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 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 a 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.
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.
George Bush, unlike Clinton, did not face retribution from the Democratic-controlled Senate. They passed his tax cuts, compromised on a series of domestic initiatives, and rallied behind him after 9/11, giving him the authorisation 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.
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. She was subjected to hours of interrogation by Congressmen. The contempt Congress demonstrated in charging her 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 behaviour was so outrageous that pundits declared him to be “unpresidential” and unelectable. The beast spawned by the GOP in the 1990s had come of age and was now devouring them.
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 energised 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, Trump has demonstrated contempt for Congress and the rule of law, leading some Democrats to call for his impeachment. At times, it appeared that Trump was even goading Democrats into taking steps to impeach him. 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.
Trump’s behaviour has mimicked that of authoritarian leaders. He has demonstrated that he will strike back with fury at opponents. 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 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 a crisis.