There was a time that when abroad I never conceived of being ashamed of America. It wasn’t that the country was ever free of racial discrimination and other grave errors. It was that efforts were afoot to heal at least some of our civic sins. Political parties skirmished over their differences and politics could get dicey. Largely, however, we believed that “politics stop at the water’s edge” and that in the end, it was the country’s benefit that mattered, not politicians’ or their party’s. Please forgive my emotional worship of the past here, but it is true that we respected the flag and sang the anthem at baseball games (we actually knew the lyrics). This all seems unsophisticated now—enough for me to be self-conscious about these words—but it was our reality then.
Wednesday this week we were treated to a group of out-of-control Republican Representatives storming against House rules into an otherwise secure meeting, each a Donald Trump mini-me out to demonstrate his or her allegiance. Their fidelity was not to the country, not to the flag, not even to a semblance of Congressional order, decades in the making. (White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham was quoted saying that Trump was pleased with the Republicans’ “bold stand.”) Theirs was loyalty to a pompous, emerging tin pot dictator who’d not only disgraced the presidency in three short years, but had demanded that they descend to his level of ignorance and treachery. In fact, this president—separated only by a technicality from being under criminal indictment—we have vacuously called “leader of the free world.”
Appearing more juvenile than Members of Congress are normally expected to be, they brought no new facts to disprove Trump’s serious misbehaviors. They came only with distraction and the silly claim that the hearing should be public, an invalid point that may have seemed sensible to citizens who don’t follow these political shows. Republicans already had a fair proportion of members in the hearing, but their share of questions to witnesses was as if they constituted 50%. This was preparation, it must be remembered, for a possible impeachment (like an indictment) of the president, not a decision as to his guilt.
It is true that in the Clinton impeachment, a “special counsel” method was used to prepare the indictment, which is why a similarly closed-door process is being used now, parallel to the special counsel’s privacy. All testimony will be open to the public at the impeachment if there is one. Besides, Republicans, who became masters of interminable find-the-dirt investigations, kept their Benghazi hearings closed throughout, leaving them able to cite the investigation qua investigation—as if it had unveiled misbehavior simply by existing. Interestingly, the Republicans’ outlandish, quasi-mob interruption of the Wednesday meeting brought to mind a Trump-like flailing, disregard for both facts and decorum.
And so goes the deterioration of America’s democracy, an advanced form of government in world history, to be sure, yet one that requires constant tending. Our many decades of pride in the American experiment has been comforting, productive, and of benefit to the world as well as to us. But it cannot be preserved by political theater, weakened rule of law, manufactured “facts,” substitution of demonstrations for the hard work of government, or—worst of all—following a despotic leader to please the least knowledgeable among us.
Whether the federal government of the United States is becoming more amateurish or more attracted to despotism is hard to say, but neither enhances democracy. What is clear is that these matters and the substance of every day’s news are not politics as usual from which we safely bounce back after another election. They are an alarming threat to our Founders’ dream, America’s global leadership, and a peaceful world. The threat is embodied in Donald Trump and increasingly those devotees willing to protect him against what decreasingly remains of a stable, powerful, humane, and trustworthy America.