republicans behaving radically are doing so in the knowledge — or at least the strong assumption — that their behavior is performative, an act of storytelling rather than lawmaking, a posture rather than a political act.
That’s a pretty good theory. It doesn’t account for every case — why did McMasters have a stopping point but Flynn didn’t? — but it does seem to account for a lot of them. The Republicans who have behaved most honorably do tend to be the ones who were actually put in charge of the sanctity of the process as administrators (or judges) with their names on them, rather than legislators who would urge those administrators or judges to do the fell deeds. I think Douthat is on to something.
Another theory, from David Graham, is that Barr and Sessions and the others were ultimately more loyal to their ideology than they were to Trump — they were “Trumpists” in the sense that they believed in an actual theory of government that Trump was supposed to advance, rather than “Trumpists” in the sense that they believed in the man. Their ideology may have been vile, but when they were asked to cross it in unmistakeable ways, they balked. Flynn and Manafort and the others, by contrast, had no ideology — they were always in it for the money and power. This is reminiscent of that immortal line from The Big Lebowski: “Nihilists? Fuck me! I mean, say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos!”
We are weirdly close to that reality now, aren’t we.
I proposed another theory a couple of newsletters back. Historically, conservative elite elements support democracy only when they believe their elite status is politically viable through democratic politics. But when they believe it isn’t — as today’s Republican party clearly isn’t — they undermine democracy in the hope of keeping their elite status. And that sometimes this manifests as rank cynicism, and other times as batshit crazy behavior.
All of these theories seem to be holding up decently well to the evidence we have, don’t they?
The more I think about this question the more I’m reminded of Carl Bosch and Carl Duisberg, who were the leading industrialists behind the German IG Farben chemical cartel in 1930s Germany. They were, to put it mildly, not good men. Their companies were the first in the world to manufacture chemical weapons. During WWI, they tried to use imprisoned POWs as slave labor in their factories. They respected almost no ethical lines. And yet … when the Nazi’s came to power, both were among the only men in their cartell who wanted nothing to do with Hitler. Duisberg resigned and refused to lend support. Bosch used his one meeting with HItler to advocate for the Jewish scientists at his company, and after it became clear that there would be no second meeting he resigned and made anti-Hitler remarks in public until his death prior to the war. (The book to read on this is Hell’s Cartel, by Diarmuid Jeffreys)
Virtually everyone else in a leadership position at IG Farben was happy to Heil Hitler in exchange for government business. But not those two otherwise terrible men. They had reached their limit. But why? What was it?
(Lavrenty Beria was — perhaps — another example. How the hell did the man whom Stalin introduced to Roosevelt as “our Himmler” … who enjoyed conducting “interrogations” personally and bringing home girls he saw on the street to be raped … become a reformer in the (brief) time between Stalin’s death and his own? What the hell?)
I’ve wondered about this a lot, and the more I think about this question the more I doubt that Bosch and Duisberg could answer it themselves if they were alive today. Or that we would find their answers satisfactory. Some people who swim in a moral cesspool never get tired of it. Most people, eventually, say “enough,” and I doubt even they know why it’s one moment instead of another..
All of the theories proposed about it are surely true as factors — that the degree to which one has personal authority over the terrible things proposed matters, as does the degree to which one has an actual ideology, as does the degree to which one believes that if one gives up power now one (and one’s class or tribe) shall never see it again. All of this counts for something.
But they’re just factors. Eventually, it seems, some people simply decide that they are tired of being so terrible, and would rather have a line because it’s better than a free fall. I don’t think the actual lines, the actual deeds they won’t do, are really the point. They don’t finally reach a line that, really and truly, they will never cross — they probably crossed a dozen lines just like it last month. Rather, they just get so sick and tired of crossing lines, of living like this, of being this person, and just want to stop. They’re not saying “that’s wrong!” They’re saying “I can’t take it anymore!” At which point it may very well be a big thing — like stealing an election — or a little thing, like being in a photo op you shouldn’t have been in, that is the end. The straw that breaks the camenls’ conscience..
Which is not a bad thing for democracy, but doesn’t say a damn thing about their morality that we didn’t already know. They always knew better, and did what they did anyway. They just got as sick of themselves at the end as we were at the beginning.