On Political Fear and Loathing

“When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks … one’s speech disclose[s] the bent of one’s mind.” Sirach 27:4-6

I didn’t watch Michael Cohen’s full testimony on Wednesday before the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee, but did see Reps. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows and other Committee Republicans harangue and stage grandstanding attacks upon Mr. Cohen’s credibility. Although these are far from unique reactions, it did strike me real time (1) that the Republicans were abandoning their constitutional duty to ascertain the facts and (2) that they knew – they knew – that Mr. Cohen was substantially telling the truth. The only motive that I could conjure up for their behavior at the time was that they were trying to provide any remaining naïve Trump supporters with a rationalization for keeping the wool pulled down over their eyes. Mine was a fatuous thought. The lack of any meaningful political fallout for President Trump in the days since the hearing shows that Mr. Trump’s most diehard supporters already recognized and accepted the flawed nature of his character, something the Congressional Republicans almost certainly understood. It took me a little while to realize that they were motivated by baser emotions: fear and loathing.

I would suggest that Republicans’ abject defense of the President has little to do with substantive policy considerations, since if Mr. Trump left the presidency, he would be replaced by Vice President Mike Pence, who has been an obsequious supporter of the president’s agenda and would probably exert a stronger hand in confronting Russian aggression. (I’m confident that even the President’s most avid supporters recognize that Vladimir Putin is a bad guy.) Their unwillingness to seek truth seems manifestly driven by fear of retribution from Mr. Trump’s core supporters … combined with an aberrant desire not to let the Democrats win, even if they’re right – as they are – in demonstrating Mr. Trump a scoundrel unworthy of the presidency.

In the summer of 2018, a friend sent me an email string which had been forwarded to him entitled, “This is why you can’t vote democratic.” It was – there is no kinder description for it – an unhinged rant primarily focused on former Sec. Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey, primarily addressing Uranium One and Benghazi. Although no one would consider Ms. Clinton a saint and it is undisputed even by Mr. Comey that he made serious missteps prior to the 2016 Presidential election, this email completely ignored the fact that Republicans used their congressional investigatory powers ad nauseam on Uranium One and Benghazi without uncovering evidence of wrongdoing, and that Mr. Trump himself initially privately acknowledged that Mr. Comey’s public missteps regarding the FBI’s investigation of Ms. Clinton’s lost emails were probably the deciding factor in the election. This note demonstrated no indication of any desire to understand or accept facts; it was purely a manifestation of hatred of Democrats. Although the Committee Republicans were perhaps a bit smoother during the Cohen hearing, the emotions they feel are clearly the same. We are a long way from Republican TN Sen. Howard Baker’s effort to discover the truth in the Watergate scandal: “What did [Republican President Richard Nixon] know, and when did he know it?”

Democrats love grabbing the moral high ground – with Mr. Trump in the White House, admittedly easy ground to command – but recent accounts make them appear no better. Since January, a House of Representatives procedural maneuver known as the “Motion to Recommit” has, due to the aid of the votes of some moderate Democrats, allowed the Republicans to make small dents in certain progressive initiatives, thereby stirring the anger of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and young progressives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has reportedly “suggested” to these moderate Democrats that should their behavior continue, she will alert her chain of progressive activists of their failure to stand with the Democratic majority on these votes. I would submit that by this posturing, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is seeking to sow political fear among the moderates – and by doing so, is no better for it than Mr. Trump. As for unrestrained vilification of the opposition, over the weekend, former Vice President Joe Biden was lambasted by the left after suggesting that Mr. Pence is a “decent guy”; Progressives have loudly rejected any notion that Mr. Pence can be “decent” due to his staunch Evangelical stance against LBGT rights. Think what you will of the fawning way he has conducted the Vice Presidency or his position on gender rights or other issues, Mr. Pence apparently is a decent man on a personal level, motivated by what he sees as moral principles; South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to seek the presidency, has called Mr. Pence “a super-nice guy,” although Mr. Buttigieg obviously vehemently disagrees with Mr. Pence on virtually all issues. There is as great a need on the left to disparage all aspects of all political opponents – to see only malevolence in the other side — as there is on the right.

Not only should Republicans be aware that there will be life after Mr. Trump; Democrats should be as well. Those of us that see neither party as the font of all virtue or the source of all depravity are concerned that neither side recognizes that formulating constructive policy requires trust of and well-intended engagement with the other.

