The Not-So-Great Man Theory

'GREAT:' Regarding the most frequently cited exemplar of the Great Man Theory, I propose a toast: 'Confusion to Boney!'

‘GREAT:’ Regarding the most frequently cited exemplar of the Great Man Theory, I propose a toast: ‘Confusion to Boney!’

The Washington Post has this item today, headlined “How James Comey and Loretta Lynch made Donald Trump the president of the United States.” Seems a bit of an overstatement, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The beginning is provocative:

This morning Sari Horwitz has what may be the most comprehensive account yet of what happened behind the scenes as FBI Director James Comey decided to essentially hand the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. It’s an extraordinary story, one that provides an important lesson that goes beyond this one election: Political events with sweeping consequences are determined by individual human beings and the decisions they make. That may not sound surprising, but it’s a profound truth that we often forget when we look for explanations in broad conditions and trends (which are still important) or theories about dark and complicated conspiracies that don’t exist….

So basically, Paul Waldman — who wrote this opinion piece — is coming down fairly firmly on the side of the Great Man Theory, as opposed to explaining events in sweeping cultural or social terms.

Or in this case, since the man in question is Comey and a lot of us are really ticked at him, the Not-So-Great Man Theory…

NOT-SO-GREAT: James Comey

NOT-SO-GREAT: James Comey


27 thoughts on “The Not-So-Great Man Theory

  1. Lynn Teague

    As a professional anthropologist, I’ll come down on the side of both/and. It is hard to light a fire without flammable materials in the broader culture. However, even with those materials someone needs to throw a match to create a fire. Comey had every reason to know that he was throwing a match where he shouldn’t. All existing policy argued strongly against it. He went ahead and made a decision that was craven and self-serving, although from reports of his character one suspects he always will see it through a sanctimonious and self-righteous lens. That said, after the initial questionable conversation with Bill Clinton, Lynch should have recused herself from anything having to do with the Clintons and appointed an impeccably trustworthy surrogate. One doesn’t have to admit wrongdoing to recuse oneself, stating a concern for insuring public confidence is enough.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Two points:

      I agree with your both/and. If Napoleon came along today, what would he be? Some bureaucrat at the E.U. in Brussels? At the same time, great leadership qualities are needed to address tough problems in the overall culture.

      There is a hunger in our country today for someone who could knit together our politics so that we could get things done on the national level. And when I say “Get things done,” I’m not necessarily thinking of big things. A government that could act like grownups long enough to, say, pass a budget would be a good start.

      But maybe the people with the power to Rise Above and inspire — an FDR, a Lincoln, a Washington — need truly dire circumstances to step forward. Our problems today are irritating, stupid ones — a political culture that is more about maintaining itself (making proposals just to get the other side to vote against them so you can use that to raise funds and pay all your consultants’ phony-baloney salaries) than about getting things done.

      Maybe it takes the birthing of a new nation against fearsome odds, or saving a nation that has split to the point that we’re fighting the bloodiest war in our history — against ourselves. Or the biggest depression in our history, combined with the immediate global threat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan — powers ready to kill millions in order to impose their domination upon the world.

      Maybe our stupid problems, combined with economic ennui that has everybody feeling a sort of ennui, a general attitude of “this is not the way my life was supposed to be,” just isn’t nearly enough to produce a hero…

      My second point:

      My assumption is that Loretta Lynch felt like, after the Bill-on-the-tarmac thing, she had NO standing to tell Comey not to send the letter. If she had, imagine that would have played if it had gotten out — which it probably would have…

    2. bud

      Very well said. Its unknowable what would have happened without Comey but the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests Comey cost Hillary the 80k votes to lose 3 key states.

      1. Mark Stewart

        Bill easily cost Hillary at least twice that count with his tarmac conversation, Bud.

        The only candidate who stood a chance of losing to the freak show that is Trump was Hillary.

        We had the perfect storm of self-disqualifying candidates. Our suffering is not at an end, not by a long shot. For a democracy, this state of ennui is in fact a crisis state. It would be helpful if more people were mindful of this; Trump is not a benign buffoon.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    “Political events with sweeping consequences are determined by individual human beings and the decisions they make.”

    No kidding? Maybe someone should have talked to Hillary about setting up a private server to run State Department business, deleting e-mails under subpoena, and then lying her ass off about it.

    But hey, that’s none of my business.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That was the given situation. That situation existed regardless of what Comey or the AG did.

      The subject here is, given those circumstances, what should Mr. Comey and Ms. Lynch have done?

      It would have been lovely if they could have acted to cancel Hillary Clinton’s nomination and found someone else to run, someone else who could be the alternative to Trump — or better yet, negate the Republican nomination and put a sane person who actually knows something in his place.

