Four years ago, when the rise of someone like Donald Trump in U.S. politics seemed improbable, I met with David Simas, director of the Office of Political Strategy for Barack Obama’s White House, in Washington. We discussed Obama’s immigration policy, a policy which generated severe criticism due to the number of deportations during his term. It was a lively conversation. Simas, the son of Portuguese immigrants, is an optimistic, sensible and eloquent man who now runs the Obama Foundation.
The most interesting moment occurred when the cameras were off. I remember asking Simas what worried him most about political life in the United States. To my surprise, he did not talk about Republican intransigence or the conflicts within the Democratic Party. What kept him awake at night, he told me, were the social media algorithms that were creating a climate of intolerance. He explained how previously, conversations over digital media tended to be more inclusive of different opinions because the media diet was also inclusive. There was no way to isolate oneself from people who thought differently. In spite of our preferences, we found diverging opinions in newspapers, radio programs and televised debates. Now, Simas explained, Facebook delivers a daily torrent of opinions that only reinforce the limited vision of each group, without requiring anyone to consider a dissenting opinion. The worst case scenario would turn the U.S. into a politically tribal society: two opposing sides, preoccupied exclusively with the survival of their very particular agenda, no longer able to afford respect or consideration to different opinions or even facts.
A half-decade later, the worst case scenario is a reality.
This week, a good part of the Republican Party in Congress chose to back the publication of a confidential memorandum, produced and written by Republicans who serve on the Intelligence Committee (headed by a Republican), which supposedly demonstrates that the FBI used information biased against Donald Trump to obtain a warrant to surveil Carter Page, a former foreign-policy adviser to Trump and a key player in the investigation concerning collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The document — known as the Nunes memorandum, in honor of the highly controversial Republican Devin Nunes who chairs the Intelligence Committee — does not actually demonstrate any abuse of authority by the FBI or the Department of Justice. Even worse, the Republicans, starting with Trump, have not demonstrated the same attitude about releasing an equivalent document, written by the Democrats on the committee, which would provide another version of the facts and would comport with the democratic process.
What is really behind the release of the Nunes memorandum? This is the worst-case scenario that Simas referred to, having resulted in the ultimate consequence: the erosion of institutions. Using its great majority, the Republican Party has abandoned the country as its priority in order to now serve, almost exclusively, its plan for Trump’s survival. Nunes and his colleagues are not concerned about the stability of the country’s institutions. What matters to them is discrediting anyone necessary in order to prepare for the battle which, it is now becoming even more clear, will come at the end of the Robert Mueller investigation. The Republicans must suspect that the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 elections — and, perhaps worse, Trump’s repeated attempts to obstruct justice — could end in the impeachment of the president, especially if the Democrats take control of Congress in November. To win this battle, the Republican tribe has chosen to destroy confidence in the fundamental institutions that serve the American public, such as the FBI or the Department of Justice, among others. If Caesar must fall, then Rome burns, too.
Nunes and his colleagues are doing the devil’s work: manipulating the facts, spreading conspiracy theories, and discrediting intelligence professionals and the impartiality of the law, all to protect Trump. It is a shameless and alarming strategy, not seen in the United States, even in the darkest times of Richard Nixon. The consequence of this campaign of discrediting institutions could be, no more and no less, the collapse of democracy in the United States. When one political actor considers only the consolidation of his plan of government — or, in the case of Trump and his Republicans, the mere survival of his power — ahead of the basic protection of institutions that have taken decades, or even centuries, to construct, the result can be very serious. It is well to remember Abraham Lincoln, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”