A Week of Reckoning

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Where is he taking us? Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

We have become, at this point, inured to having an irrational president in an increasingly post-rational America. We’ve also come to tell ourselves that somehow (a) this isn’t really happening, (b) by some miracle, it will be over soon, or (c) at some point the Republican Party will have to acknowledge what they are abetting, and cut their losses. And yet with each particular breach of decency, stability, and constitutionality, no breaking point seems to have arrived, even as the tribalism has deepened, the president’s madness has metastasized, and the norms of liberal democracy are hanging on by a thread.

But surely this week must mark some kind of moment in this vertiginous descent, some point at which the manifest unfitness of this president to continue in office becomes impossible to deny.

Compare it with any other week in modern political history. Day after day, the president has publicly savaged his own attorney general for doing the only thing possible with an investigation into a political campaign he was a key part of: recusing himself. And the point of the president’s fulminations was that the recusal prevented Sessions from obstructing that very investigation. The president, in other words, has been openly attacking his own attorney general for not subverting the rule of law.

He is also complaining that Sessions is not investigating his former opponent, Hillary Clinton, even though an extensive FBI investigation has already taken place and no charges were deemed sufficient for prosecution and even though the president himself said, after the election, that he would oppose such an investigation. What special kind of madness is this?

Then we were subjected to the spectacle of the president going to the Boy Scout jamboree, of all places, and delivering a series of partisan jabs, campaign-rally catcalls, and completely inappropriate personal ramblings to a crowd of thousands of boys. The speech was, in some ways, a metaphor for everything Trump is and has done. He took a regular, civil, apolitical American gathering of mainly children and turned it into diatribe of deranged and nakedly partisan narcissism. He is actively despoiling our civic culture.

And then, in what can only be analogized to a royal proclamation, Trump tweeted out a sudden change in military policy. Asked to back defunding the specific medical care for transgender service members, he declared instead — via social media — that all transgender troops are now barred from serving “in any capacity.” He did not inform the Defense secretary in advance; and he did not issue a directive through the proper channels. He revealed in a flash a sociopathic indifference to the lives of thousands of patriots currently serving their country and contempt for the regular rules and procedures of the military he supposedly commands.

The impulsive move was so outside the norms of presidential behavior that it brought Senators Orrin Hatch and Richard Shelby to the defense of transgender troops, and prompted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to announce that no such policy change had happened, and no such change would ever happen by presidential tweet. The maneuver was also so politically crude and off-key that even social conservatives became worried it might backfire on them.

Thereupon, like comic relief in a Shakespearean tragedy, the president’s new director of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, arrived in Washington. He called up a reporter, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, and threatened to fire the entire White House staff if Lizza didn’t reveal the identity of a source. He also declared on the record that the president’s chief-of staff is a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and that one of the president’s chief advisers, Steve Bannon, came to Washington to “suck his own cock.” The man, we are told, has the president’s full backing. The chief of staff, one assumes, turned up for work today.

And at the same time, as if to beggar belief, we just witnessed in the Senate a travesty of anything that might be called parliamentary democracy. In the early hours last night, a week of secrecy, confusion and lies — almost a parody of how not to pass a law — eventually culminated in an ignominious defeat for a “skinny” repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. It was a bill that would have openly sabotaged an existing law on which millions of Americans rely, with no effective or coherent alternative. This “horrible” piece of legislation — in Senator Lindsey Graham’s words — was almost designed to force the ACA into a death spiral, and was being passed like a kidney stone through our constitutional system. The point of pushing the legislative and health-care system to this level of dysfunction and danger? A “win” for a president who is utterly indifferent to the actual content of such a “win.”

After the last few days, someone in the GOP leadership somewhere is surely going to have to take responsibility for running this country since we have a president who cannot.

And I wonder if historians will one day look back and see Senator John McCain’s speech last Tuesday as some kind of turning point. Diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer, McCain nonetheless returned to give one of the best-scripted speeches of his career. Excoriating the chaotic process by which repeal of the ACA was being forced through the Senate, McCain reminded his fellows that they are the president’s equals in the government of this country and not his subordinates. He appealed for a bipartisan fix for a national problem, and for a return to regular order. He spoke for a mere 15 minutes, but they remain worth watching several days later. He seemed for a few moments like an actual voice of authority in a capital where all such authority has withered into mere positioning or cowardice. And in the early hours of Friday morning, McCain appropriately provided the critical vote to kill the skinny repeal of the ACA. It was, in some ways, his finest hour.

He is also not entirely alone any more. The Congress as a whole has effectively torpedoed any intention the president might have of lifting sanctions against Russia, by passing a bill by massive margins to prevent it. And on the related matter of the investigation into Russian interference in the last election, Senator Chuck Grassley made it clear this week that, if the president were to fire Sessions, his Judiciary Committee would not hold any hearings on a successor. That’s a checkmate for Trump for the time being, because it would leave the Justice Department under the control of Rod Rosenstein, who hired Robert Mueller in the first place. Put all these developments together and you have an inkling of how the Constitution can still protect us from the worst of this presidency — if the Senate wants to play the role it is designed to play.

Will it? If it’s the only hope we have right now of rescuing this republic from this presidency, I’ll take it. But it’s also very little, and the situation remains dire. McCain — the one guardrail that stood strong — is visibly mortal. And there is, in Trump, one senses, an even more unhinged quality now than before, a sign that he is cracking under the strain and degenerating before our eyes, but still capable of violating anything in his path. That path, moreover, will and must veer unpredictably from one deranged direction to another, with the president exhibiting absolutely no concern for the institutional, cultural, and civic damage he is doing. And he commands all the power — militarily and constitutionally — of every president before him.

This remains, in other words, an emergency. It is a gargantuan task to ensure our system of government survives it.

It’s revealing, it seems to me, that Richard Dawkins is the latest target of the authoritarian left — and why he is under attack. This week, he was disinvited from a book event hosted by a progressive radio station, KPFA, because of his criticisms of Islam. “While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech,” the radio station explained. “We apologize for not having had broader knowledge of Dawkins’s views [on Islam] much earlier.” This is hilarious. As anyone with a brain and an internet connection knows, Dawkins has made a second career out of vilifying religions of all kinds.

To take one random example, here’s what he has written of Judaism: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Why is he Islamophobic and not also obviously anti-Semitic? Why was one disqualifying and the other not? And I won’t begin to cite his fulminations against Christianity. Perhaps his sin was a recent, not completely relativist pronouncement that “it’s tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not. If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world, it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.”

Notice the qualifier: “at the present.” And with that qualifier, who, on earth, could deny this? Is there a Christian regime currently anywhere even close to ISIS’s caliphate? How many Jewish terrorists are setting off bombs at pop concerts full of young girls? History is replete with horrors of all religions when abused by fanatics. But today, it is Islam that is clearly out in front. Dawkins is not, moreover, attacking Muslims. In fact, in the same interview, he immediately followed up with this: “It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.” KPFA couldn’t read that far?

I fear that the truth is Islam has become an untouchable shibboleth for some on the left. What they lacerate in other religions, they refuse to mention in Islam. Sexism, homophobia, the death penalty for apostasy … all of this is to be rationalized if the alternative is Islamophobia. Why, one wonders? Is it because Muslims are a small minority? But the same could be said for Jews. My best guess is simply that, for the far left, anything that is predominantly “of color” is preferable to anything, like Judaism and Christianity, that can usually be described as “white.” That’s how “intersectionality” can be used to defend what would otherwise be indefensible. The preoccupation with race on the far left is now so deep, in other words, it’s becoming simply an inversion of that on the far right.

I’m off next week, so see you the Friday after next.

A Week of Reckoning