When President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, he gave his opponents on the Left the sacrifice they had been baying for for months. Instead of being grateful or even pleased, Democrats are more outraged than ever. That follows an emerging trend from the so-called “Resistance” that suggests anything Trump does is evil, even things they would praise if a Democrat did them.
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) May 13, 2017
The reasons for this are partly partisan derangement, but they also speak to the moral flaw at the heart of the modern Left that elevates intentions over results. Viewed through such a lens, the effect of an action has no value if it is done for the “wrong” reasons. They judge the action based on the morality of the actor, and refuse to admit that anything done by a bad person can be good, or vice versa. It is a dubious theory and a recipe for unending partisan warfare.
They Won’t Take Yes For An Answer
Since the 2016 election, Democrats have searched for a scapegoat on whom to blame Hillary Clinton’s loss. Evidence of a Russian conspiracy failed to pan out and blaming the voters too loudly looked to limit Democrats’ future electoral chances. (Blaming the candidate herself somehow remains out of the question.)
The emerging consensus until last week was that the man to blame was Comey, whose investigation into Clinton’s criminal recklessness with classified documents lowered the voting public’s already weak opinion of her reputation for truthfulness. Arguments from notables like Nate Silver, whom the Democrats are back to trusting, cemented the case against the FBI director. Even before election day, the Left was calling for Comey’s firing. Those demands have only escalated since.
Last Tuesday night, Trump gave them what they wanted and, boy, did they ever hate it. Mollie Hemingway catalogued the quick reversal of many top Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and John Podesta (see No. 4 in her article). The switcheroo was predictable, in one sense. It is a Washington tradition for hierarchs of the major parties to exchange talking points on their way in and out of power.
The filibuster is undemocratic until you’re in the minority, when it becomes a hallowed thread in the fabric of the republic. Executive privilege is a cowardly cloak over presidential malfeasance, until your party enters the White House, when it becomes necessary for the executive branch to function. And so on.
But this flip-flop is different from those. Democrats called for Comey’s head even after Trump was elected and after he took office. Only 12 percent of Democrats and 17 percent of independents approved of Comey’s job performance in a March 2017 poll published in The Hill. This was not a position that was picked up or cast aside out of expediency; Democrats disliked this man intensely, blamed him for Clinton’s loss, and wanted him gone. Yet their reversal on the point was nonetheless swift.
It is confusing, even to their own partisans. When Stephen Colbert announced the firing to his audience shortly after it was made public, they obediently cheered the downfall of an enemy. But not so fast! Colbert quickly redirected their two minutes’ hate.
“No rationale has been given yet as to why,” he admonished the crowd, “but it came on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.” The people realized their error, and the cheering switched to boos. Their enemy had done what they wanted, but he did it for the wrong reasons. It is not enough for the Left that a government official do exactly what they demanded he do. He had also to adopt their reasoning and, presumably, resign his office and wander the Earth in sackcloth and ashes, seeking forgiveness. For Trump, even that might not be enough.
Intent Trumps Actions, Even In Law
Trump can do no good, in Democrats’ circular reasoning, because he is not himself good. If this were an isolated reaction of the mob, it could be ignored. Haters gonna hate, and partisans do not praise their ideological enemies except in the most unusual circumstances. But valuing intent—or imagined intent—over results has travelled up from the masses to their leaders, hardening the lines between parties and eliminating the possibility of cooperation even when they agree.
On subjects where they disagree, like Trump’s travel ban executive order, the ad hominem justification becomes the Left’s strongest argument. In striking down the order, a federal district judge based his decision largely on Trump’s campaign rhetoric, rather than the law or the order’s substance.
Admitting that the order was neutral on its face and the president has wide discretion over immigration, the judge nonetheless stopped it from going into effect based on the “peculiar circumstances and specific historical record” of the order. No matter how it was phrased, no matter to whom it actually applied, the court had scried the real purpose: hatred of Muslims. Trump is a wicked man, so all his acts must be anathema.
Recent arguments have made this backward reasoning even more explicit. In an appeal before the Fourth Circuit, Omar Jadwat, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, made it clear that the order was illegitimate because Trump made it. Even if he were to renounce his former advocacy against Muslim immigration and slap a “Coexist” bumper sticker on the presidential limousine, the animus perceived in Trump’s campaign speeches would invalidate the order.
Ryan Lovelace reported the exchange between advocate and Judge Dennis Shedd for the Washington Examiner:
‘I think a simple repudiation might not, no, would not change the result,’ Jadwat told Shedd.
‘Let me follow up then, what if he says he’s sorry every day for a year?’ Shedd said to laughter in the courtroom. ‘Would that do it for you?’
‘No, your honor,” Jadwat answered. ‘Your honor, I think it’s possible that saying sorry is not enough. That’s true in a lot of circumstances, your honor.’
The position expounded here is that Trump, not the order, is the real problem. It is a secular echo of the ancient Donatist heresy, which held that the acts of an impure priest were invalid. Like those ancient priests who fell short of perfection, Trump is seen as fatally flawed. To the Left, he is a vessel from which justice can never be poured out.
Donatism is a premodern heresy that shows a premodern mindset, which is incompatible with a republic. Just as salvation does not come from priests, justice in a republic does not come from presidents. Jadwat made clear that he misunderstood this principle when asked if, had the 2016 election come out differently, some other president could have issued an identical order. “Yes, your honor, I think in that case it could be constitutional,” he said.
This is an error in judgment that elevates the speaker over the speech, the law enforcement officer over the law. Going beyond even ordinary lefty rejection of textualism, the ACLU says we should ignore the text entirely when the author’s motives are impure. Hillary Clinton could have issued this order because she is good and rightthinkful; Trump is ungood and wrongthinkful. Nourishment from her hand is poison in his.
This idea is about as great a refutation of the rule of law as any dystopia-writer could imagine. Elevating the intent and purity of the actor over objective judgments of the law is the path to tyranny. When we reject all standards for judging a law’s merits other than whose hand held the pen, when doing the right thing for the “wrong” reason is as bad as doing the wrong thing, we have really left all reason and justice behind.