Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

It could be that Trump’s firing of Comey was a strategic move to obstruct justice in the ongoing counter-intelligence investigation into whether or not his campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election. But the more I read about it, the more I’m convinced that it was primarily an impulsive reaction to the way that the former FBI director challenged the president’s epistemically closed bubble.

Remember back during the campaign when Trump said this during a debate?

“If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your (missing email) situation,” Trump said, “because there has never been so many lies, so much deception.”…

Clinton responded first by calling Trump’s comments about her emails false, then said, “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.”

Trump, as if continuing her sentence, added: “Because you’d be in jail.”

Some of us can be dismissive of statements like that as merely the momentary ravings of a mad man. But for this president, it was very real for both he and many of his closest confidants.

Dating to the campaign, several men personally close to Trump deeply distrusted Comey and helped feed the candidate-turned-president’s suspicions of the FBI director, who declined to recommend charges against Clinton for what they all agreed was a criminal offense, according to several people familiar with the dynamic.

When Trump was furious at the fact that Sessions recused himself from the Trump/Russia probe, he responded by creating an entirely false reality about how former President Obama had “wire tapped” him. Once again, Comey didn’t cooperate in confirming that claim.

Trump was angry that Comey would not support his baseless claim that President Barack Obama had his campaign offices wiretapped.

Finally, Trump has repeatedly called the Russia investigation “fake news” and has created a false reality in which there is a different, more imminent threat.

In the weeks leading up to Comey’s firing, Trump administration officials had repeatedly urged the FBI to more aggressively pursue leak investigations, according to people familiar with the discussions. Administration officials sometimes sought to push the FBI to prioritize leak probes over the Russia interference case, and at other times urged the bureau to investigate disclosures of information that was not classified or highly sensitive and therefore did not constitute crimes, these people said.

In Trump’s fevered imagination, the FBI director was chasing after a fake story when the president wanted him to prosecute Hillary Clinton, defend his claim that he had been surveilled by the Obama administration and investigate/prosecute leaks about the Russia interference case.

None of this is meant to minimize the way that Trump’s actions are a potential obstruction of justice in the Trump/Russia probe. But this creation of an alternative reality and the drive to punish anyone who challenges it is a very dangerous pattern that is indicative of how this president operates.

The message to anyone involved in the Trump administration is clear: defend me and punish those I’ve have defined as enemies, or get fired. You can see why people in the FBI (and other branches of the federal government) are distraught.

Zack Beauchamp talked to several experts on authoritarianism and demonstrates how this poses a very real threat.

Comey’s firing, these political scientists say, fits a pattern that’s very common in democracies that collapse into authoritarianism in the modern era. It’s not that the elected leaders in these countries set out to become an authoritarian, per se. It’s that they care about their own power and security above all else, and do things to protect their own position that have the effect of removing democratic constraints on their power.

One of the first steps in this pattern is weakening independent sources of power that can check the executive’s actions. Like, say, the director of your domestic security service who just happens to be investigating your administration’s foreign ties.

“He has what you might think of as autocratic tendencies, which were probably perfectly normal in the business world but are very problematic in the political world,” says Sheri Berman, a professor at Barnard College. “What he would like to do is eliminate all sources of opposition to him — indeed, even sources of criticism of him — and he’s willing to do pretty much anything to do that.”

A creeping authoritarianism is obviously not something that Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan are concerned about. That is why a check on this dangerous trend is not likely to come from a Republican-controlled Congress. That means that the check will have to come from other institutions. Here is where Beauchamp looks for that:

Multiple courts have blocked Trump’s most egregious overreach, the Muslim ban. Journalists are doing a lot of deeply critical reporting on the Russia scandal and other parts of the Trump administration; it’s very likely that, were it not for the Washington Post publicly exposing his lies, Michael Flynn would still be national security adviser. And since the election, there’s been a wave of activism and protest unlike anything since the 1960s.

This is a great sign. A recent book by two scholars, Stephan Haggard & Robert R. Kaufman, studied 25 cases of democracies backsliding into authoritarianism. They found that, once leaders start to behave in an authoritarian fashion, is when civil society challenges the would-be authoritarians. Institutions alone aren’t enough to stop slides toward authoritarianism; you need actual pushback from the people.

As the courts, the media and the people push back on Trump’s epistemically closed bubble, he both lashes out and slips increasingly into isolation and paranoia in an effort to protect against any challenge to the reality he has created. You can get a sense of how that is happening by reading what Michael Scherer and Zeke Miller wrote about “Donald Trump After Hours.”

It is difficult to imagine a way that this plays out without some type of explosive crisis that will end badly not only for Trump, but for the country and potentially the globe. That is because where this is headed means things won’t get better on their own, they’ll only get worse.

In case you’ve ever wondered how you would have reacted at some point in history when what you believe in was challenged, this may be your opportunity to find out.

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