WASHINGTON - The United States is in the middle of a very unfortunate experiment in how disoriented a great nation can become before it loses its moorings entirely.
At times, politics seems fairly conventional with Republicans and Democrats arguing about health care and tax cuts, as they long have done. But former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama reminded us last week that there is nothing normal about this moment. They issued searing, overlapping condemnations of Trumpism without naming President Trump. Former commanders in chief of opposing parties don’t do this sort of thing unless the country faces an emergency.
Our disorientation is reflected further in the way honorable men and women allow themselves to be pushed into defending the indefensible and twisting noble concepts into cheap and ultimately shameful talking points. These are designed to get the president through one more news cycle or around some controversy that he could easily quell if he had any familiarity with the words “I’m sorry.”
In the realm of political commentary, the now daily detonations set off by a man who sees the “common good” as the pursuit of suckers drown out any serious discussion of the problems his voters thought he might try to solve.
True, there is a separate difficulty created by his own party’s failure to move beyond the politics of the 1980s and that era’s popular belief that tax cuts and reductions in government social spending will overcome any challenge, anytime, anywhere. A decrepit ideology crowds out new approaches to new circumstances.
For all the talk about Trump being something other than a Republican, he always falls back on the party’s old ideas because he has none of his own beyond promising to build a big wall, stop NFL players from kneeling during the national anthem, and fix bad trade deals while offering few details.
But we can’t even have predictable if necessary partisan and ideological debates. These are blocked by self-involved spectacle and ruthless attacks against any who raise their voices to criticize the president.
We can try to resist being drawn into this swamp of petty invective, knowing that we are being pulled away from the consequential questions. Yet doing so would mean overlooking the central fact of our political situation: that Trump is systematically sapping our democratic capacities through his routine behavior. As Bush put it, “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. ... Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”
This is why all except the most blind Trump partisans had to be heartsick over the performance of White House chief of staff John Kelly last Thursday. The retired Marine Corps general, who has devoted his life to service and suffered stoically when he lost a son in combat, stepped out as a hatchet man against Rep. Frederica Wilson.
It was Wilson, a Florida Democrat, who revealed that the president had told the mother of the late Sgt. La David T. Johnson that the slain soldier knew “what he signed up for.” Kelly could not back up Trump’s claim that Wilson had “totally fabricated” the president’s conversation. In fact, Kelly seemed indirectly to confirm her account. So he resorted to a vicious rebuke of the African-American congresswoman.
Kelly didn’t even have the decency to use Wilson’s name, and he compared her to noisy “empty barrels.” It was hard to hear him and not think of Bush’s warnings about “dehumanization.” Kelly went on to put a misleading gloss on gracious, bipartisan comments Wilson had made at the dedication of a Florida FBI building.
Thus is our world turned upside down: A genuine patriot is reduced to the role of propagandist for a boss whose idea of “sacrifice,” as Trump once explained on ABC News, was running a business from which he profited.
We are numbed to the squalor that we see daily. It’s common to hear the president called a “disrupter.” But unlike tech world heroes to whom the label is typically applied, he builds nothing, creates nothing and only moves a majority of our fellow citizens toward either rage or a sense of helplessness.
But helplessness is not an option and rage alone will change nothing. By speaking up, Bush and Obama have sent a signal that we cannot sit by and allow our system of self government to disintegrate before our eyes. The burden is especially great on those who hoped that by serving this man, they could serve their country. Alas, John Kelly has shown us that this is simply not possible.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.