2 thoughts on “On Political Fear and Loathing

  1. A couple thoughts:
    1). As a firm middle of the roader, I watched the Freedom Caucus send the Republicans spinning out of the atmosphere. Their requirements for conservative orthodoxy were abhorrent. So, now, with the Democrats. The New Green Deal, while I appreciate the ideas, is nothing more than a far left list of college coffeehouse dreams. (Please don’t insult me by telling me the world is doomed if we don’t stop air travel, stop having children, and rebuild every building in the country to make it self sustaining, and we need to do so in 12 years.). To purge the Democratic Party of any reasonable thought will doom the country to more Trump, more division and hatred (and I mean hatred) is a plague on all our houses.
    2). As to hatred, I read a “Dear Abby” letter in today’s paper. A person helped his/her elderly neighbor with shoveling, carrying groceries, etc. The letter writer saw a political post from this elderly woman with which he/she did not agree. The writer wanted to stop helping the elderly woman because of this political post. Unfortunately, I hear it frequently that a person is not a good person or not worthy of help or even sitting down to dinner with because they have different political views. Well, maybe that’s justified in some cases. Mostly, I’m not so sure. I’m pretty sure my Trump loving neighbor loves his children, too.

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  2. On Political Fear and Loathing

    Jim,

    Ahh partisan extremism! There is sooo very much with which to agree in your post.

    Yet I will not resist offering a bit of hairsplitting — and, though somewhat ironic, partisan — disagreement.

    I will also ramble on to my personal favorite topic — tying your very legitimate and perceptive criticism of recent partisanship to what I have viewed for years as the single greatest obstacle to progress by our political institutions — partisan gerrymandering.

    Here goes.

    You observe that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez “is seeking to sow political fear among the moderates [of her party, the Dems] … And by doing so, is no better for us than Mr. Trump.” You cite excellent examples of “unrestrained vilification” and quarrels in shallow, extreme partisanship, such as: Can’t a Dem “cross the aisle” even to say VP Pence is a “nice guy”?

    Two points.

    First, I believe many of mr. trump’s partisan actions and statements bear a much greater malevolence and ultimate damage than any effect that this assertive freshman congresswoman’s most partisan assertions will have on any of her colleagues in the House or, more broadly, on the institution of which she is one of 434. With that out of the way, and much more importantly…

    Second, I wholeheartedly agree with what I see as your point. The unrestrained vilification of leaders (especially by those in positions of power) — though trump can be rightly be said to have earned it — and extreme partisanship for partisanship’s sake are very damaging to the health of our democracy.

    As a result of such partisanship we have a splintering of each of the political parties in Congress and as a result, paralysis in the legislative function. No longer do we see much legislative compromise through bi-partisan efforts. There is no legislative progress on our greatest problems.

    You might say Ocasio-Cortez is exacerbating the growing splinter. Trump has certainly worsened the splintering of the Republican caucuses in Congress, even as trump enjoys an unprecedented favorable percentage nationwide — if only among those polled who will still admit to a Republican affiliation.

    In my view, simple as it is, such splintering in the Congressional caucases is bad. Legislative paralysis is bad. (As an aside, I am intrigued by the candidacy, largely invisible, of former Congressman John Delaney of Maryland. His education and other background is solid enough for me, his theme bipartisan legislative solutions. Yeah! Isn’t he as qualified to be President as the very partisan Ex-Congressman O’Rourke? We have had enough of celebrity presidential candidates!)

    Finally, in about two weeks, SCOTUS will hear arguments in two cases on partisan gerrymandering (from the states of NC and MD). This is fascinating to me, for the reason that there is so little Constitutional jurisprudence as guidance, as well as the mostly obvious and high-stakes political implications for the future of our democracy.

    Mostly obvious… consider what WILL inevitably happen if the Court were to decide, as some scholars predict, that a state legislature’s gerrymandering for partisan political purposes is NOT a constitutional problem for the courts to hear. In that event, I am sure we will see, as one U of Chicago law professor opines, many states resorting to computer algorithms to create extreme and durable one-sided maps to largely lock in their control of state legislatures and Congressional seats in their states. Red states’ legislatures and congressional delegations will be permanently red and blue will be blue.

    Caveat to the foregoing: We may see more nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions. Personally, I’d like to see commissions that not only effect bipartisan mapping but control the political impulse to shelter incumbents. Computer algorithms can be a useful and positive thing.

    I’m watching the SCOTUS cases with a bit of optimism that the Court will reject both the NC and MD maps, at least because of the admittedly partisan political motives and the extreme and unfair effects on the electoral outcomes.

    Just my opinion but I think many agree — a system that rewards partisanship in the extreme is not consonant with progress or a healthy democracy.

    Dan

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