These are fever times, and none of us are immune to contagion. Week after week, daylight madness gets tweeted out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: unsupported allegations of voter fraud, imaginary terrorism in Sweden, evidence-free allegations that the new president was wiretapped by his predecessor or our British allies. In the broader public, random derangement escalates: Mosques and Jewish cemeteries are vandalized, South Asian immigrants get shot. An epileptic reporter gets tweeted a seizure-inducing strobe.
And, of course, the shadow of the e-mail hack on the Democratic National Committee still hovers over last fall’s election, along with the lingering stink of the FBI’s October surprise. FBI director James Comey’s appearance before the House Intelligence Committee on March 20 did nothing to calm anyone’s jangled nerves. Comey did draw one significant distinction: He made it clear that Trump’s wiretapping allegations against Barack Obama were too ludicrous to support investigation. “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the FBI,” Comey said, in a historic rebuke of a sitting president. At the same time, he told the committee that the possibility of “any coordination” between Trump campaign officials and Russian hacking or other dirty tricks is real enough to support an ongoing FBI inquiry, which the director publicly acknowledged for the first time.
But Comey’s testimony raised far more questions than it answered. He told the committee that the FBI’s Trump inquiry began in July 2016. Why, then, did he publicly announce on the eve of the election a renewed review of the questions surrounding Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server but not this parallel investigation? And what are the outer parameters of that phrase “any coordination”? In the Trump-Russia investigation, is the FBI leading us toward a meaningful accounting of actual corruption—or, as with Clinton’s e-mails, down another politically charged rabbit hole that goes nowhere?
The answer matters. The delusional world of Trump and his inner circle is evident to all except his most ardent followers. But increasingly, the president’s opponents have been gripped by wide-ranging fevers of our own, racing far ahead of the evidence on issues ranging from the alleged Russian sexual kompromat aimed at the unshameable Trump to purported deep-state machinations aimed at US news consumers. It’s understandable; we’re all in disorienting waters. But it is easier for Democrats to obsess over the e-mail hack than to focus on their own calamitous failure in the election; easier for John McCain and Lindsey Graham to pound the drum against Vladimir Putin than to contend with the GOP’s surrender to Trump and Steve Bannon.
This is a dangerous and short-sighted game: From the Alien and Sedition Acts onward, exaggerated fear of foreign subversion has always damaged America more than any genuine external enemy has. And in the long run, a climate of threat—regardless of its source—is exactly what Team Trump wants: Such an atmosphere corrodes, rather than advances, any progressive American vision.