The debasement of American politics reached a new low over the weekend. And while it was remarked upon as, yes, quite unusual and in some respects perhaps even unprecedented, as a polity we absorbed it as just another bit of slippage on a long national descent into the slough. What was once considered political deviancy has become, with stunning rapidity, the norm.
Here we had the president of the United States publicly gloating at the firing of former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. Tweeted the president, “a great day for Democracy.” McCabe probably needed to be fired based on evidence that he dissembled to internal investigators while answering questions under oath about his own behavior. But he was on the cusp of leaving anyway, and the only significance of his firing was that he lost a chunk of his retirement income.
This is no occasion to gloat, at least not in public. McCabe was assessed a steep financial penalty for transgressing stern FBI standards of behavior. Can our president not accord him a measure of dignity in his humiliating exit? And what about Trump’s own dignity? How does one account for a president diminishing himself before his fellow citizens with such gleeful brutishness for no reason other than self indulgence? There is only one explanation: he doesn’t know any better.
He calls the former FBI director “lying James Comey.” He talks about “the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI.” The problem with all this is that it makes Trump look guilty of something—probably not of any “collusion” with the Russians to distort the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, but of something. Otherwise why would he make himself look so desperate?
The real problem for America, though, is that Trump’s maleficence begets the same in response. Consider this from former CIA director John Brennan, directed at Trump in a tweet: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. …You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America. …America will triumph over you.” Or consider this from McCabe’s lawyer: “We will not be responding to each childish, defamatory, disgusting & false tweet by the President.” As the Wall Street Journal editorialized, such threats and disrespect for the office of the presidency “will persuade many Trump voters that they and others are out to destroy the President no matter the truth.”
In other words, nobody credits anybody else with even a modicum of good faith or integrity in the blood feud that now roils our country. The New York Times quotes a former Reagan administration official and now a think tank scholar, Gary Schmitt, as saying, “We’ve never had anybody so blatantly go after a president before. It’s also unprecedented to have a president so overtly going after various intelligence officials.” Schmitt calls the spectacle “a race to the bottom.”
No doubt Trump is enraged at a turn of events that’s placed him and his family under investigation, based at least in part on a questionable dossier put together at the behest of his political adversaries—the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign—and then manipulated by intelligence officials and the FBI. And there is some justification for his rage. Something’s not right in how this unfolded.
Intelligence and law enforcement officials also seem to be consumed by fury at the thought that a man such as this, with such unsheathed contempt for them, is in the White House. And so the two sides indulge their rage and behave in ways that never would have been tolerated, let alone contemplated, in earlier times. And the race to the bottom continues.
But what happens when we reach the bottom? Will the country ever see its politicians working collectively to resurrect the respectful political discourse of old and nurture it back to health in the interest of human dignity and civic respectfulness?
Not likely. Once the standards and values of any institution are gone, they’re usually gone for good—and the institution is never the same. Besides, the debasement of American political discourse has merely followed in the tracks of the debasement of American society in general. The coarsening of American life has been gaining force with each passing year. The popular culture, the TV shows, the movies, the video games, the cult of the antihero, the debased way we converse with each other, the adolescent and young adult hook-up culture, the often violent stifling of dissenting views on campuses—all reflect the reality that American society has been cheapened and degraded.
And now so have our politics. It’s shocking, of course, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. American politics will always reflect American culture. Though we come to terms with the societal decay, we hope that our politics will remain on a higher plane. That would be nice, but it probably isn’t realistic.
Besides, it isn’t like our current president is any kind of trailblazer. Consider the cheap sexual antics of Bill Clinton and the financial venality and habitual dissembling of his wife. They helped set the country’s political culture on its path to today.
And so we now have two competing narratives of the Trump presidency. One is that the president stole the election in collusion with Russia, and those white hat guys over at the FBI and Robert Mueller’s special counsel operation are doing God’s work in trying to expose the truth. The other is that the Washington “deep state” set in motion a plot designed to first prevent a Trump presidency and then to destroy it. Rachel Maddow versus Sean Hannity.
These two narratives, whatever truth may reside in them, have combined into a nasty brew that is sickening the body politic. For ordinary folk out in America struggling with the degradation of their political culture, events seem to be saying: pick your poison.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in September.