Donald Trump’s sudden sacking of FBI director James Comey shouldn’t have come as such a surprise.
The American president has shown repeatedly that for him executive power means precisely the direct execution of his personal will. And after he does whatever he wants, he is incensed by the reactions, claiming that he is being treated unfairly. Vladimir Putin himself (a “strong leader” in Trump’s words) found the Comey comeuppance OK: “President Trump acted in accordance with his laws and Constitution,” he said.
Putin does whatever he wants, Erdogan does whatever he wants, Duterte blesses executions on Philippine streets, Maduro wants to scrap Parliament, the owner of any two-bit company can fire whoever he wants whenever he wants. So why does the president of the United States have to answer to critics? And why do they question him? Trump has the reply: Because they are hypocrites and conspirators.
The furor surrounding Comey’s dismissal highlights Trump’s basic problem: He acts like a monarch, like the owner of the state, while others do not share this view, while there are institutions that can stand up to him. Today’s crisis is not sudden.
Trump’s election in itself showed the depth of suspicion against the political system. The sacking of a state functionary whose service was investigating possible Russian influence in the recent elections may not actually annoy many voters who wanted an “antisystemic” revolution.
He successfully exploited nostalgia for an idealized past, promising to “make America great again.” He has the gift of a salesman (who never questions his product’s magical qualities), persuading supporters that he fights the good fight while his opponents cheat.
This is the message beloved of autocrats and wizards’ apprentices – wherever judicial decisions, for example, do not align themselves with the interests of those in power. In Greece we saw the dead ends that follow when demagogues exploit popular anger without planning for the day after; we also saw how institutions can fight back. In the US, this clash will be hard and fundamental.
Sooner or later, more and more Republican members of Congress will be forced to abandon the president – or share responsibility for undermining a political system that spurred their country to greatness.
The choice is clear: Rule of law or chaos? Civilization or barbarism?