You Really Should Read This Sally Yates Piece About the Stakes of This Moment
America, as we know it, is under attack.
By Jack Holmes December 19, 2017
Sally Yates did not mention Donald Trump’s name once, but she didn’t have to. The former Acting Attorney General wrote an op-ed for USA Today this morning that serves as a call-to-arms for a nation on the precipice. Yates referred to our current era as one of many “inflection points” in the history of the American republic, when we are forced to decide who we are as a nation and what we value. There’s no confusion over who brought us here. The president, aided and abetted by a Republican Party that has lost both its mind and its spine, has overseen a dangerous erosion of our democratic norms and institutions. We are sliding closer to authoritarianism than at perhaps any other time in our history.
As Yates (whom Trump fired for refusing to defend his Definitely Not a Muslim Ban in court) explained, the founding values of this country—of which we have always fallen short, but always strived in the general direction of—were laid out in the Preamble to the Constitution.
“We the people of the United States” (we are a democratic republic, not a dictatorship) “in order to form a more perfect union” (we are a work in progress dedicated to a noble pursuit) “establish justice” (we revere justice as the cornerstone of our democracy) “insure domestic tranquility” (we prize unity and peace, not divisiveness and discord), “provide for the common defense” (we should never give any foreign adversary reason to question our solidarity) “promote the general welfare” (we care about one another; compassion and decency matter) “and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (we have a responsibility to protect not just our own generation, but future ones as well).
How many of these values are in good health at the moment? Trump has waged war on the free press, declaring any and all adversarial coverage to be “fake news” and threatening to shut down news outlets. He has sought division on ethnic, racial, and ideological lines at every opportunity, and broken down the value for compassion and decency in our discourse—culminating with his response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and his grotesque support for Roy Moore. He has, as Yates spelled out, waged a relentless campaign against the rule of law:
Our shared values include another essential principle, and that’s the rule of law — the promise that the law applies equally to everyone, that no person is above it, and that all are entitled to its protection. This concept of equal protection recognizes that our country’s strength comes from honoring, not weaponizing, the diversity that springs from being a nation of Native Americans and immigrants of different races, religions and nationalities.
The rule of law depends not only on things that are written down, but also on important traditions and norms, such as apolitical law enforcement. That’s why Democratic and Republican administrations alike, at least since Watergate, have honored that the rule of law requires a strict separation between the Justice Department and the White House on criminal cases and investigations. This wall of separation is what ensures the public can have confidence that the criminal process is not being used as a sword to go after one’s political enemies or as a shield to protect those in power. It’s what separates us from an autocracy.
Just this morning, Politico published a report detailing a plan by Trump and his authoritarian lackeys to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Rather than fire Mueller directly, which even Trump’s allies see as a step too far, this crew is trying to throw enough accusations around about bias in Mueller’s team to make the investigation just another partisan issue. That way, Trump’s base will rally around him, even if he is found to have colluded with a foreign power—and even if he starts pardoning his associates to prevent them from testifying, which is apparently an explicit part of the plan.
All this is undergirded by the essential anti-democratic Trump initiative: The War on Truth. Trump does not believe in the concept of objective truth in the public discourse, and he and his aides—looking at you, Kellyanne Conway—have worked tirelessly to undermine it in the eyes of the public as well. If there is no truth, only different opinions about what happened or what’s happening, we can’t determine right from wrong, or hold politicians accountable for their promises and claims, or agree that the president and his associates broke the law or violated our democratic process. A lack of truth aids the spread of propaganda about minority populations and foreigners and political opponents, which supporters will believe even when the evidence to the contrary is insurmountable. A truthless world spawns a kind of lawlessness, where demagoguery and brute power are likely to win out. It brings to mind a quote from Hannah Arendt, the German-American political theorist:
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exists.”
We are living in a seismic moment for the American republic, when its very existence, as we know it, lies in doubt. The Enlightenment value for the truth and the scientific method we use to find it are under severe attack from perhaps the worst elements ever to hold so much power in our society. The ruling party of today serves only the tiniest sliver of Americans, the big-dollar donor class: That’s why 80 percent of the Republican tax bill’s benefits will go to the top 1 percent. The ruling figure, Donald Trump, serves only himself.
The only way to stop this is a unified effort by citizens who still believe in the concept of truth, and in the democratic norms—especially the free press and the rule of law—which depend on it.
It’s worth reading Yates’ editorial in its entirety.