I don’t know which metaphor to use to describe the current crisis in our politics because so many come to mind. Are we at a tipping point? The edge of a cliff? Or sitting on a volcano waiting for it to explode? You can choose one or all because we are in a place we’ve never been to before and it’s dangerous.
The problem didn’t start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a “take no prisoners” mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of “the other side.” Trump didn’t create this crisis; he was the result of it.
When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then-President Clinton but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.
They finally settled on Clinton’s lying about an embarrassing sexual dalliance as the grounds for impeachment. What was most notable about this entire sordid affair was the total contempt demonstrated by this new breed of Republicans for Clinton. It wasn’t political. It was personal. They weren’t out to defeat his proposed legislation. They didn’t see him as a legitimate president and sought to destroy him.
Later, during the months’ long standoff that accompanied the 2000 election, culminating in the Supreme Court decision that George Bush should be the winner, my brother John Zogby conducted poll in which he asked Democratic and Republican voters whether or not, should the other side win, would they feel that new president be considered a “legitimate president.” The results were disturbing; despite the fact that Al Gore had won the popular vote and the outcome was still being decided, a significant majority of Republicans said they would not accept Gore as a legitimate president. A majority of Democrats, on the other hand, said that should Bush be declared the winner, they would respect the outcome.
Bush, unlike Clinton, did not face retribution from the Democrats-controlled Senate. They passed his tax cuts, compromised on a series of domestic initiatives, and rallied behind him after 9/11, giving him the authorization to make war and unprecedented powers of intrusive domestic surveillance. It wasn’t Democrats who sunk Bush’s presidency, it was his failed war in Iraq, his disastrous mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 economic collapse.
Within weeks of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Republicans stepped up efforts to obstruct and delegitimize his presidency. The GOP’s minority leadership in the House and Senate boldly declared that their intention was not to work with him but “to bring him down” by funding outside and organizing outside groups, like the Tea Party and the “birther movement.” Never before had leaders in one major party been engaged in such a campaign to question whether the president was even a legal US citizen. And their efforts took a toll. In polling conducted back then, well over 60% of Republicans stated that they believed the Obama was not born in the US – and therefore was not a legitimate president (the same number also said they believed that Obama was secretly a Muslim, therefore lying about being a Christian).
While Obama’s presidency was above reproach in that he was never charged with any wrongdoing. His first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was hounded by Republican Congressional committees who accused her of concealing and deleting her private email account hide it from investigators. She was subjected to hours of interrogated by Congressmen who charged that she failed to protect the US Ambassador to Libya, contributing to his death. While one might say that the email inquiry was a legitimate concern – despite the fact that several of Clinton’s predecessors also had such personal accounts – the contempt Congress demonstrated in charging her with contributing to the death of the Ambassador was clearly an effort to harass, humiliate, and degrade her service.
This lack of respect and civility brought us to the 2016 presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump.
During the primary, Trump demeaned his opponents, railed against the media, insulted the courts, preyed on xenophobic fears, and incited his supporters to use violence against protesters. His behavior was so outrageous that pundits declared him to be “unpresidential” and unelectable. They failed to recognize that the political well had been so poisoned that what they found unacceptable was well received by many Republican voters who were fed a steady diet of incivility and contempt for “the other” over two decades. The beast spawned by the GOP in the 1990s had come of age and was now devouring them.
Those who thought that Trump would act presidential upon entering the Oval Office soon found they were in error. He had honed his skills as an entertainer along the lines of an insulting Don Rickles or a derisive Rodney Dangerfield. It served him well on the campaign trail, and he was, therefore, not inclined to change direction. Instead, he became Trump-the-performer on steroids.
It has been a difficult two and a half years with this president. He delivered the tax cuts, deregulation, and conservative judges the conservative and religious wings craved. And he kept his supporters agitated and entertained. The danger is that, on the fringes of his base, he energized white supremacy movements by inflaming passions of racism and xenophobia. Federal law enforcement now feels that the greatest threat to national security is not from foreign-inspired extremist movements, but domestic extremists.
At the same time, President Trump has demonstrated contempt for Congress and the rule of law, leading some Democrats to call for his impeachment. His firing of officials who were investigating members of his administration, his refusal to cooperate with legitimate requests from Congress into his behavior in office, the lack of transparency surrounding his businesses’ profits made during his time in office, and violations of congressionally approved budget authorizations to fund his pet projects, have all been subjects of concern.
In each instance, he has responded with insults, derision, and contempt, questioning the very legitimacy of those who oppose him – Congress, the FBI, the media, or the courts. And he has used Twitter and rallies to make his case and inflame his base. At times, it appeared that President Trump was even goading Democrats into taking steps to impeach him.
While the base of the Democratic Party was clamoring for impeachment, the leadership hesitated, fearing that it was a trap that Trump wanted them to fall into in order to mobilize his supporters. With the release of a CIA whistleblower’s report claiming that the president sought to suborn Ukraine’s government into investigating the leading Democratic presidential candidate, thereby helping to advance his election prospects, and evidence that he had withheld aid to Ukraine to encourage their support for his request – the tide turned and the Democratic leadership had no choice but to begin impeachment proceedings. All of this has only further inflamed Trump as his intense twitter rants and his shocking performance in the presence of the President of Finland made all too clear.
When earlier this week, Trump tweeted a comment by a right-wing preacher saying that should he be impeached, it would provoke a civil war – it was a prediction/threat I believe should be taken seriously. President Trump’s behavior has mimicked that of authoritarian leaders. He has demonstrated that he will strike back with fury at opponents. And he has so agitated his base, that I believe there is a real concern for violence. I am even concerned that should he lose the election in 2020, neither he nor many of his most fervent followers will accept the outcome.
Back to where I began. I’m don’t know which metaphor is most appropriate to describe the very real crisis facing our democracy, but what I do know is that it is, to be sure, a crisis.