We’re in a moment of incredible political surrealism. On Monday afternoon, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before a Senate subcommittee about how, in two separate meetings, she walked White House Counsel Don McGahn through evidence concerning Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser. Flynn, she said, had misled the vice president and the American public about his own “conduct” in a way that rendered him vulnerable to Russian blackmail. She couldn’t discuss what that conduct was—it’s classified—but it was clear she was referring to the content of Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. “To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians,” Yates testified.
No Republican at the hearing challenged the assertion that Flynn was compromised. None suggested a defensible reason why Trump might have kept Flynn around for 18 days after Yates spoke to McGahn, firing him only after the Washington Post reported on his lies. The Republican senators simply and insistently changed the subject, over and over again. The hearing was officially about “Russian Interference in the 2016 Election,” but they acted as though the subject were actually leaks, or unmasking, or even—I swear—Hillary Clinton’s emails.
It was as if two different hearings were going on simultaneously. Democrats questioned the witnesses—Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper—about the subject at hand. Republicans tried to figure out who had leaked to the Washington Post, or why Yates had had the audacity, in her role as acting attorney general, to refuse to defend Trump’s travel ban. (This led to a delightful exchange in which Yates humiliated Sen. Ted Cruz by showing that she knows more about the Immigration and Nationality Act than he does.) Cruz asked Clapper a wholly irrelevant question that was clearly about Clinton, her campaign vice-chair Huma Abedin, and Abedin’s estranged spouse Anthony Weiner: “[W]hat would you do, at the DNI, if you discovered that an employee of yours had forwarded hundreds or even thousands of emails to a nongovernment individual, their spouse, on a nongovernment computer?” Cruz tried, and failed, to get Clapper to say that such a person would be prosecuted.
Under questioning by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Clapper attempted to focus matters: “I understand how critical leaks are and unmasking and all these ancillary issues. But to me, the transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process. And what that means to the erosion of the fundamental fabric of our democracy. And that to me is a huge deal.” But as this hearing once again made clear, it is not a huge deal to most Republicans in Congress.
Unlike Republicans, Democrats are bad at imposing their version of reality on the country at large, even if that version happens to be true. Whatever else emerges from the Russia probe, we know that Trump, at a minimum, failed to properly vet Flynn and compromised national security by keeping him in a highly sensitive position, even after he was shown to be compromised. That alone should be a major scandal—and there is no doubt that it would be if a Democratic president had done something equivalent. Yet in this bizarre political environment, as norms and standards are vaporized all around us, Republicans refuse to admit that their grotesque orange emperor is naked, and because they have all the power, everyone acts like they could conceivably be right.
Thirteen years ago, an anonymous aide to George W. Bush—later revealed to be Karl Rove—told the journalist Ron Suskind, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Trump brought the right’s strange reactionary postmodernism to a new level, but he didn’t invent it. To be a modern Republican almost necessarily entails a degree of comfort with epistemological nihilism. This insistent, all-encompassing bullshit is disorienting and a little stunning; neither our media nor our political institutions are really fit to contend with it. But eventually, if only after a great deal of carnage, the fog lifts and reality reasserts itself. When it does, it won’t just be Trump who is revealed in all his bare disgrace.