Imagine that two years ago, you sequestered a jury of 12 Americans, kept them in a news-free zone, and brought them today to hear former FBI Director James Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Chances are that all of them—no matter what their political beliefs—would be stunned and outraged.
From the perspective of one of these Americans, Comey dropped bombshell after bombshell: The Russians are mucking around in American democratic elections, trying to change how we think, how we act, how we vote—and they will be back. The attorney general cannot be trusted to ensure impartial enforcement of the law. The president fired the FBI director and then lied about why he did it. Yet by the time Comey said these things in an open hearing, all of it was old news. It should have been more shocking than it was, but on some level, Americans were used to it.
Some historical context here is important. Only one FBI Director has ever been fired since J. Edgar Hoover took the job back in 1924: William Sessions, who was sacked by President Bill Clinton in 1993 after the Justice Department's own Office of Professional Responsibility found so many severe ethical lapses, they filled a 161-page report. It included schemes to avoid paying taxes, using government funds to build an expensive home fence that actually reduced the security of the property, using FBI resources for personal purposes, and involving his wife, Alice, in bureau management in “entirely inappropriate” ways. Comey, by contrast, was fired by President Trump for doing his job. Big difference. One was miscarrying justice and abusing power; the other was carrying out justice and speaking truth to power.
Similarly, the only episode in recent history approximating the cloud hanging over the attorney general’s office occurred during the Watergate scandal. That attorney general chose to resign rather than fire White House special prosecutor Archibald Cox and impede an investigation reaching into the White House. This attorney general, by contrast, appears to be implicated in an investigation that reaches into the White House.
Finally, never in American history has a foreign power so deliberately, powerfully, and maliciously tried to distort the cornerstone of American democracy. Comey sent this point home in the hearing, declaring, “There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. … It is a high confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community. ... It's not a close call.”
Comey’s testimony delivered a “shock and awe” campaign, FBI-style: calm, cautious, and candid, at once stoic and relatable. It was as though Comey were trying to reach through our television sets and shake the body politic into our collective senses.
And yet, his shock and awe testimony may not shock and awe for long. The biggest story of the day is how unlikely this is to remain the biggest story. In all likelihood, after the Twittersphere dies down, partisans will retreat to their respective corners and business as usual will return to Washington.
Because of something called the “normalization of deviance:” the more frequently exceptional things happen, the less we think of them as exceptional. Over time, we become desensitized to events that fall far outside the normal range—often with disastrous consequences. The space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 despite previous shuttle launches that revealed O-ring seals in the shuttle’s rocket boosters were cracking in cold weather. They shouldn’t have been cracking at all. But NASA “normalized” the poor performance of O-rings as acceptable and okayed the launch, even with record low temperatures forecast for liftoff. Seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, were killed.
We experience the normalization of deviance in daily life, too. Ever hear a funny noise in your car? The first time, it seems alarming. After living with it for a few days, however, you think it must not be so serious after all. You tell yourself the car seems to be running just fine. You grow accustomed to the noise. After a while you don’t notice it anymore. And maybe the car really is fine. Or maybe the funny noise is an indication that the car is about to experience a catastrophic breakdown (which is what happened to me one night, when I assumed a strange noise in my car was really nothing, until the car broke down on the freeway, at night, in Los Angeles, “without warning.”)
The Trump era has brought the normalization of deviance to politics. In four short months, this administration’s national-security advisor has had to resign in disgrace for lying about his contacts with Russians and now faces possible criminal charges. The attorney general is so tainted by his own Russian-related activities that he has had to recuse himself from the bureau’s investigation of Russian-related activities. And the FBI director, who by law serves a 10-year term precisely to ensure independence from the president, was fired by the president because he was independent. This is bizarro world. Any one of these events would in normal times be enough to bring down a president. And yet senators today were talking about whether President Trump’s exact words to Jim Comey constituted a hope, a wish, an order, a directive, a threat, or as one senator characterized it, simply a “light touch” approach.
Comey was right about one thing: The Russians “are coming after America.” They may not have to. In this era of normalized deviance, we are defeating ourselves.
Read Amy Zegart's comments and those from other Stanford faculty in this Stanford News Service article.