Jim Comey, the Quintessential Expert With Poor Judgment
Jim Comey is the perfect example of how an expert, particularly one who has extremely high regard for himself and his own expertise, can fall into a trap of mistaking one’s own superior knowledge for good judgment.
Comey is an expert on the law and on the workings of the Federal bureaucracy. Donald Trump is not. Comey has had two overriding desires, which have shone through in everything he’s said and everything we know about his behavior: (1) to exercise his judgment independently of any authority other than himself and his understanding of the rules, and (2) to hang on to the position of FBI Director no matter what.
In a little-noticed piece of his June 8 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey said something that explains his entire career, and particularly his behavior in 2016-2017.
You might recognize “the facts and the law” as two of the things that reasonable, informed people disagree about all the time. But for Jim Comey, who compares himself to the Greek goddess of Themis (Roman name: Justitia), these are two things on which the FBI director should be able to exercise his own personal judgment without taking into account the opinions of his superiors.
And the FBI director does have superiors: the Deputy Attorney General, to whom he reports directly, the Attorney General and, ultimately, the President. Comey’s narrative of himself is that he’s a by-the-book G-man (except, like when he called Hillary “extremely careless,” he throws the book in the garbage), a staunch defender of the law and the institutional independence of the FBI. An alternative explanation is that he’s a guy who always dreamed of having a position where he answers to no one, and every time someone who’s nominally his boss sticks his or her nose into his business, he bucks–hard. When Loretta Lynch told him to tone down the investigation into Hillary’s e-mails, he showed her he’s not a man to be fucked with. When Trump asked him if he could see his way to going easy on Mike Flynn, he started maneuvering against the President.
And in doing so, both times he changed the course of history. He’s probably a proximate cause of Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 election, and he might be the proximate cause of Donald Trump being charged with obstruction of justice. In doing so, he put his own fiefdom ahead of the interests of the entire country, selectively deciding when to follow the rules and when to break them. Comey’s a textbook case of how an extremely skilled expert with poor judgment can fuck things up for a lot of people.
As an aside, I’d like to note that Jim Comey was full of shit when he grandstanded about how the FBI, and American justice writ large, should be totally independent of elected politicians. That’s complete bullshit. In many if not most municipalities, counties and states nationwide, the Attorney General and/or District Attorney, the judges and the sheriff are all elected officials themselves–a situation that makes the United States almost unique in the world. It is probably safe to say that by sheer numbers, the vast majority of the heads of prosecutor’s offices, law enforcement agencies and most sitting judges all have to win regular elections. If American justice was really supposed to be divorced from electoral politics, then these posts would be lifetime appointments or bureaucratic jobs. As a matter of fact, if you were explaining to a foreigner what makes the US justice system different, you’d probably start by saying that many prosecutors, judges and sheriffs are elected officials, because as far as I know, the United States is the only country in the world where that’s the case.
Love it or hate it, that’s American democracy–the ultimate remedy for making sure that the electorate is kept happy, relatively speaking, is to allow the voters to decide who metes out justice. Jim Comey is an example of the opposite tendency taking hold–the elected officials are the interlopers and the Deep State career officials are the ones really in charge, the ones who know the rules inside and out (and when they can and can’t be broken), always ready to take their revenge when the people’s representatives stick their nose in the bureaucrats’ business. And although many would have you believe that these bureaucrats are the unsung heroes of this saga, overall it’s not good for the American democracy everyone says they’re defending.
Remember when Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson used to argue about how much democracy was too much democracy?
That argument never went away–nowadays we have James Kirchick in the Los Angeles Times arguing that Brexit and the UK early parliamentary elections are prime examples of posing questions to the electorate that are better left to experts. And he’s not the only one. We have the perpetually wrong Bill Kristol glibly saying that he would “prefer” democracy and the Constitution, but not if they give rise to President Trump.
The new “too much democracy” meme began to take hold around the time Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for the presidency. It’s been used to describe such disparate and diverse phenomena as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, Marine Le Pen and other European right-wing politicians. Think tanks sprang forth with explainers that informed us that the Founding Fathers specifically designed the American system of government to limit the power of the masses. Voters are irrational, clucked eternal status quo defender the Brookings Institution.
Irrational Is As Irrational Does
People misremember what happened in 2016. It’s understandable, because a lot of people really, really hate Trump. But every so often, someone who isn’t a Trump supporter comes forward and reminds us that between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it was actually Trump who had the more issue-based campaign. A lot of people hated his positions, but everyone knew what they were. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, prefers to talk in concepts like “progress” and it’s hard to pin her down on actual issues, which I suppose is a shrewd political move (but clearly not shrewd enough).
And Trump framed his issues in a way that appealed to his supporters’ sense of rationality, such as it was. He identified and amplified their fears (cultural change, economic disenfranchisement, xenophobia, fear of getting ripped off) and offered specific solutions to address them: build a wall, renegotiate NAFTA, make NATO freeloaders pay up.
Hillary Clinton’s appeal to rationality went more like this: I’m sane, he’s not. I’m qualified, he’s not. Hire me and I’ll make the “right” decisions based on the facts, not emotions. I’m an expert on government and public policy–you don’t want an amateur running the country, do you?
Trust Me, I’m An Expert
My “theory of everything” about Too Much Democracy, Cognitive Security and the Weaponized Fake News narrative is the “war on stupid people.” Once someone is labeled as unintelligent or ignorant, we know what to do: first, you try to teach him the right way of thinking, and if that doesn’t work, then don’t listen to him, don’t put him in charge of anything, put a dunce cap on him and stash him somewhere where he can’t do any harm. The best thing a stupid person can do is to know his proper place–doing what smart people tell him to do.
There’s a great episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia that illustrates the problem–almost all our beliefs, at least those that don’t impact us directly and which we’re not personally in a position to verify, are based on what experts believe. Which is perfectly fine and proper for everything that’s fact-based.
But matters of war and peace, of moral judgment, of fairness and equity, aren’t strictly fact-based. Paul Wolfowitz, I’ll admit, is probably much more intelligent than I am, and probably knows more than me about history, public policy, economics and a whole bunch of other subjects. However, I have consistently disagreed with nearly every public position he’s ever taken, and every time he’s gotten his way, it’s almost always led to disaster.
In the absence of a good argument for taking away the votes of people you disagree with, the new tack is to claim that they’re ignorant dupes whose stupid brains are ripe for hacking by evildoers. The remedy, of course, is to have experts and bureaucrats decide what information the public receives. You’ve been warned.