      But they couldn’t. And I don’t think I’d approve of a situation in which they COULD. They had to deal with a situation in which they lived in a country that was going to be led by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, complicated by the fact that their own actions could actually determine the outcome of the election. Whatever action they took could do that, as could inaction.

      And I’m not talking about some kind of Butterfly Effect, in the sense of whether I had driven to work on Election Day in my car or my truck might start ripples in the complex web of human interactions that MIGHT have an effect. I mean they were faced with trying to change the position of Damocles’ sword by using a razor blade to shift the hair by which it hung — they GOING TO HAVE AN EFFECT, period.

      Given that that’s what they faced, what should they have done?

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Eh, I don’t think Comey’s press conference changed much at all. As you said, it was all a known situation. He simply set forth the facts that we all already knew, called Hillary out on her false statements, then he essentially said, “Eh, no one would prosecute this.”

        I think this is all very poor strategy for the Democrats and the Democratic party. Rather than have a talk about serious issues about why they are only a bi-coastal party, they’re going to blame Comey, the Russians, racism, and aliens for why Hillary lost.

        When I lose a trial or a motion hearing, I always go back and try to figure out what I would have done differently. Without fail, I learn something that helps me for the next hearing. I don’t just say “Oh, the Judge just had a bias”. I try to learn.

        Democrats are failing to learn.

        1. Mark Stewart

          And so are the Republicans. NC has put itself back in play for the next election, for the next several elections.

          The one wrap against FDR was his autocratic paternalism – the “I know best” sanctimony. Lincoln expertly avoided that as he wove together a fabric of a nation revitalized (well, in the North).

          Something has gone seriously off the rails in today’s Republican Party – as it has in the Democrats as well. We may be at the crisis that will give birth to new political alignments.

        2. bud

          I disagree Bryan. I think the Democrats have been extremely reflective on what they could have done better. More visits to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Articulating a better economic plan for out of work blue collar voters. Doing a better job attracting Bernie voters would top my list. Appealing to Henry Kissinger and other neocons was a mind numbing mistake.

          But any discussion of what Clinton did wrong has to start with the simple fact that she handily won the popular vote. It’s reasonable to assume that had she campaigned to appeal to the blue collar workers in the rust belt she could have lost voters in places like Oregon or New Hampshire or Colorado. Then we’d be having a discussion of how she wasted so much time in a state like Wisconsin that she was going to win handily while ignoring New Mexico. In other words she did a lot right given the unprecedented hostile media environment and pent up demand for “change”. (It’s really hard to imagine a candidate who has been so thoroughly vetted and with really nothing seriously negative to show for all the vetting to have such serious negative approval). Bryan you continue to harp on the email non-scandal but at the end of the day Comey acknowledged there was nothing indictable. Given that simple fact the email issue should not have been nearly as important as the Russian’s assisting Trump’s campaign. Yet it was perceived as MORE important. Say what you will but the issues Clinton had no control over played an out-sized roll in this campaign.

          One other thing, it’s not at all clear that Bernie would have won. The hostile media environment would have gone crazy over his socialist views. Remember Hillary won huge margins among African Americans. Would they have turned out to vote in places like Philadelphia and Detroit? I doubt it. And then we’d be wringing our hands about why we ever nominated a “socialist”.

          1. bud

            The flip side of this is what was it that Donald Trump did right? I sure don’t see it. He has got to be the most scandal laden individual ever to become president. Why voters were able to dismiss all of that is the bigger mystery of the campaign.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              What he did right was run as a populist, and be an unfiltered channel for a lot of anger that his constituency feels toward elites.

              In a very different way, Bernie Sanders did the same on the left. But the ground was much more fertile on the right, even as awful a candidate as Trump was.

              It’s a very contradictory situation. Here we have what Bernie would call a “billionayuh” — or so he tells us — who’s been privileged all this life, but he has none of the visible characteristics of an elite. He’s crude, ignorant, and completely lacking in the social graces. He has none of the smoothness you expect in someone in his position. Were this a couple of hundred years ago, I could simply say “He’s not a gentleman,” and everyone would understand. And I suppose I can still say that, because the term is not yet devoid of meaning.

              One of the oddest things about him in this regard is that he lacks the self-confidence that should come with his position. He is EXTREMELY sensitive to insults; none of them roll off his back. He is a roiling cauldron of resentments, and that further endeared him to his base…

              1. bud

                Brad I’ve probably read that same analysis spun a hundred different ways and just call me thick headed but it just doesn’t make sense. The man is a serial groper who cheated working class people and professionals alike. Trump university alone should have shown he’s no champion of the common man. His numerous bankruptcies should have raised alarm bells about his actual business acumen. Yet over and over again I read about his populist appeal with blue collar white workers. Plus he didn’t pay federal income taxes for at least 18 years. Why would that endear him to any $50k working guy struggling to pay his mortgage and taxes too?

