What’s it like to be personally and publicly attacked by the president of the United States? Like many others in and out of government, I have some experience. I have also watched friends and former colleagues deal with vicious, repeated assaults. The attacks have interfered with their ability to find work after government service, as even employers who see through the lies fear hiring a “controversial” person or being attacked themselves. It can mean reassuring concerned friends and family, who can’t imagine themselves the target of presidential wrath, that you’re doing just fine. And it also means avoiding much of social media, because every presidential assault unleashes truly disturbed Trump supporters on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
So, it’s hard on good people, especially those who don’t have savings to fall back on. But the truth is that, in many ways, it is not as hard as you might think, especially as it continues endlessly, leaking power, shrinking its source.
At first, the attack is stunning and rocks your world. Waking up to find the president has tweeted that you are guilty of treason or committed assorted other crimes and are a [insert any one of this president’s epithets here] is jarring and disorienting. That’s the first stage, but it doesn’t last.
The second stage is a kind of numbness, where it doesn’t seem quite real that the so-called Leader of the Free World is assailing you by tweet and voice. It is still unsettling, but it is harder to recapture the vertigo of the first assault.
But the longer it goes on, the less it means. In the third stage, the impact diminishes, the power of it shrinks. It no longer feels as though the most powerful human on the planet is after you. It feels as though a strange and slightly sad old guy is yelling at you to get off his lawn, echoed by younger but no less sad people in red hats shouting, “Yeah, get off his lawn!”
In this stage, President Donald Trump seems diminished, much as he has diminished the presidency itself. Foreign leaders laugh at him and throw his letters in the trash. American leaders clap back at him, offering condescending prayers for his personal well-being. The president’s “trusted” advisers all appear to talk about him behind his back and treat him like a child. Principled public servants defy his orders not to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry.
Even his secret weapon has lost power. Engagement with his Twitter account — the company’s measure of how often people read, share and comment on a tweet — has steadily declined. Americans have grown tired of the show. They are channel-surfing on him. The exhausted middle has arrived at a collective Stage 3.
I don’t mean to suggest Trump is not dangerous. The horrific betrayal of allies in northern Syria demonstrates that an impetuous and amoral leader can do great harm, even in shrunken form. And if he succeeds in redefining our nation’s core values so that extorting foreign governments to aid in one’s election is consistent with the oath of office, he will have done lasting damage to this nation — the harm our founders worried about most.
For the fourth, and final, stage, we need to fight through our fatigue and contempt for this shrunken, withered figure. Spurred by the danger he poses to our nation and its values, we have to overcome the shock and numbness of earlier stages. We must not look away. We must summon the effort necessary to protect this republic from Alexander Hamilton’s great fear, that when an unprincipled person “is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’ ”
We are headed into the storm our founders feared. Getting safely to the other side will require all of us to resist complacency and cynicism. Yes, the final stage is a test of the founders’ design, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate American character. This democracy — made up of citizens and their institutions — is strong enough to weather the storm.
James Comey is a former FBI director and deputy attorney general.