A moral and cultural collapse is fueling the long political crisis Americans are living through. Well-meaning, tolerant, and patriotic people are still in the majority, but the behavior of the January 6th insurrectionists and everyone friendly to them establishes that civil society and federalism are gravely imperiled. The American way of government is based on compromise and negotiation; it is based on civility and comity; and it aspires to realize a humane and virtuous vision of itself. It is founded on a hope of betterment, on a set of ideal principles regarding individual rights and privileges. Throughout time, American leaders have paid lip service to these ideals and sometimes chanced their lives, careers, and reputations to make them real. The nation’s political identity is intrinsically moral and idealistic. This remains true, no matter how far short, in actual performance, it falls.
The underpinnings of republican government are rotting away. Over the past few years, we’ve discovered how many Americans hate the federal government. They resent their fellow citizens. They’ve had it with learning and discussion. They are sick of “bullshit,” meaning the ideas and values of anyone (especially anyone in power) who doesn’t speak or look or act their way. Their favored recourse is intimidation: speak loudly and crudely, ignore decorum. Belittle, smear, and threaten opponents. Gang up on the rule of law, which works best garbed in the regalia of intolerance, preferably while bearing a stick or a gun. Sneer at moderation, at tradition and respectability. Even polite-looking figures such as Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert are actually completely corrupt thugs inside.
These people are looking for their next chance to attack police officers, desecrate the flag, and destroy government norms.
The question is whether good Americans can stem the tide. Can we stop the pendulum from swinging toward violence and extremism, and get it to move back to the other side? Can we neutralize the influence inflammatory figures enjoy? Can we restore contentment and consensus, notably by ministering to legitimate grievances and needs? Can the political establishment refrain from abusing its power, and get back to the retreating goal of figuring out how best to promote widespread prosperity, how to restore dignity and safety to ordinary households and communities? A world of trouble lies ahead if the answer is no.
Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages. Associated with time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze takes in both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.” He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers. From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.
Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be. Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring. No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had. An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.
Underlying it all is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture. In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave. To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is a crucial task that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.
1. I get embarrassed after expressing an opinion about Donald Trump, because I always feel that I don’t know what I am talking about. I am so burned out thinking about Donald Trump that sometimes I find myself having an anxiety attack at bedtime instead of drifting off to sleep, which just isn’t like me.
2. Sometimes I try to argue that Donald Trump can’t be such a terrible, dangerous person, because if he were, as a businessman, he would have already run into many, many problems with the law. Running a large company entails complying with innumerable laws. Workplace-safety laws. Food-safety laws. Laws governing equal employment. Building codes. Tax laws. Donald Trump must be a person of considerable ability and judgment, I reason, because he successfully built up such a big business. And because he likes to build things, I reason that he must be a constructive person by nature, who is not fundamentally interested in blowing up buildings and people in other countries. He must have had to deal with many different kinds of people successfully, at least well enough to get to ‘the handshake.’ Ultimately, keeping a massive corporation going depends on consistency and conformity; paradoxically it also depends on freshness and flexibility. Has Trump been a decent ‘river to his people’? Or has he been every bit as bad as Walmart, but just covered up his company’s misdeeds more adroitly? I reason to myself that if he had had major problems with the law and been a really bad ‘corporate citizen,’ his rivals would have outed him already, and the laundry list of his villainies would have made him a social pariah. (To me, the much-talked-about problems with Trump University just don’t count, for reasons made clear in item 6 below.)
3. I also feel embarrassed listening to Donald Trump because it weirdly resembles being privy to a private conversation. Sometimes, at press conferences or when addressing late-night crowds after a victory, Trump’s tone is oddly personal and conversational, as though nothing in particular were happening, and as though he were shooting the breeze with me over milk and cookies at the kitchen table. He gets a dreamy tone in his voice, talking about his employees, his hotels, his ‘operations,’ or the beautiful people of some state that’s just fallen to him. When he talks about Florida, for example, he relates it to his own history and enterprises, not the other way around. Sometimes it’s as though we are all going to be sucked up into the aura of Donald J Trump’s beautiful empire of luxury, leaving behind the angst and grunge of these second-rate United States. Will the golden touch of Donald Trump brush off on the likes of you and me? This is one fantastic effect of Donald Trump speaking.
4. But I also feel uncomfortable when Donald Trump is being ‘tough,’ when he is being ‘scandalous,’ because I’m never certain whether he’s being scandalous mainly because scandal sells. I know I should conclude that Donald Trump is ‘dangerous’ when friends say he is, but the way Donald Trump says many things, I find it difficult to nail his tone, to conclude that he is authentically mean and hateful. Is Donald Trump a very genial and glitzy version of a Nazi, or is he someone who uses shocking utterances to get people thinking about how the American reluctance to draw bounds around itself might have trade-offs when it comes to internal order and economic well-being? He is nearly alone in declaring loudly and in many registers that globalism has a big downside for the US, a downside that millions of citizens keenly feel. If Donald Trump were anything like Hitler, could the Clintons ever have been induced to attend his wedding? And what, then, to make of his rather noble tribute to Planned Parenthood, a compassionate tribute the likes of which have not been uttered by a leading Republican for decades?
5. What I know is that Donald Trump cares nothing about civility, a traditional standard governing political intercourse and acceptable public-sphere behavior. What does it matter if a person running for president has never held a public office? It means he or she has never had to practice being civil. Civility is the quality that keeps antagonistic parties on speaking terms, and what does effective government depend on more? Trump at a campaign rally, however, speaks as though in the privacy of a corporate sanctum. “Get them out” is a public-sphere translation of the message, “You’re fired!”, but firing a citizen is something not even the Donald can do. To me, the violence and hostility Trump’s speech, and his deliberate decision not to practice civility, indicate why, if elected, he might be a failure at governing.
6. Why do none of our objections matter? Nothing is gonna stick to Trump because he’s a charismatic leader. More than a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber came up with the idea of ‘charismatic authority’ to explain why, seemingly in defiance of reason, some individuals inspire a large and faithful following. Weber noticed that the charismatic rise simply because their followers see exceptional qualities in them. Followers repose trust in such individuals on the basis of personality, not reason. A charismatic leader’s claims to power rest on the possession of “exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment,” which inspire loyalty and obedience. This relationship of trust helps explain why many Trump supporters have not wavered since deciding to back Trump at the beginning of his campaign. Whether his charismatic spell over voters will wane, or whether it can be converted into an effective mode of governance, remains to be seen.
7. Repeat the phrase, ‘Checks and balances,’ whenever the thought of President Trump induces panic. If he’s really awful, Congress will rebel and impeach his ass.
“No new taxes.” The pledge has had a baleful effect on government, reducing Congress’s ability to problem-solve and foreclosing broad-ranging discussion of how best to increase the revenues that an established government needs.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the parties could be persuaded to take other sorts of pledges? Such as:
We pledge to refrain from negative advertising.
We pledge to refrain from casting aspersions on our opponents or their families.
We pledge to foreswear super-PAC money.
We pledge to attend the Senate when it’s in session and to debate openly and in person with members of the other party. . . .