Humans are tribal animals. As Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind, even—perhaps especially—the smartest and best educated among us don’t look at a body of evidence dispassionately, drawing logical conclusions from objective data. Instead, we approach any question with strong priors. If we want to believe some proposition because it fits our general worldview, we ask: “May I believe it?” If we know that it would challenge some of our long-held beliefs, we go: “Do I have to?”
This is why a sliver of plausible justifiability is a key tool in the authoritarian playbook. Populists don’t transparently attack democratic institutions; instead, they claim that they are fighting to institute true democracy. They don’t admit a wish to overstep the boundaries of the powers accorded to them by any constitution; instead, they say that they are bringing under control hostile institutions that have already done so. And they don’t fire subordinates for being unwilling to turn themselves into loyal henchmen; instead, they make up flimsy cover stories that blame forced resignations on invented or exaggerated failings.
Donald Trump seems to be mastering this playbook more and more effectively. During his first months in office, the White House was engulfed in chaos. Now, he is succeeding in portraying unprecedented attacks on independent institutions, like the FBI and the Department of Justice, as mere partisan squabbles between Democrats and Republicans. At first, Trump threatened to fire special counsel Robert Mueller in an open attempt to shut down the Russia investigation. Now, he is purging the law enforcement community of nonpartisan professionals by seizing upon their supposed wrongdoings.
The brilliant manner in which the administration has undermined Rod Rosenstein’s position is only the latest example of what political scientists call authoritarian learning. It is possible that the deputy attorney general really did act foolishly, seriously discussing the possibilities of wearing a wire to incriminate the president, of removing him from office by invoking the 25th Amendment. It seems rather more likely that he made those comments in a sarcastic manner—and that the administration leaked his alleged remarks to the New York Times to create a sliver of justifiability if it should decide to oust him.
Either way, it would be a mistake to zero in on the question of whether or not Rosenstein really was culpable of wrongdoing. For while we likely won’t know the answer to that for a long time to come, one thing is already obvious: The president’s blatant hostility to the separation of powers has created a situation in which the nation’s trust in the rule of law, already seriously damaged, depends on the job of one single individual.
For a few hours on Monday, it looked as though that individual had lost his job, making it even less likely that the special counsel would be able to finish his work (or that the FBI would be able to investigate other politically sensitive cases in an impartial manner). Now, it looks as though Rosenstein’s job is safe for the time being—which is to say, until Thursday, when he is expected to meet with Trump. That is a relief. But it does not change just how precarious the functioning of our institutions has become in the 20 months since the president took office.
There is also another important lesson from this strange day. A few months ago, a website managed to get hundreds of thousands of Americans to pledge that they would take to the streets if either Mueller or Rosenstein was fired. The idea was that such an event would constitute a clear red line, which would give us the opportunity to fight for the preservation of our republic’s most basic rules and norms.
But such a red line is unlikely to materialize. The president has now succeeded in removing the director of the FBI, the deputy director of the FBI, and at least three other key public servants from office—all without creating one clear moment the opposition could exploit to rally against him. On Monday, he was allegedly very close to firing the deputy attorney general, which could have put him in a position to remove the special counsel under similarly hazy circumstances.
If Trump does eventually get rid of Rosenstein, the same is likely to happen to Mueller: He will concoct some reason for why the special counsel has to go. It will be shameless and self-serving. And yet, it will be just plausible enough, and sufficiently appeal to the tribal instincts of the human animal, to ensure that Trump’s base will stick with him; that Republican senators and congressmen can continue in their shameful complicity with his attacks on liberal democracy; and that his opponents will be unsure whether the time to mobilize has finally come.
From the perspective of Russia, Turkey, or Venezuela, this all looks spookily familiar. All serious political scientists agree that democratically elected leaders have, over a period of five or 10 or 15 years, destroyed those countries’ democratic institutions. But if you asked them about the particular moment in which Vladimir Putin (or Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Hugo Chavez) first became a dictator, they would likely give wildly differing answers. If Trump should actually manage to destroy the rule of the law in the United States, there is no reason to think the moment in which he succeeds will be any more obvious. Not in retrospect—and even less so at the time.