The rapid transubstantiation of security-state apparatchiks into hashtag de Gaulles is one of the miracles of our age. One moment you’re presiding over America’s domestic security apparatus, digging into the scandal of Hillary Clinton aides trying to ignore Sydney Blumenthal’s emails and entrapping stupid young men in made-up terrorism plots; the next, you’re tweeting the kind of nature photos that are typically paired with a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr.
The president of the United States strings together a series of English-adjacent phrases calling you a big jerk and a loser. A Macmillan imprint offers you seven figures to reiterate in print what you’ve already said in a zillion interviews and even in testimony before Congress. Not that anyone is going to read the thing; your book is a book in the sense that Warhol’s Brillo boxes are Brillo boxes: the perfect aesthetic earnestness of its imitation is the greatest artifice of all. You will speak about Honor and Duty on cable news, despite all available evidence you nudged Donald Trump into the presidency.
James Comey, welcome to the resistance.
Comey, to be fair, came by it honestly. His prissy, self-serving moralism seems as genuine as it is hypocritical, and that makes him a perfect foil for the louche, amoral Trump. His handling of the Clinton email affair was pure bureaucratic ass-covering, and his post-hoc move to explicit anti-Trumpism has the zealous air of a true convert. His tales of an unbalanced Trump cajoling him to swear an oath to some kind of gold-plated, Epcot version of the Führerprinzip align perfectly with the mythology of the online resistance, whose most assiduous writers favor 100-tweet threads drawing from History Channel accounts of the rise of fascism and the authoritarian tendency. His book may be a scam, but at least the suckers who bought it can stop a door or steady a wobbly table with it long after the thrill of displaying its cover at an airport gate or subway seat fades.
Scammier by far are the crowdfunded “legal defense funds” of subsequent martyrs of the Freedom-Fries French Forces, Andrew McCabe and Peter Strzok. Unable to wait for the advance check to clear or just too lazy to come up with a two-sentence pitch that any fifth-rate agent with a pulse and a Gmail address could immediately convert into a book deal, these former G-men—McCabe was Comey’s deputy; Strzok a senior special agent who worked on the so-called Russia investigation until he got bunged off the case for a few intemperate texts to his office girlfriend—flew straight to the gig economy’s newest pyramid scheme and set up GoFundMe pages. Crowdsourcing is like Amway without the draining pretense of pretending that there is anything to sell. Money just flows in and up. McCabe quickly raised $500,000. As of this writing, Strzok is just shy of the same himself.
These funds are ostensibly to defray the current and future costs of legal representation, but the whole thing has the air of a grift. The Resistance, at least in its extremely online incarnation, is not populated by the most stable or reflective people. After all, it made stars of conspiracists like Louise Mensch; former Sarah Palin partisans like Amy Siskind; self-styled game theorist Eric Garland; and the Krassenstein brothers. Brian and Ed Krassenstein are listed on Strzok’s GoFundMe as having raised the most money through sharing—that is to say, by promoting it to their credulous followers.
There’s a precedent for this phenomenon. During the last presidential election, a GOP headquarters in Orange County, N.C., was firebombed. A group of out-of-state Democrats led an online effort to fundraise for a new headquarters, casting it in terms of common humanity or Americanness that supersedes the grotty partisanship of electioneering. Online liberals raised over $10,000 in less than an hour. The GOP showed its deep appreciation by trying to strip the voting rights of the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic African-American population, packing the state Supreme Court and stripping what little power belonged to the Democratic governor.
If the circumstances were different, the underlying moral silliness was much the same: throwing money into the wind to prove some kind of ethical point for less than nothing in return. The GOP will take the money and stand on everyone’s neck if it wins; the new ex-FBI heroes will take the money and either join a white-shoe law firm or hit the lecture circuit for the rest of their lives.
We have already begun to move on. Among other harsh critics of the president to emerge from the fluorescent hallways of our three-letter agencies is John Brennan, a stone-cold supporter of unregulated killing and torture abroad, who does not like the cut of Trump’s jib. He did the rounds, saying Trump is unfit for office, whatever that can mean for an office that’s held such paragons of dignity as Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and James Buchanan, to name a few among a grab bag of fools, slaveholders, Indian killers, nonentities and straight crooks.
Brennan is a man who lied to Congress and the public by claiming that America’s drones have never, ever killed a civilian. Only bad guys, you can be sure! But that will be forgotten because Donald Trump stripped him of his security clearance, which will make it incrementally harder for Brennan to convert his retirement into a sinecure fooling various northern Virginia defense contractors into paying him for copy-and-pasting the CIA World Factbook into a PowerPoint.
On Thursday, Brennan’s brass was polished by William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral who oversaw Operation Neptune Spear, the nebulous operation to kill Osama bin Laden that has spawned thousands of bar-stool tall tales by guys who claim they were the trigger man. He did the “I am Spartacus” routine and praised Brennan as “a man of unparalleled integrity, whose honesty and character have never been in question.” Brennan, again, is a documented liar and prevaricator who used those very sacrosanct codicils of classification and security clearance to mislead the entire nation about America’s conduct of war. Surely he meant well.
The liberals who fall for this sort of thing, who abandon all skepticism of the military and intelligence entities in America as soon as the wrong party gets into the White House, are only partly to blame. They are victims, really, of our deranged national culture of politics as consumer choice, party as lifestyle and preference. They now find themselves atomized, without any route for collective action beyond chipping 10 bucks into the crowdfunding bucket; they can evaluate politics only superficially, and so anyone who says bad things about bad guy number one is good enough.
Trump—for all his obvious intellectual deficiency—is a far sharper judge of character. He is a con man, and he can spot a con. He has judged these men with an almost admirable precision. He knows how badly they want to be on TV.