James Comey debacle reveals a nation addicted to self-dramatization and myth

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Photo: Rich Girard/flickr

I'd have fired James Comey too. The guy is delusional, grandiose and a drama queen (who does that remind you of?). The former FBI director thinks it's all about him, in the sense that he's the guardian of U.S. greatness.

When he testified to Congress about his Hillary Clinton botch, he said his choice was between "really bad" and "catastrophic" and "I said to my team we got to walk into the world of really bad."

This is Hooveresque in the sense of placing the FBI at the centre of history and its director at the centre of the centre. J. Edgar Hoover took a minor police agency after the First World War and magnified it into a core U.S. myth. This is unique for mere cops. The RCMP is a Canadian symbol but not a fundamental myth.

Hoover's FBI (in preliminary form) began then by suppressing anarchist dissidents and persisted in the role, through the Red Scare of the 1950s, antiwar activism in the 1960s, and especially the civil rights movement. Hoover spied on Martin Luther King Jr., labelling him America's "most notorious liar."

Hoover's brilliance lay in that mythmaking, something unmatched among political police elsewhere. They took down gangsters in the 1930s, such as Dillinger, making sure Hoover was there for the arrests.

As a kid I read The FBI Story and saw the movie with James Stewart playing a sort of Father Knows Best special agent (with a Hitchcockian cameo by Hoover). They countered negatives about civil rights with 1988's Mississippi Burning, portraying how the FBI led civil rights victories in the south. One Black leader grumbled, "These guys were tapping our telephones, not looking into the murders." Hoover also collected dirt on presidents and intimidated politicians for 50 years.

Comey had the genius to recast the FBI myth for this century with himself as the new Hoover. He even criticized Hoover on 60 Minutes. He took over the "mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution."

I'm not saying he's insincere but he's self-aggrandizing. I admire people taking selfless moral stands, but the way King did, not as top cop of a bureaucratized, militarized national political police. That's what you look to grassroots leaders or firefighters for. When he told FBI agents in his final letter, "I will be fine," it sounded Christ-like: this is my destiny, which I'm happily fulfilling.

Granted, those weren't Trump's reasons. I have no doubt he fired Comey to blunt the FBI's Russia investigation, confirming that Trump has something to hide. But the trouble with accusations of treason or collusion is that they rely on another core U.S. myth: the evil Russians.

It stretches back 100 years, to the revolution, and applies to Lenin and modern capitalists alike. If Trump voters stay loyal, it's because these myths have started sounding "fake." Even pop culture has moved on, with sympathetic Russian spies, like The Americans.

So if it's not treason, what are Trump's Russian links? Business, mostly. Unlike all other presidents, he has no sense of separation between his identity as businessman, which is what he's always been, and anything else he does, like golfing or being president. It doesn't occur to him.

He and his billionaire cabinet pals, or "advisers," such as Carl Icahn, have never had much respect for politicians because they've customarily been able to buy them. All realms flow together in the pursuit of money. Did the Russians influence his election? He couldn't recognize an illegitimate step over the line because there is no line.

Ivanka Trump's in-laws lobby for tax breaks on luxury towers they're building in New Jersey and name-drop the "family" in China while recruiting investors. Icahn makes an unlikely fortune based on his "advice" to Trump about who to appoint environmental overseer and what policies to demolish. It's business.

What will happen? Democrats seem to feel certain Republicans will move cautiously toward an independent inquiry that would somehow pressure Trump from office. Surely, many in his party would be happier with Pence as president. Nailing him for attacking the hallowed FBI to hide treasonous collusion with evil Russians manages to capitalize on two core U.S. myths.

It's probably as good a pretext as they'll get. For those of us looking on from outside, this truly is a nation tragically addicted to self-dramatization and mythification -- even if that's what finally saves it from the more awful fate of President Trump.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Rich Girard/flickr

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