Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Politics of National Destruction

So it has come to this.

What a long, sordid, destructive, unraveling we have seen these past two decades, as one of our two major political parties has descended into a death spiral of dysfunction, and dragged our system of governance down with it.

Far from being a surprise, an accidental and tragic mistake, Donald Trump is the inevitable outcome, the crowning capstone, the terminal end stage of a political party that has continually devolved: one that has been unable all these years to find its way back to some semblance of governing partnership that we once took for granted.

Although they are happy to rule, Republicansdriven by mindless ideology in ways that Democrats simply aren'tare not able to govern. The result is a destructive nihilism that rips apart the national fabric.

It is no accident that a party that has elevated and embodied ignorance has chosen as its presidential nominee the most ignorant and unqualified candidate in modern history. Many words ("dangerous", for example, or "repugnant") describe Donald Trump, but if you had to choose just one, one that appears in commentary again and again, it would have to be "unfit". An unfit leader atop a dysfunctional party.

If we were to trace the historical arc backward, we might say the dysfunction began with the bomb-throwing Newt Gingrich, who deliberately adopted the strategy of scorched-earth politics as a way out of the minority-party wilderness in which the GOP had perennially found itself.

By 1998 we'd already had two government shutdowns, a long-running political witch-hunt directed at the president and, finally, an impeachment of that president over charges that he perjured himself in sworn testimony about a private consensual sexual relationship. "Clinton derangement syndrome" had taken hold, and partisan polarization was rapidly and rabidly ascendant in ways it had not previously been in American politics. Republicans had developed a particular taste for tearing down Democratic presidents, and for playing dirty. Add to that a penchant for fact-free mythology, and the pathology is complete.

In the new millennium, Republican rule (with some Democratic acquiescence) led us to invade a country that had not attacked us and that did not threaten us. As a war-weary and Bush-weary nation elected a new president in 2008, in the midst of a historic financial and economic collapse, Republicans settled on a united strategy of destructive opposition at all costs. On the day of Obama's inauguration, Republican leaders huddled to plot out that strategy. It should never be forgotten that at the very moment they were doing so, financial markets were in turmoil, and the nation was bleeding 800,000 jobs per month. Nearly 10 million jobs were ultimately destroyed. Yet in a troubled time at the dawn of a new presidency, Republicans intentionally chose obstruction over governing.

As the economy (which had officially been in recession for 14 months prior to Obama's inauguration) sank into depression, Republican opposition became entrenched in ways barely imaginable under the circumstances. The Obama "stimulus" plan (The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) became law less than one month after Obama's inauguration, getting only three Republican votes in the entire Congress! There was simply no desire on the part of Republicans to work with the new president from even the earliest days. It is almost impossible to fathom a political party so recalcitrant in the midst of such national crisis.

Thus was the stage set from the very beginning of the Obama presidency, and the stonewalling and obstruction continued throughout. The administration's health reform law was enacted without a single Republican vote. Mitch McConnell said his top objective was to make Obama a one-term president. McConnell saw to it that nearly every piece of business before the Senate was filibustered, something unprecedented in American history. Bad as all that seemed, political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein came out with a book that explained that, as the book's title said, It's Even Worse Than It Looks. And it was. Mann and Ornstein laid the blame of governmental dysfunction squarely at the feet of the Republican party.

The litany of ways Republicans have impeded the functioning of government is long and depressing. There were irresponsible threats to default on the national debt, for example. Republicans shut down the government in 2013 specifically to block the implementation of the healthcare law even as open enrollment was about to begin. What kind of governing partner shuts down the functioning of government to block a law that has duly passed the legislative process, and also survived a Supreme Court challenge? Hostage-taking is just part of the party's M.O., and you'd better believe it is willing to shoot the hostageeven if the hostage is the country itself.

Likewise, Republicans refused to confirm a director of the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because they disliked how the bureau was structureddespite the fact that that structure was laid out in law.

Just this year Republican obstructionism hit a remarkable new low with the Senate's refusal to hold confirmation hearings for Obama's nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Scalia. Such disturbing refusal is unprecedented in post-Civil War American history, and is a dereliction of the Senate's duty under the constitution.

