On the Brink of a Constitutional Crisis, the Nation Goes Numb
In Washington these days, a simple question once regarded as a mere pleasantry has become quite loaded: “How are you?”
“Well, you know …” comes the answer, and it falls off right there, sometimes with a weary roll of the eyes or a downward glance.
Yeah, I know. I know how it is to want to scream or cry as the republic slips away and you’re still trying to do your work, trying to stop some small part of it from happening while the nation seems oblivious to the consequences. I know.
We have sunk so low that we must defend a racist, sexist, homophobic, lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attorney general from the president’s attempt to push him from power—apparently so that the president may find a new attorney general better situated to shut down an investigation by a special counsel into whether he colluded with a foreign adversary to rig the last presidential election.
Because if that were to happen—if that special counsel investigation should be shut down—the rule of law itself unravels.
At the same time, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are trying frantically to deliver a legislative victory to the president—one that, by the accounting of the Congressional Budget Office, would increase by 32 million the number of the nation’s people without health insurance of any kind. That’s in addition to the 27 million who currently go without coverage. That’s right: a total of 59 million. All without any input from the opposition party, which has been blocked from participating in the bill-writing process.
Then there’s the increasing distemper of the president himself, revving up his base with attacks on the veracity of the media, as well as on the integrity of immigrants, the value of cooperating with other nations, and decency itself.
On Tuesday evening, at a campaign-style rally in Youngstown, Ohio, President Donald Trump treated his audience to a bit of snuff porn involving high-school age girls and some bad hombres.
After painting all the people currently under deportation orders as drug-importing gang members, the president described their purported crimes. “So they'll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15—and others—and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before any die,” Trump said. “And these are the animals that we've been protecting for so long.”
A more perfect encapsulation of the proclivities of the president’s poisonous psyche could not be imagined by even the likes of Quentin Tarantino. It’s all there, the racism, the dehumanization of immigrants, and a sexualized violence involving bleeding women—or, in this case, girls.
The day before, the nation was treated to a Hitler Youth–style rally at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia. (No, that is not an overstatement, though one could argue it was more in the style of Putin’s Russia’s Young Army movement.) “We love Trump!” the Boy Scouts and their guests chanted, as the president again railed against the press, called his predecessor a liar, presented the United States as a nation that never exported energy until he became president (this is not true), and trotted out three of his cabinet secretaries, all former scouts, one of whom he threatened to fire. The man under the gun was Tom Price, secretary of health and human services, whom Trump has charged with finding the votes in the Senate to rob 37 million people of their health care. (This is not typically the job of a cabinet secretary; it is the job of the Senate majority leader to find the votes for a piece of legislation.)
At the Boy Scout rally, Trump also introduced Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, an Eagle Scout who showed up in full attire, including his Smokey the Bear hat. The president presented Zinke as the man who would preserve federal lands, when in truth, Zinke is tinkering with the boundaries of lands protected as national monuments, the better for the mining and gas and timber whose interests he truly represents. Energy Secretary Rick Perry was on hand, as well, doing what he does best—standing behind the president, looking stupid. In this administration, that makes him a paragon of transparency. (What ya see…)
Other news of the week included a behind-closed-doors appearance of Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign manager, before a Senate committee investigating the campaign’s likely ties to friends and emissaries and agents of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who presides over a country in which inconvenient journalists aren’t simply ridiculed; they turn up dead. The president’s son-in-law and White House adviser also appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as the intelligence committee of the House of Representatives, and later appeared on the White House lawn, standing at a podium bearing the White House logo, to declare, “I did not collude with Russia.” And it’s only Wednesday.
THE WORST PART of all of this is how terribly normal it has all become. None of the three must-read publications in Washington—The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico—even reported the president’s slasher-movie remarks about “beautiful” 15-year-old girls from Tuesday’s speech in Youngstown, focusing rather on the fact that the speech was in the style of Trump’s campaign. Yet, even during the campaign, such a claim as Trump’s slice-and-dice quip would have been deemed shocking.
There is a psychopath in the White House whose foremost aim is self-protection and aggrandizement, followed closely by the looting of the national commons, and his administration is being assessed through the norms of political coverage. This will not do. A president who breaks nearly every norm of political and social intercourse cannot be adequately covered by adherence to norms that were developed in response to those old, shopworn protocols of political democracy.
That president continues his likely ill-gotten presidency with the support of such “heroes” as Arizona Senator John McCain, who tsk-tsk’d his party on Tuesday on the Senate floor for crafting its cruel health-care repeal bill behind closed doors, and then proceeded to vote for the chance to debate it. (The bill went down to defeat on Tuesday night, but we are promised another version of it to be voted on soon.) McCain’s speech, coming just days after his brain-cancer diagnosis, was lauded by many as a welcome corrective, when in truth, it was just a showy cover for the greed and authoritarianism of the current administration. (CNN’s Stephen Collinson called McCain’s stem-winder “a moving political aria for the chamber and the country that he loves.”)
It is as if the country has gone numb in the face of the rising hostility, the violent rhetoric, and the capture and breaking of the very institutions of the republic. I say this not meant to step on the accomplishments of resistance groups who effectively stalled the health-care repeal legislation by targeting town hall meetings in the home states and districts of members of Congress. Nor is it meant to disparage the endless efforts of immigrant rights groups, Black Lives Matter, women’s rights groups, gay rights activists, and labor organizers. People are working, and working hard to stop the very worst things from happening.
But it is not enough. The nation must be shaken awake.
Among the public, the president has abysmal poll numbers, a fact that seems to have little impact on his actions or standing among Republicans.
We appear to be on the brink of a major constitutional crisis, given the president’s rhetorical assault on the normal procedures of the Department of Justice, and we’re becoming onlookers to the disaster.
So, how are you?
Never mind … I know.