The autocratic leader lies and then falsely charges his opponents with lying. He politicizes institutions that are supposed to be free of politics by falsely accusing his foes of politicizing them. He victimizes others by falsely claiming they are victimizing him.
The autocrat also counts on spineless politicians to cave in to his demands. And as they destroy governmental institutions at his bidding, they insist they are defending them.
In her classic 1951 book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt offered two observations that help us understand the assumptions and purposes behind the memo created by the staff of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chair of the House Intelligence Committee turned propagandist for President Donald Trump.
The totalitarian method of the 1920s and ’30s, she noted, was to “dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose.”
She also said this: “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”
Bear Arendt’s warnings in mind while pondering the Nunes screed, the sole purpose of which is to discredit an investigation that appears to be getting closer and closer to Trump.
A blatant McCarthyite hit piece that breaks little new ground, it cherry-picks from troves of information to feed a dangerous narrative: Even if special counsel Robert Mueller gets the goods on Trump — on Russian collusion, money laundering, obstruction of justice, or all three — the facts won’t matter because the inquiry was driven by partisanship.
The memo pretends that the most important actor in the case is Carter Page, a Trump adviser who had left the campaign by the time the events it describes transpired. The memo’s core assertion is that in a request to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to authorize surveillance on Page, the FBI relied on the findings of former British intelligence official Christopher Steele without informing the court that Fusion GPS, the firm that hired Steele, was paid by Democrats to collect bad stuff on Trump.
Actually, Page is a side player in the story, and his engagement with Russian spies was on the radar of intelligence agencies long before Steele prepared his now-famous dossier. Among the document’s many volumes of convenient omissions is that Fusion GPS was hired first by conservative foes of Trump.
The thinness of the memo explains why some in the White House, according to The Washington Post and others, feared it would be a dud. To read it is to know why Trump’s own Justice Department and the FBI were so furious at Trump’s eagerness to make it public. And its underlying premise is laughable. To imply that the FBI’s leadership is a nest of left-wing Hillary Clinton sympathizers is as absurd as declaring that a majority of Philadelphians were rooting for the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Equally specious is any suggestion of bias against Rod Rosenstein, a Republican named as deputy attorney general by Trump. It has been widely reported that Trump wants to fire him. This insubstantial account provides no justification for such a crisis-provoking move.
The Nunes exercise fits snugly with Arendt’s second observation. The cynicism of a significant part of the public, particularly Trump’s supporters, leads them to believe that everybody in every institution lies. The Nunes talking points toss out distorted and disconnected facts, not to advance the truth but to cloud it in confusion. Thus did Nunes’ ploy accomplish the opposite of its intention. It simply showed how petrified Trump and his backers are of a comprehensive probe.
Our democratic regime is further endangered by the proclivity of Republicans in Congress to enable the executive abuses they’re supposed to check. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s disgraceful complicity in the release of the memo was made all the more shameful when he declared last Thursday that it “does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general.”
Trump put the lie to this Friday morning when he tweeted: “The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.” Perhaps Ryan is fooling himself, but my hunch is that he’s too smart for that — which means he is trying to fool the rest of us.
Autocrats don’t prevail unless they have allies to give them cover. Thanks to House Republicans, our country has taken another step toward the chaos that autocrats thrive on.
E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post.