                Perhaps his presidency will demonstrate that I’m wrong and our economy will grow at 5%/yr, manufacturing and mining jobs will proliferate and healthcare will become the most affordable and effective system in the world. But the overwhelming amount of evidence suggests he is nothing but a charlatan who will say anything to gain a little attention. And it all seemed so transparent.

                1. Bryan Caskey

                  “Perhaps his presidency will demonstrate that I’m wrong and our economy will grow at 5%/yr…”

                  Annual growth in real GDP hasn’t been five percent in ages. Barack Obama has served since January 2009 and will be in office until next month. During Obama’s time in office so far, annual growth in real GDP peaked at 2.6% in 2015. Peaked at 2.6%. Heck, even during Clinton’s time in office (’93-’01), annual growth in real GDP peaked at 4.7 percent in 1999.

                  The last President who had annual growth in real GDP over five percent was Reagan.

        3. Brad Warthen Post author

          Bryan, I think it’s completely legitimate to look at these incidents that could have swung a few thousand votes. Because a few thousand votes in the right places, and we’d have had a different election result.

          Hillary, as flawed a candidate as she was, was always in the game, as long as a few breaks went her way. They didn’t.

          Furthermore, you might persuade me to go along with dismissing Comey and Loretta Lynch and Bill on the tarmac. So let’s forget all that. Nothing to be done about it anyway.

          But the Russians are a serious matter. The Russians have to be dealt with. And we’ve got an incoming president who doesn’t want to deal with them, one whose delicate little ego is EXTREMELY offended at the suggestion that the Russians helped him in any way, one who is determined to ignore any and all evidence that the Russians are jerking this nation around.

          And who ADMIRES Putin. Putin is who he wants to be if he grows up.

          That’s not a situation we can ignore. We can all spend the next four years talking about what an awful candidate Hillary Clinton was, and that won’t do anything to solve the problem we have with the Russians.

          The Democrats and their party? I give THIS (dismissive Italian hand gesture) to the Democrats. The best thing they and the Republicans can do is dry up and blow away. It’s the country that I care about — the country that could have hobbled on a bit without things getting TOO much worse had Hillary won, but which is in really deep manure since she didn’t….

          1. Bryan Caskey

            “But the Russians are a serious matter. The Russians have to be dealt with.”

            Agreed. For far too long the US has failed to intelligently adapt to the changing geo-political landscape like the Russians have. Over the last years, the US (and the West at large) has let the Russians aggressively push out in Ukraine, Crimea, and in Syria. The Russians have been engaging in cyber warfare/espionage for years without any substantial US push back.

            It’s going to take a motivated, determined, level-headed POTUS with serious counselors to deal with the Russian bear.

  3. bud

    POTUS elected not to reveal all that was known about the Russian hacking. He did not want to appear partisan. Comey violated every established protocol over a non issue. I’m going to miss the classy approach and restraint of Obama. Too bad Comey couldn’t have shown the same common sense.

  4. Phillip

    It is too convenient to blame the election of Trump on one person or one particular action. The truth is that this only mattered because the election was so close at that point. The fact that the election was even that close at that point, given everything we knew about Donald Trump, is a pretty grim indictment of our society.

    In the end, Trump was elected President because of the millions who voted for him. History will ultimately say that they and they alone bear the moral responsibility for whatever may befall us as a result of his Presidency after he takes office January 20.

    1. Claus

      “History will ultimately say that they and they alone bear the moral responsibility for whatever may befall us as a result of his Presidency after he takes office January 20.”

      Couldn’t this be said after every election?

  5. Dave

    The counterfactual put forth by the Clinton campaign and many others seems to be that we never would have heard of the newly discovered emails had Comey not put out the first letter on October 28th. But almost certainly that information would have been leaked by the rogue FBI agents in New York. So think how that would have played out. It would have leaked that new emails had been found. On Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Because he had been sexting with a 15-year-old. And Comey knew this and covered it up despite having told Congress that he would inform them of any new information. I just think that would have been an even bigger story than Comey’s first letter. Because now an FBI “coverup” also would have been part of a salacious tabloid story.

    I’m not defending Comey’s behavior. Just to say that we still would have heard about the emails before the election and arguably in a more incendiary way that did even more damage to Hillary’s campaign.

