This is a time for elemental thoughts. Following one of the darkest days in the history of the American Republic, when an armed mob set in motion by Donald Trump marched on the capitol, ransacking it, and pressured lawmakers to overturn the 2020 election results (words I never, ever thought I’d write), it is time to make some preliminary sense of this.
One of my favorite movies, Bridge of Spies, has Tom Hanks as the lawyer James Donovan defending individual liberty from an overbearing CIA agent, who calls on him to betray a client in the name of ‘national security.’
Donovan puts it like this, “I’m Irish, you’re German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing; the rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules and that’s what makes us Americans.”
Donovan is right; the rule book is everything. Americans do not all have a shared cultural heritage, shared ethnicity, shared family background as do so many in other countries. What they do possess is the shared adherence to a set of ideas set in motion by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson (my son is named for these last two).
It has been the magic elixir that has given the US remarkable political stability over these past 250 years, as—unlike for so many other great powers (the French have had five republics to America’s one)–the US has weathered storm after storm with the same basic system of government. It has been the keystone to our prosperity, our rise to great power status, indeed to our happiness as a people.
Yesterday, this granite-like edifice of stability came under threat in a way it has never been before.
As I have said many times before in this column over the past year, the greatest emerging global political risk comes from within; the political stability of the most powerful country in the world can no longer be taken for granted. For those of us who are Americans, the political risk is us. It is the challenge of our time to right the ship of state, and do it now.
Here’s how to do this.
First, the seven Republican Senators who objected to the Pennsylvania electoral results should be called out. There can be absolutely no place for such shameful extra-constitutional behavior in the American Republic. Period. They should be thrown out of the party, or at the very least ostracized, then defeated for re-election in Republican primaries.
As Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah put it, they will “forever be seen as complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy.” I have been a Republican most of my life, but I am an American first, to re-claim the phrase stolen by Donald Trump. These men have shown themselves to be enemies of the rulebook. They must go, and my party must work with all its might to expel them.
Second, let me be very, very clear. Donald Trump is a cancer on the presidency, indeed a cancer on the country. Republicans above all must see to it that his political career is at an end.
The days of Trump winking at his mob must be over. He can no longer skip between the raindrops of accountability–one the one hand urging his supporters to march on the capitol and intimidate lawmakers into doing his bidding in overturning a democratic election, telling them in a video he ‘loves them’–and on the other saying he had nothing to do with the mayhem that left four people dead and the Capitol ransacked.
Trump is unique among modern presidents in his dangerous narcissism, in placing himself entirely above the country.
Unlike the Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and the Republican Richard Nixon in 1960—both losers of far closer elections, where there were real questions as to illegalities—Trump has not gracefully accepted defeat, putting the stability of the country first. Rather he has spat on these honorable examples, and been a main internal source of the madness that has ensued.
I am with the House Democrats. If the president twitches the wrong way, doing anything further to imperil the stability of the country, the 25th Amendment must be invoked, putting Mike Pence in charge of the country for these next few fraught weeks. As for his political future, given his near seditious behavior, if the Republican Party is to save its soul and its electoral viability (look at the Georgia Senate results, which hinged on Trump’s preternatural narcissism), it must repudiate a man who cares not a whit for the Constitution that is all that holds America together.
Third, there will of course be huge reputational damage from this.
People around the world cannot unsee the sickening images of thugs ransacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, nihilistically swinging onto the Senate floor, mindlessly trashing almost two hundred and fifty years of the people’s government. This catastrophe should cause the US to be humble, to put its own house in order, to lecture others about their shortcomings a little less, to look at our own a little more.
But it should never, ever make us shy to say that in the words of the best Republican president (contrasting the recent actions of our worst) America remains ‘the last, best hope of earth.’
Fourth, there are heroes in this story, and they should be lauded.
Joe Biden, whose quiet dignity and decency defending the Republic now makes it obvious that America chose wisely in 2020. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom have broken with Trump at the key moment, putting their country first. The army and the police, simply for not being a part of this story. Their loyalty to the Republic has never been in question for a second, which is tremendously to their credit. Mitt Romney and House and Senate Democrats, for seeing the danger Trump poses, rising to the occasion and acting on it in words and deeds. These examples, amidst all the gloom, must sustain us as the way forward.
Fifth, the time of the moderates is at hand.
With the Georgia Senate results just in, the new political configuration of the land demands moderate policy solutions if anything is to get done. A narrowly divided House, a fifty-fifty Senate (where conservative Democrats like the able Joe Manchin of West Virginia hold the balance of power), and a close presidential race should end all utopian talk of populist leftist or rightest fantasies.
Clearly, moderation is what the country voted for. With the coming backlash against Trump, the drift towards centrism becomes even stronger. And that is the very good news to emerge from the darkness of yesterday.
Days of decency, civility, eschewing political violence in all its forms, and working together within the rule book of the Constitution– not to strike poses but to get things done for the American people–must be upon us.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis put it well when he said, “Our Constitution and our Republic will overcome this storm and We the People will come together again in our never-ending effort to form a more perfect union.”
Political polarization is threatening the rule book; now is the time to get off the floor as our forebears did at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, on the Western Front, in the Great Depression, at Normandy and Iwo Jima, and in the Cold War and remember how resilient a people we are. For if the risk is us, so also it now falls to us to save the Republic.