In December 1972, as he neared completion of his monumental trilogy on the American Civil War, author Shelby Foote wrote to his friend and fellow novelist Walker Percy about the nature of power.
Poised to write about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the Civil War’s end, Foote observed: “Power doesn’t so much corrupt; that’s too simple. It fragments, closes options, mesmerizes.”
More than a mere caution, Foote’s words serve today as an instruction for our current political crisis and the impulse toward authoritarian absolutism that silences dissent and paralyzes the frayed remnants of the grand old party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
When U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney — both of whom have impeccable conservative credentials — is ostracized for supporting a congressional inquiry into what happened Jan. 6, we know something is awry. Cheney and fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois faced down their critics and stood up for the police when hearings opened last Tuesday, further incurring the wrath of caucus leaders like Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise.
‘Politics ain’t beanbag’
Rather than bring an end to “American carnage,” as he promised in his 2017 inaugural address, former President Donald Trump and his allies have wittingly unleashed chaos in a self-serving barrage of lies, misrepresentations and outright assaults on American democracy.
The American project is battered and our political institutions — indeed, our public life — are fragmented. A skeptic would ask, “Are we witnessing the slumbering tide of decay and the degradation of democratic impulses?”
“Sure, politics ain’t beanbag,” Irish American ward bosses used to say, referring to the lies, deceits and shenanigans of partisan electioneering back in the day. As we are reminded, politics is a full-contact sport, but what we are experiencing today is of a different order.
Any sense of shared humanity and mutual welfare has been plundered, and the crippling effect on state and national governance bespeaks the fragmentation Foote warned against.
I once had a corporate boss who counseled, “Don’t take anything for granted.” This was sound advice in customer relations and in the relationships that comprise our personal and public life. Have we gotten to the point where we take notions of liberty, justice and freedom for granted? Why are so many people resigned to malaise and myopia, and expect so little of elected officials, while excusing the most egregious insults to integrity and decency?
Just weeks after the 2017 presidential inauguration, Trump strategist Steve Bannon appeared at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference and offered an analysis of the new administration’s agenda and guiding principles.
Bannon celebrated the “third pillar” of Trumpian governance, what he called the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Channeling his boss, Bannon made no secret of a desire not only to deregulate, but collapse, the architecture of the modern democratic enterprise. This was the Trumpian promise, and Bannon invited his approving audience to join the cause, if they had not yet done so.
These developments may seem but distant memories, but they foreshadowed events to come in the public sphere. In retrospect, too many people across the ideological spectrum did not take such sentiments seriously, and we now live with the consequences. It seems that in Washington, D.C., and in many state capitols — as well as in county offices — incessant bickering thwarts the ability of elected officials to enact substantive policies that address the everyday problems facing large numbers of Pennsylvanians and other Americans.
In very concrete ways, the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, which created anarchy while attempting to obstruct the Electoral College ballot count — to stop the “steal” — was the logical result of an ideology of anti-government deconstruction. In its extremism the mob went far beyond the notion made popular by Reagan that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The insurrectionists saw government as the enemy of the people.
And now, the continued assertions of election fraud, and the rancor over the U.S. House select committee investigating Jan. 6, serve only to fuel the flames of acrimony and animosity. “Dismantle” and “divert” are the operative verbs in a well-financed campaign to deny the reality of what occurred that January day and the rally the night before. But at what cost?
‘To hell and back’
In her opening statement at last Tuesday’s hearing, Congresswoman Cheney said bluntly, “No member of Congress should now attempt to defend the indefensible, obstruct this investigation or whitewash what happened that day.” The effort by some Republicans to treat the Jan. 6 investigation as “just another partisan fight,” Congressman Kinzinger concluded in emotional terms, is “toxic and it’s a disservice.”
But it was the four law enforcement officers themselves who offered the most unsettling testimony of the carnage and disorder instigated by pro-Trump forces that day.
“The physical violence we experienced was horrific and devastating,” Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell tearfully recounted.
“I feel like I went to hell and back to protect (my fellow citizens) and the people in this room,” D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Michael Fanone said. “But too many are now telling me that hell doesn’t exist — or that hell actually wasn’t that bad. The indifference shown to my colleagues is disgraceful.”
In more measured terms, Capitol Police Sgt. Harry Dunn and D.C. Officer Daniel Hodges echoed the same sentiments, and their fear of being killed by the mob. Dunn recounted in painful detail the racial epithets hurled at him. Previously unreleased video illustrated the willful violence to prevent the democratic process from moving forward. Hodges, who was seen in a viral video being crushed between doors as he was viciously attacked, made clear that it was “terrorists” and not “tourists” who invaded the citadel of American democracy on Jan. 6.
Is there any doubt our civic discourse and public institutions are fragmented, and our ability to find common ground on matters of consequence that affect public welfare has been broken and desperately needs healing?
Rising health disparities, crumbling infrastructure, enduring social disharmony, the neglect of the most vulnerable and the constant drumbeat of baseless election fraud claims are outward manifestations of an internal fragmentation in core beliefs in liberty, equality and freedom. Improvements in personal investment portfolios, it turns out, are incomplete measures of effective government and individual and collective success.
The common good
In his 1934 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Thomas Wolfe wrote: “The enemy is single selfishness and compulsive greed.”
The Trumpian effort to deconstruct the administrative state has made many individuals wealthy, while contributing to deepening poverty and social insecurity for others. Fealty has its rewards. This is the nature of authoritarian absolutism and its insistence on unquestioning loyalty as the first condition of business in the business of governance.
Insults, recrimination and abandonment are the price one pays for resisting the tide of demagoguery. Look at Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger’s ordeal in recent months.
“Fear’s a powerful thing,” Bruce Springsteen wrote, and it is fear driven by self-interest that ensures the triumph of a conspiracy of silence by those who should know better.
Thomas Wolfe wondered, and I do, too, if America has come to an end and a beginning. Are we facing the end of the American empire, knowing full well that empires collapse due to internal as well as external forces? This is a troubling question, indeed, but one worth our attention.
Recalling Shelby Foote’s warning about power, the only option is the establishment of common ground based on shared principles, reasoned judgment and a willingness to listen to those who hold contrary opinions. I also think moderation and a sense of decency and decorum must carry the day in public policy debates, and elected officials have to be held accountable for their misconduct.
We as citizens must reject authoritarian absolutism in favor of a common good that respects the rights and dignity of all citizens. This requires leadership and resolve, and it requires a new yardstick for what constitutes effective and humane government.
It requires political will, but that is just the start.
Dennis B. Downey, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University. His most recent publication is “Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights” (Penn State Press 2020).