    It’s also worth noting that the polling error in this election was very similar to the polling error in the 2014 elections and in the 2015 Kentucky gubernatorial election. An unmeasured Republican vote that no one saw coming but that showed up on election day. For example, Mark Warner nearly lost his seat in VA in 2014, winning by 0.8 percentage points, despite leading in the final Real Clear Politics (RCP) average by 9.7 points. Orman, the Independent candidate in KS, led by 0.8 points in the RCP average and Pat Roberts won by 10.8 points. McConnell led Lundergan Grimes by 7.2 in RCP and won by 15.5. Ernst led Braley by 2.3 in RCP and won by 8.5. In 2015 in KY, Conway, the Democrat, led by 3.0 in RCP and Bevin, the Republican, won by 8.7. Comey didn’t send a letter in the waning days of any of those campaigns, yet the late shifts were similar to the late Trump shift.

    It seems plausible, at least, that there is an unmeasured white working class vote that’s not being reflected in polls but is showing up on election day. Given the 2014 and 2015 experiences, it seems that the Clinton campaign should have been particularly attuned to this possibility and made sure it locked down WI, MI, and PA. They were going for the 340th electoral college vote when they didn’t have the 270th one sewed up.

    More generally, the Comey letter/email story seems to me like a Bartman occurrence. Members of the 2003 Cubs (Dusty Baker, Moises Alou) blamed Bartman for costing them a trip to the World Series. The 2016 Theo Epstein Cubs would never do that. Maximize what you have control over and you don’t have to worry about the things you don’t have control over. Hillary arguably didn’t do that. She never campaigned in WI, the first major party candidate to skip the state in the general election since 1972. Despite the past two non-Obama Democratic nominees struggling to win the state, Gore having won the state by only 5000 votes in 2000 and Kerry winning by only a bit over 10000 in 2004. That’s insane.

    She never crafted an economic message that spoke to working-class rust belt voters. She never even ran ads on such a message. She didn’t campaign in rural PA like Trump did. She didn’t campaign in Michigan much at all.

    Bottom line is that there’s a bunch of things that Hillary could have done and that she controlled that would have made the Comey letter and the emails immaterial. She didn’t do those things. But in classic Clinton fashion, it’s always somebody else’s fault. And I say that as a Democrat. Do we honestly think Obama would be pointing the figure now at everyone but himself? No. But that’s the Clinton way, sorry to say.

    1. bud

      Hindsight is 20/20. Everyone seems to agree Hillary should have spent more time in MI, WI and western PA. But time is a finite commodity. What does she give up to campaign in those states? Does she give up valuable debate prep or rest? After all she did have a pneumonia scare. Anyone who watched the debates saw a confident, fit and knowledgeable candidate who frankly destroyed Trump about as completely as any presidential debate performance in history. Trump, on the other hand, was this snorting, thin-skinned, clueless, stalking, sulking individual who looked like he was ready to pass out by the end of the debates, especially the first one. If Hillary had spent 100 hours campaigning in Wisconsin and Michigan at the expense of debate prep she may have looked tired and just as lacking in basic governing skills as did Trump. Then we’d all be sitting here discussing how she should have spent more time prepping for the debates.

      I’m a bit of a fence sitter on this whole “going after the white, blue collar voters” thing. Perhaps she could have run more ads on economic matters and less on the temperament issue. After all the current state of the economy is really much better than it was 8 years ago. Why not point that out and suggest Trump would take us back to the dark days of 2008? But again I think it’s worth noting that Hillary appealed to 65+ million voters second only to Obama’s wins.

      As for the polls, they were pretty accurate at the national level. Some of the state polls, Nevada for instance, actually had a Trump bias. Still there was a bit of a miss in the rust belt. (But not as much as some folks claim) Perhaps it’s as much an oversampling of people of color as it is under sampling white working class folks. Most likely a combination of both.

      1. Dave

        Yep. One option Hillary might have considered would have been to do her debate prep in the swing states. Obama did this in 2008, camping out, for example, in Ohio to prep for one of his debates with McCain. And that helped him get on local TV. It sounds like Hillary’s advisers were pleading with her to do the same and she instead wanted to stay close to Chappaqua.

        I do think Democrats desperately need to focus on white working-class voters in the Midwest, for two reasons. First, you don’t want them to get to the point where they’re like white working-class voters in the South, who are now habitual Republican voters. But second, the Democrats find themselves in a bit of a demographic time gap. Arizona and Georgia will be swing states and then lean Democratic states by 2024 (*if* Democrats can be seen as the party that delivers for Latino/a voters). But they can’t win the electoral college until then unless they can get Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania back into their column. It might well be that Iowa and Ohio are now gone for them. But the other three are still within grasp, obviously. And I also think parties need to focus more on macro messaging and being the party of broad swaths of the electorate instead of micro-targeting, as has become the norm in recent years.


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