One hears a lot of talk about America turning into a Third World kleptocracy. I’ve worked in a lot of Third World kleptocracies, back in the days when the Reagan Revolution was fresh and the Reaganauts thought we could export free markets and democracy to the rest of the world. We didn’t, of course. But I had the opportunity to see first-hand what separates a banana republic from the land of the free and the home of the brave. It comes down to the grit of a few people willing to do their job come hell or high water–not look the other way, not accept the stuffed envelope or its equivalent in post-government employment, but to treat a job as a sacred trust given by the people.
Somewhere there are a handful of FBI agents who decided to do their jobs–to end the coverup of the Clinton private email server which was there to let Hillary turn high office into a cash cow. I don’t know who they are or just how it happened, but some men and women told FBI Director James Comey that if he didn’t step forward, they would–and they clearly had enough evidence to put Comey in a vise. We know this from Devlin Barrett‘s reporting at the Wall Street Journal. As Barrett wrote:
The new investigative effort, disclosed by FBI Director James Comey on Friday, shows a bureau at times in sharp internal disagreement over matters related to the Clintons, and how to handle those matters fairly and carefully in the middle of a national election campaign. Even as the probe of Mrs. Clinton’s email use wound down in July, internal disagreements within the bureau and the Justice Department surrounding the Clintons’ family philanthropy heated up, according to people familiar with the matter.
The unsung heroes of the FBI put everything on the line. They knew that they risked their careers, perhaps even their pensions. Their downside is that their kids may go to community college instead of a private university, and they rent an apartment rather than buy a house. Those are the stakes for mid-level officials who go up against the system. But they did it, because they had their jobs to do. It was their job and no-one else’s; if they didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done, and they wouldn’t stand for someone telling them not to do their job to protect the public.
“High Noon” comes to mind. The Western sheriff portrayed by Gary Cooper faced down an outlaw gang for no other reason than it was his job to do so. It was his last day on the job, and the townsfolk urged him to flee rather than fight. It’s not an existential gesture out of Hemingway. He’s scared and he hurts. He feels no affection for the cowardly locals. But he won’t walk away from his job.
If you want to keep a republic, you have to sacrifice personal interest for the public good if you’re called on to do so. Those who choose to enforce the law, or to fight fires, or to serve in the military know that it may be their job one day to put their lives on the line. But the same is true for every citizen in small ways. In Latin American kleptocracies, the fellow whose job it is to turn off your gas when you fail to pay your gas bill takes a bribe instead, and passes most of the bribe up the line to his superiors. The secretary in a government office takes a bribe to hand you a form that you have to fill out to ship wood from Michoacán to Mexico City, which you then take to the office next door with another bribe, and so forth. Everyone is on the take. The system corrupts everyone. If you want to be honest, you emigrate.
The rule of law rests on the moral equivalent of a thin red line. At any given moment the fate of a country hangs on the handful of its citizens who happen to take the incoming: the front-line troops, the Marines at Iwo Jima, the pilots at the Battle of Britain. Those whose job it is to uphold the law must do so even at personal risk. What distinguishes a great nation from a banana republic is its ability to find enough of those people so that when the moment comes, they will do their job. In a banana republic, no-one fights the system, with rare exceptions, and they almost always get killed, like Luis Donaldo Colosio in Mexico in 1994.
I have been waiting for a long time to hear a presidential contender stand up and tell the truth about corruption in Washington. Donald Trump’s New Hampshire address did so last Friday afternoon. Trump is doing his job. His job is to come in with a big pump and drain the swamp, and he’s doing it–and deserves the support of every American. But he couldn’t do it without the brave men and women in the middle ranks of the FBI who stood their ground. I don’t know their names. But they make me proud to be an American.