I’ve spent the last few days trying to make sense of the madness coming out of Washington. Not just as a journalist, but as an alarmed citizen of the free world. I have never lived a moment of my life where the United States was not the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power, ruled over by imperfect but generally honourable, right-thinking individuals, governed by equally imperfect but generally effective institutions.
There is simply no way to look at what’s happening in Washington today and not feel a sense of alarm.
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This is not simply the torqued-up excitement of a pundit devouring new material on the hour. It is the concern of a man wondering if the world’s sole remaining superpower is actually, incredibly, becoming unstable. I hope not. I certainly don’t wish to overstate the problem or descend too far into despair. But there is no happy way to rationalize the multiple crises that have engulfed the White House in recent weeks, and especially these last few days.
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The only possible explanations are institutions – both the media and national security apparatus — in increasingly open and utterly inappropriate revolt against an anti-establishment (but legally elected) president — or a dedicated group of national security professionals and reporters desperately working through traditional avenues — a free press, the Congress, the Justice Department — to deal with an infantile madman.
It could, in fact, be both of those simultaneously, or a mixture of whatever proportions suit your biases.
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The only thing it cannot be is good. This is not how American democracy is supposed to work. And yet here we are, watching the chaos on full day by day. Something has gone very seriously wrong in America. We may bitterly disagree on what is happening and who is to blame, but surely we can all agree it is terrible to watch.
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I’d love to be able to make some predictions here, and suggest a plausible way this might unfold. Ideally, I’d even offer some advice, or guidance, or maybe even simple reassurance but none of that’s possible. The situation is simply unfolding too quickly.
In a period of roughly 24 hours, from Monday evening to Tuesday afternoon, the White House went through at least three distinct periods of crises:
The initial reporting, by the Washington Post, that President Trump had compromised sensitive national security information (and potentially angered an ally, later revealed to be Israel).Followed by the White House’s attempts to establish a controlled narrative that the President began tweeting gigantic holes through on Tuesday morning, necessitating more damage control.Followed finally by The New York Times claiming that former FBI director James Comey, fired just weeks ago in a prior crisis (back when they were separated by weeks or at least days), may have been instructed by Trump to discontinue an investigation into his campaign associates, specifically, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. If so, that would arguably constitute the impeachable offence of obstruction of justice.
Again, folks, this was in roughly 24 hours. I’m writing this column in full knowledge that it could very well be utterly obsolete by the time I’m finished writing it and giving it a quick read-through for typos, let alone getting it published for your perusal.
So no, no predictions here. No suggestions, either. Just, perhaps, a small sense of perspective.
As I’ve been doing my best to keep up with the news, I’ve also been reading a fascinating new book of American history. The book is called Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die. It’s by Garrett M. Graff, a journalist and historian, and it’s all about the various plans the United States has adopted over the years to wage, and possibly even survive a nuclear war.
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I can’t offer up a book review here, as I’m only about a third of the way through (though I’m certainly enjoying it so far). But the book, even with all its horrible nightmare visions of gutted cities and irradiated suburbanites dying alone and frightened in slapdash basement shelters, is actually making for counterintuitively comforting reading.
It’s a vivid and needed reminder that the United States, both the country and the government, have faced worse challenges than this. There have been moments far more terrifying than the ones we face today (indeed, anyone with a working knowledge of history would consider these times merely unsettling, really, compared to something like the Cuban Missile Crisis).
I know, I know — “well, at least it’s not the Cuban Missile Crisis” isn’t much consolation. In fact, it’s rather melodramatic. The situation, though grim, doesn’t come close to the utterly existential danger that we all got used to (and even learned to put out of our minds) during the Cold War. But the perspective is still worth recalling. This is bad. It’s been worse.
And the book brings something else to mind, as well. The U.S. government is bigger and better than its president, and its Congress.
Presidents and senators and representatives, by any other name, are of course a necessary component of any democracy. But a culture really can only thrive if it is served, in the main, by honourable people doing their best at every level of government (and society). Raven Rock is often a story of failure — failure to grasp the true terror of nuclear war, failure to adequately educate the public as to its dangers, failure to develop plans to cope with what a war would have meant. But it’s also a story of good people doing their best.
There are still people like that today, from military personnel to civil servants to investigators and lawyers and reporters. There is clearly a rot within the U.S. government, and it’s a frightening one. But all is not lost, and if history is our guide, America will come through this, as it has come through worse crises before.
It may seem to take forever. But this is just another book of history in the writing. Only time will tell how it’ll end. But it will certainly make for interesting reading.
Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.