In the wake of the 2010 healthcare legislation, Republican fury erupted under the banner of the so-called "Tea Party". Among other things, the movement sought to delegitimize the president in ways that make the earlier Republican opposition seem tepid by comparison. The "birther" movement (with Donald Trump becoming its most prominent public figure) sought to cast doubt on Obama's American birth, despite the fact that documentary evidence that he was born in Hawaii had long existed, including his birth certificate placed in the public domain months before the 2008 election. Polls consistently showed that a large fraction of Republicans believed Obama was not American-born, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Republican leaders took no trouble to disabuse the rank-and-file of that belief. Polls also showed many believed Obama was a secret Muslim, against all evidence. In these and so many other ways, Republicans have existed in their own made-up alternate reality that borders on bizarre.

If self-governance requires a reasonably well informed citizenry, then one wonders in dismay how a national polity can survive such pervasive ignorance in one of its two major political parties. The Republican denial of climate change, despite overwhelming scientific consensus, is perhaps the most prominent example of such ignorance, but it is far from the only one.

In almost every aspect of national importance, Republicans weave unhinged mythology into the governing narrative with varying degrees of derangement. For example, Republicans are convinced that voter fraud is rampant, despite complete lack of evidence for it. Whenever it is looked for, in-person voter fraud is shown to be essentially nonexistent in U.S. elections. And yet Republican state politics is fundamentally driven by various kinds of disenfranchisement efforts, with voter fraud being one excuse. (Cynical observers see such disenfranchisement as a Republican response to unfavorable demographic changes in the electorate.) Donald Trump has repeatedly made the claim that his loss would prove that the electoral process is "rigged" against him; his supporters are convinced of the reality of widespread fraud that would deny him the presidency, and some are even advocating a "revolution" should Hillary Clinton be elected. Thus do Republicans and Trump undermine faith in the electoral process, deeply poisoning the well of national civics, and ensuring a pathologically divided citizenry after the election.

For his part, Donald Trump embodies ignorance in ways few presidential nominees ever have. The Republican party, which routinely embraces conspiracy theories and alternate realities, was ready-made for such an ignorant, authoritarian leader.

Trump says the country is descending into anarchy requiring a "law and order" solution, even as national statistics show violent crime remains near historic lows.

Trump says illegal immigration across our southern border is rampant, but net illegal immigration has been flat or declining for years, and more Mexicans are leaving the country than are entering it.

Trump says illegal aliens are a particularly serious source of crime in the U.S., but in fact illegal aliens are far less likely than Americans to commit crime. Which, by the way, is exactly what you would expect of persons who are mostly economic migrants trying to keep a low profile so they can work without being caught.

In all things Trump amplifies the worst tendencies of the Republican party. He is a culmination, not an aberration. He is the bursting boil, hot, festering, putrid. He epitomizes a party that is tearing itself asunder, and that threatens to take the nation down with it. As we have seen, much has already been accomplished in that direction. Republicans aren't Trump's victims: they are his creators. Trump is what you get when you embrace dysfunction.

I have no idea how this will all shake out. Perhaps the fall election will be usefully cathartic, but I have my doubts. The electorate is too polarized. Still, some commentators on the right see hope in a huge Trump loss.

George Will writes that "Trump is the GOP’s chemotherapy, a nauseating but, if carried through to completion, perhaps a curative experience." Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich says a third or more of Republicans are "literally face down in the Kool-Aid," but that "in many ways, I think that the election process itself will take care of this."  He adds that "one of the things we're going to learn here is that you can't be crazy and win a large constituency general election."

The problem is that nobody seems to acknowledge the long and deep rot that has pervaded the Republican party. Excising the Trump crazies will not itself solve the problem. The party itself is infused with ideological derangement. Its adherents occupy a made-up reality with no understanding of how to gauge what is and isn't true.

Stipanovich says that "if we have to wander in the wilderness for a decade until we can get a party that stands for the right things and can make a contribution to the future of America, then we need to wander." But can the country wait?

 Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved