American Government is Rotting from the Head
About a subjugated plain,
Among it’s desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.
Had Auden written August 1968 today, maybe he could have afforded a little levity and titled it “Covfefe”.
Trump’s typo doesn’t mean anything itself. But it captivated the world because it reveals a few things about the president. It reveals that he is extremely careless. It reveals contempt for his audience. Most importantly, it reveals how he understands the function of his public speech.
Responsible public figures are deliberate in their statements and their persuasion. They consider their words before they say them because they understand that the words they say will influence behavior and events.
This president doesn’t feel that way. For him, public utterances serve a more personal purpose. They are therapy. They are (literally) temper tantrums. They soothe his anger and give him outlet for his grievance. It is almost too easy to imagine the president, deeply alone and unable to sleep, hammering out an incoherent tweet and feeling momentarily gratified but no less furious (no wonder his caretakers tried to keep his phone from him during James Comey’s testimony). But the midnight typo is merely a symbol. His other outbursts, perhaps spelled correctly but similarly thoughtless, are much more dangerous.
Trump does not speak in a way that most people would consider clear. He doesn’t make logical arguments or even use complete sentences. But he is the president and he has millions of supporters, some of them very powerful. His words — however poorly chosen or impulsively uttered — have consequences. He commands loyalty, and that loyalty means that his enablers see it as their duty to defend him and his outbursts. What he blurts out in the depths of his despair becomes a guide for the behavior of others and the policy of the United States government.
It is by now settled fact that there has been a large spike in discrimination and harassment since the election. That is tragic and unforgivable. More destructive is the damage that the president’s outbursts are having on America’s institutions. This effect is corrosive, with long lasting damage being done slowly and below the surface. With every unfounded allegation and conspiracy theory, with every off-the-cuff attack or juvenile boast, the infrastructure of our republic gets weaker. Like our physical bridges and tunnels, our political institutions are in critical condition.
Probably the most alarming recent example was Trump’s speech at NATO headquarters. His impulsive decision not to defend NATO’s collective defense clause threw 70 years of diplomacy and the most successful military alliance in history into chaos and was a complete surprise to the foreign policy and military professionals in the administration.
There are many others:
· When the president repeatedly shrieks “FAKE NEWS!” and calls professional journalists “the enemy of the American people,” the result is that confidence in the press to report the truth collapses.
· When he claims that Obama had his “wires tapped” while offering no evidence at all, the result is that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes feels obligated to violate all propriety and drags what should be an impartial investigation by an independent branch of government into hopeless and likely permanent disrepute.
· When he insists that the only way he could have lost the popular vote was rampant “fraud,” it throws the legality of elections in the United States into question, giving ammunition to autocrats and forcing his allies to attempt to deprive millions of the right to vote.
· When he undermines reports from The Congressional Budget Office and the Bureau of Labor Statistics as “fiction,” he weakens the confidence of investors and policy makers in America’s economy.
These are serious problems. All of these institutions — our commitments to democratic allies, a free and unbiased press, the independent legislative branch, fair and open elections and reliable data on the economy — are necessary for American prosperity and freedom. Their deterioration will not be easily reversed because credibility is hard won and easily lost.
Unlike Auden’s Ogre, Trump doesn’t destroy in spite of his drivel. He destroys with his drivel.
This is not a partisan issue. Conservatives do not have to abandon their principles in order to protect what is fundamental to the American system of government. There is hope to the extent that the damage stems from Trump’s personal unfitness for the office he holds. If that is the case, principled conservatives should join the effort to remove Trump from office and drain the swamp of Bannon and his coterie of Leninist destroyers. Encouragingly, the debate has started in some conservative circles.
Once freed from the specter of creeping authoritarianism, Americans can then fight elections over the future of healthcare, the environment and immigration. But time is short. There will be nothing to fight for if the foundations of our government lie in ruins.