Suddenly there is a glimmer of civility and order in a nation trapped in chaos that is in part contrived and in part ignorantly spontaneous.
Former presidential assistant Michael Flynn’s negotiated guilty plea and commitment to cooperate with special federal prosecutor Robert Mueller is a first and much-welcomed hint about the continuing viability of the rule of law.
Friday’s announcement gave the majority of Americans who are frightened and disgusted by Donald Trump’s reckless, self-serving presidency some reason for optimism.
The first major fruits of Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election are just beginning to test whether a nation of laws rather than a nation of men can still exist in a political environment steered by money more than morality and lies more than truth.
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The core issue is not whether Trump remains as president but whether the process of determining if he does is complete, unobstructed and persuasive. At stake is no less than the viability of the republic, a crisis point that we have reached few times in our national life.
In the worst-case scenario of Trump trying to interfere in the investigatory process through using the pardon power, firing Mueller or some other desperate artifice, the courage and dedication to liberty of every member of Congress would be tested directly. They would be obligated to warn him off should he consider such interference. And should he ignore them and barge ahead, they could not let either their personal welfare or political orientation deter them from impeaching him.
Anything less on Congress’ part would mark the end of meaningful democracy and empower a level of presidential authoritarianism that we have never experienced. That’s a role Trump’s ego and willful ignorance of American traditions would allow him to assume eagerly.
However, if the investigation is allowed to run its course, the test becomes one of not just Congress but of every American. In the deeply divided society that we have become, whatever the investigation’s outcome, millions of people will be angered while millions of others will feel vindicated because few are agnostic on the question of Donald Trump. Our individual tests will be of our personal dedication to the rule of law and our capacity to accept demonstrable truth. A substantial portion of Americans failing that test could extract the highest cost imaginable: a frozen state of ungovernable anarchy.
We have arrived at this moment of critical testing in large part because of our growing disregard, at all levels of governments, corporations and other institutions, for the value of truth and our willingness to dismiss demonstrated but inconvenient facts. Large segments of our informational environment—social media, news media, official declarations—are composed of casual lies and purposeful deceit.
Hannah Arendt, a leading political theorist of the first three-quarters of the 20th Century, said this in a 1974 interview:
“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer….And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you (as a would-be dictator) can then do what you please.”
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.