Letter from Washington: It’s okay to be angry
American politics has tested everyone’s sanity in recent years. US public life is littered with screenwriters and actors, magazine editors and pastors, comedians and TV presenters driven mad by the Trump era and, in one direction or the other, radicalised. For hyper-engaged Americans, Trump has come to occupy an unhealthy amount of space in their heads.
To avoid falling prey to this kind of derangement has been to make a choice. And that choice involves tuning out a lot of the hyperbole and moral outrage that dominates both sides of America’s political divide. Whatever side you happened to be on, there was really no way to live a normal, productive, happy life while taking seriously every claim about the other lot’s efforts to dismantle American democracy/destroy America as we know it (delete according to political preference).
As a coping mechanism, tuning out the shoutiest voices and the silliest-sounding claims about the health of the Republic has proven pretty effective. The downside, however, is that it breeds a kind of apathetic relativism. It can inoculate you against outrage when outrage is needed.
As a coping mechanism, tuning out the shoutiest voices has proven pretty effective. The downside, however, is that it breeds an apathetic relativism.
The latest attempt by Trump and a regrettably large chunk of the Republican Party to overturn the election result is one such occasion.
When I read this week’s news that the Attorney General of Texas, with the support of more than half of Republicans in the House of Representatives, had filed a suit with the Supreme Court aimed at overturning the result of the election in four of the states that Trump lost, the part of me committed to staying sane focussed on the obvious fact that this gambit was doomed to fail. (National Review published a good run down of the filing’s many moronic aspects.)
And sure enough, the Supreme Court gave the Texas lawsuit the short shrift it deserved. “Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections,” the court said in a single-page dismissal. Once again, the court’s post-election conduct has exposed the ridiculousness of conspiracy-minded leftwingers’ who claimed that Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment would seal judicial acquiescence to Trump’s attempts to cling on to power. (Another win for the “ignore the crazies” approach.)
It remains true that over the top predictions of post-election chaos have been disproved, that Trump is on the way out, and that Joe Biden will be sworn in as president next month. And yet, simply focussing on those cheering things means diminishing equally self-evident but far more depressing truths about American politics. In this case, the fact that 17 Republican-run states signed on to the harebrained Texas filing and 132 Republican members of Congress signed an amicus brief in its support. They argued it expressed their concern, “shared by untold millions of their constituents, that the unconstitutional irregularities involved in the 2020 presidential election cast doubt upon its outcome and the integrity of the American system of elections”.
The best defence of this behaviour (and here’s that coping mechanism creeping in again) is that these members of Congress knew the Texas lawsuit would fail and so saw this as a cost-free chance to appear loyal to Trump and angry at Democrats.
But that just makes them insincere cowards. And, of course, their actions do come at a cost.
In the short term, they fan the flames at a fraught moment for the country, with election officials receiving death threats and pro- and anti-Trump protesters beating each other up on the streets of DC. But the higher price comes in the long run. It hardly needs saying, but denying the legitimacy of elections is constitutional vandalism of the highest order. On a narrower point, the logic of the Texas lawsuit undermines the federalism that is supposed to inform so much of what people on the American right say they believe. It’s no exaggeration to say that the actions of all of those indulging Trump’s post-election strop are undermining the values and principles that Republicans, and American conservatives more generally, are supposed to cherish above all else. This won’t all go away after January 20. The willingness to contemplate ignoring an election result will be an indelible mark on the record of an elected official. And rightly so.
At this point, some readers more sympathetic to Trump than I am might point out that the Democrats spent years attempting to invalidate and undermine 2016’s legitimate election result. To that, there are two responses. First, the crackpot claims being made about Dominion voting machines and truckloads of votes this time around make the magical thinking of the Russiagate fantasists look sane in comparison. Second, and more importantly, the consistent position is not to criticise the other side for failing to accept election results when it loses and then do exactly the same thing only more shamelessly yourself. The whatabboutery peddled by Republicans in the week’s since the election, doesn’t reinforce their arguments about 2016, it fatally undermines them.
After the Supreme Court brought the Texas circus act to an end, Allen West, the chairman of the state’s GOP, suggested that “perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.” The influential conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh floated the same idea on his programme this week, albeit in a rather backhanded manner. “I know that there’s a sizeable and growing sentiment for people who believe that’s we’re headed to, whether we want to get there or not, secession,” he said. “Now, I didn’t advocate for it. I never would advocate for secession. I’m simply repeating what I have heard.” Heroic stuff!
According to my coping mechanism, I should be ignoring all this madness and focussing on the more normal aspects of American politics: Biden’s underwhelming cabinet picks, for example. Or the important, fiddly details of vaccine distribution. Sometimes, however, anger isn’t just justified, but healthy. Mainstream Republicans signing up to an effort, however doomed, to block the will of the American people and trigger what would be the greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War — all because Trump and his supporters are upset that they lost — is one such scenario.
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