American democracy is threatened by the political trajectory first set by Senator McConnell during the Obama years when he blocked legislation, most judicial confirmations, and outrageously refused to consider Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court. He removed the Senate from its tradition as a deliberative legislative body, and made it into a sledge hammer of opposition. It’s a threat accelerated by the Trump administration, which, in spite of emotional appeals to working class folk, shows little concern for, or knowledge of, conditions favoring economic and social well being for them.
Until recently McConnell’s mastery of political skills has enabled him to avoid too much public scrutiny. He’s been hard to pin down, even in the harsh glare of social media and cable news. Trump, on the other hand, is a showman, a practiced con man, whose schtick is constructed out of wildly exaggerated claims and promises about whatever enters his mind, backed by insulting contempt for anyone crossing him. He’s impossible to avoid. His morning tweets make headlines in spite of their inanity. His carnival sideshow rallies and impromptu “chopper talks” display the wandering mind of an ignorant man who, nevertheless, is laser focussed on what will feed his ego and sell well to his followers. It’s a bizarre combination of traits.
While McConnell has enriched himself, becoming a multimillionaire on the coattails of his wife’s family – bearing the odor of congressional insider trading – he’s been able to maintain a patina of good breeding and decent standing amongst the D.C. social elite. Trump, on the other hand, makes no pretense of good breeding. Having been rejected by the society of New York’s wealthy elite, he makes do with the adoration of his base, the unreliable loyalty of aides and associates, and his well honed ability to publicly humiliate anyone who displeases him.
Together, they’ve made themselves demigods of right wing libertarianism: the low tax, small government ideology that’s replaced authentic conservatism without most conservatives recognizing what happened.
What dismays me are the reasonably well informed acquaintances who would never tolerate a Trump like coworker whose integrity, trustworthiness and abilities were as corrupt as his, yet remain his solid supporters. They’re convinced that, apart from his boorish behavior, he’s done great things for the country. They dream of a libertarian dominated America as the best of all possible worlds: a paradise of limited government, low taxes, strong military, and self sufficient people living peacefully on their own plot of land. It’s a compelling Jeffersonian dream. They tend to hold the social values of mid 20th century middle class white America as sacred. They believe they’re the values into which others, regardless of race or ethnicity, should aspire to live, and they’re genuinely appalled that anyone would think that racist. They’ve been indoctrinated by talk radio and Fox News to believe anything labeled liberal or progressive is thinly disguised far left socialism intent on invading private lives, ending American capitalism, and appropriating private property. To give them academic credibility, they have a small collection of right wing think tanks, schools like Hillsdale College, and writers like Dennis Prager. Fearful it might all be taken away, they tolerate Trump as their last best defense.
The view that American democracy is vulnerable and under attack by the president and senate majority leader is in stark contrast to the view that American values are under attack by liberals and progressives. Each side views centrists as doormats lying between the two poles. Still, for the most part they are poles that could be in conversation with one another, leading to acceptable agreements that could work well enough. And well enough may be as much as we can hope for.
What happens when political leaders can’t be satisfied with well enough? McConnell can’t, but he’s hemmed in by senate traditions, the Constitution, public scrutiny, and maybe even lingering loyalty to the principles of representative democracy. He won’t compromise, but he’s limited in what he can accomplish. Trump believes he’s not hemmed in by anything, neither tradition, the Constitution, nor public scrutiny. He thinks he can do anything he wants, and has said so. He has little understanding of the principles of representative democracy, and so little loyalty to them. To the extent he can be hemmed in, it’s by his own incompetency, and the public scrutiny of impeachment that he hadn’t expected.
Hemming in is not enough. They need to go. Both of them. As soon as possible. Government needs to be returned to the leadership of persons able to engage in conversation with those whose ideas are dramatically different from their own, persons who can negotiate workable agreements with each other. Tea party and Freedom Caucus legislators need to be replaced with representatives who desire to serve the needs and interests of their states and districts in the context of what works best for the nation.
Conservative voices are needed to check liberal excess. Liberal voices are needed to open doors to new ways toward better lives for more people. Centrist voices are needed as a reality check on both.