Confidence in the System
We were introduced to both Monty Python and Firesign Theatre in college, in the late Seventies, and it’s pretty safe to say they both left deep, enduring impressions upon our gentle soul.
Of Python, no explanation is needed. Firesign is much less known, their work much less consistent, and much of it is of their metacultural moment. We don’t know how fresh ears would regard it at this distance, but our fresh ears at the time were enraptured by the clever absurdity.
Being introduced to pot at the same time may have had something to do with it.
What endures from Firesign are moments, snippets. Their work was contemporaneous with Nixon, Watergate, America’s institutional failures — themes that were rooted in the mood of the day, and which have recurred too often since.
Just this week, “Confidence in the System” came to mind after a couple of conversations with folks of very different generations. The bit itself is from a less-adored later album, but in few seconds and few words it crystallizes something that amused us at the time, but is now giving us second thoughts.
The first conversation, on Facebook, found us trying and failing to convince someone that Trump could certainly fire Robert Mueller without consequence, and there was sufficient reason to believe that he might.
Our deep cynicism about the deeply cynical people running our government was our premise: They deeply fear Trump’s base, and they deeply crave their power to pass any damn bill they please, knowing that Trump will sign it. There’s nothing, nothing at all, that would “compel” impeachment, since impeachment is a political act, not legal, and the politics work strongly against it.
They counterargument boiled down to “they would have to impeach”, that the unfolding evidence would be too strong to ignore. Our interlocutor could not imagine anything else being the case.
Our second conversation was with a young colleague, excited about the latest revelations, certain they have Trump on the ropes. Just look at his tweets! He’s desperate!
Yes, but. Trump is a veteran huckster, a congenital liar — Believe me! — and his tweets are not his secret diary, but very consciously a public performance, tailored for his audience. The investigation moves forward like a vast lava flow, as TPM’s Josh Marshall aptly put it, but lava is a slow-moving menace, not a tsunami.
We do think Trump has sprung his own trap with the Comey firing, but it also took Voldemort three books to fall after Dumbledore discovered his fatal flaw. Events still have to play out, and while today’s headlines may have Trump shouting at his television, he’ll still be president tomorrow.
(Resignation by Thanksgiving, of course, but out of sheer misery, not anger.)
In both conversations, we were facing a presumption of normality: This is how people behave, in America at least, and behavior outside that norm was either unimaginable or highly doubtful.
That’s the power of Confidence in the System.
It’s a power we’ve long been deeply inclined to dismiss or disparage, a power that lends itself so easily to Harold Hill scheming his way through River City, fleecing the trusting good folk. It’s why The Kids tell their friends to Get Woke, to open their eyes to what’s really going down, and ignore specious claims that everything is awesome.
Trump’s actual crimes aside, what has been a major point of public fretting from the moment he launched his campaign? Trump’s violation of democratic norms, America’s Unwritten Constitution of expectations and behaviors, evolved over more than two centuries as a self-governing republic.
The System, for all its flaws — please, not everybody at once — and one brief interlude, has worked. It long ago earned our confidence, so much so that we’ve been able to take it for granted for generations-long stretches. The resistance to the very possibility that the edifice may collapse is itself what keeps it standing.
We still think some healthy skepticism is in order, especially now, about the State of Our Union. And we still think some people are just adorable in their faith that Things Will Work Out. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in our years as a native citizen in this land, faith is a pretty powerful motivator.