Donald Trump shows us what happens when a healthy skepticism about politics gives way to a debilitating cynicism.
If democratic citizens come to see all politicians as liars, then lying can become the new norm. And those who regard their domestic political opponents as the greatest threat to the nation have little problem welcoming a foreign power's help in defeating them.
A combination of promiscuous dishonesty and an unseemly warmth toward a despotic regime may bring the Trump Experiment to a tipping point far sooner than even his most ardent critics expected.
The Russia scandal could engulf Trump's presidency because those in his orbit who engaged with Moscow stuck with lies and misdirection until their falsehoods were publicly revealed and their positions were no longer tenable. The truth had to be dragged out of them by the media, working in concert with civil servants (aka "leakers") who refuse to sit by while the system they serve is endangered.
No wonder Trump hates those leakers and the press. With so many Republicans in Congress prepared to abandon everything they said about accountability before Jan. 20, 2017, journalists and those who supply them with information, as well as some courageous judges, provide the main lines of defense against executive abuses.
The Washington Post's revelation last week that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about his two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak came after Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, lied about the nature of his own Russian contacts. Flynn stuck to false claims about his conversations with Kislyak until the Post and other media blew them out of the water. Flynn had to resign.
Sessions' convenient memory lapse was especially jarring because it came after an inquiry from Sen. Al Franken, in which the Minnesota Democrat did not even ask Sessions whether he met with Russians.
Franken's query ended this way: "... if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?"
Sessions replied: "Senator Franken, I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn't have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I'm unable to comment on it." Why did Sessions think he had to respond to a question that wasn't even posed?
And during his news conference announcing at least a partial recusal from investigations into the Russia connection, Sessions remembered many things about what Kislyak had said, but used the phrase "I don't recall" five times — twice about the content of a Kislyak meeting in his Senate office, twice about whether he had met with Kislyak before, and once after an exchange about Russian interference in our elections.
Given how unforthcoming the Trump apparatus has been on this whole business, Sessions has little claim to a benefit of the doubt when it comes to his cloudy recollections.
The Sessions moment was followed by new revelations of two previously undisclosed meetings with Kislyak, one involving Flynn and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, the other with former campaign advisers Carter Page and J. D. Gordon. In the wake of Team Trump's earlier proclivity toward blanket denials of links with Russia, they now have a lot of explaining to do.
Beyond the crucial issue of how all this affects our national security, two other alarming lessons emerge from the saga.
First, a crowd that claims to place "America First" does not really believe its own slogan. They place only about half of America first — the part that opposed President Obama and supported Trump. When it comes to the other half, they feel only contempt.
This made it easy for Trump to compare Obama unfavorably to a foreign autocrat. Thus did he declare during the campaign that Vladimir Putin had been "a better leader than Obama because Obama's not a leader." In another interview, Trump ominously praised Putin for having "very strong control over a country." Ask yourself: What do such statements have to do with American patriotism as we have traditionally understood it?
Trump has also assumed that decaying public confidence in our politics means that the truth doesn't matter anymore. A leader just needs enough voters to believe the "alternative facts" his side invents.
If there is good news in how this story is developing, it's this: Alternative facts can only take you so far. That, at least, is what we have to hope.
— E.J. Dionne's email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.