Permit me to confess: I am one of the very last people in the United States who does not consider the word “politician” to be an insult. On the contrary, the work politicians do is important because politics is a good and essential thing in a free society. It’s the degradation of politics in the Trump era we need to worry about, not politics itself.
“The business of politics is the conciliation of differing interests,” Bernard Crick wrote in his still-valuable 1962 book “In Defense of Politics.” Note that word “conciliation.” It’s the alternative to outright warfare. Politics in a democratic republic assumes that we can find ways of living, working and progressing together even when we disagree. That’s why we need politicians who take their vocation seriously.
Politics, at its best, is about creating a decent society, a task that can only be accomplished when citizens find ways of cooperating. One of the best descriptions of what our aspirations should be was offered by the political philosopher Michael Sandel. “When politics goes well,” he wrote, “we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.”
President Donald Trump has always prided himself on being an anti-politician. This is supposed to be one of his greatest assets. But he has thrown our government into chaos and our country into tumult precisely because his disrespect for politics and what it requires leads him to debase our public life. He offers a torrent of lies, willfully tries to tear the country apart – his tweet on Wednesday continuing his verbal war on kneeling NFL players epitomizes his eagerness to polarize – and puts everyone else down because doing so is the only way he knows how to lift himself up.
Trump takes no responsibility for – well, anything. “We’re not getting the job done,” Trump said in a very brief moment of truthfulness on Monday. But he quickly added. “And I’m not going to blame myself, I’ll be honest.” That “I’ll be honest” might have been accompanied by a laugh track. Yes, Trump honestly believes that everyone else is to blame for everything.
Many of Trump’s lies are hideously personal. His false charge that President Barack Obama failed to phone or speak to the families of members of the armed services killed in the line of duty was particularly sordid.
And Trump’s track record with the truth and his monumental insensitivity to others make it hard to believe his tweeted denial that he told a grieving soldier’s widow that her husband knew “what he signed up for.” The credibility of the denial was further undercut when Cowanda Jones-Johnson, the mother of the late Sgt. La David T. Johnson, told The Washington Post that Trump had spoken to the family as had been reported and “did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”
It has become a dreary Washington game to ask at what point Republican politicians (besides Sens. Bob Corker and John McCain and a few others) will stand up for basic decency by telling Trump: Enough. Up to now, most have cravenly absorbed all manner of insults, accepted unspeakable unseemliness, and sat by with wan smiles as Trump left them hanging by shifting his positions moment to moment.
On Tuesday, Trump suggested he would back a bill negotiated by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., to stabilize the Affordable Care Act’s insurance markets. But on Wednesday, the president tweeted that while he was “supportive of Lamar as a person,” he could “never support bailing out ins co’s who have made a fortune w/ O’Care.” Not to worry. Alexander said the president had called him to be “encouraging about the bipartisan agreement.” Trump’s incomprehensible signaling, in Alexander’s view, was an effort “to reserve his options.”
Sorry, but all Republican politicians who take their obligations seriously must stop rationalizing the irrational and say what has long been obvious, that Trump’s way of doing business is unproductive, erratic, mean and scary. Until this happens, Republicans deserve to be seen as enablers of a dangerous presidency.
Alas, you can count on GOP leaders to maintain their complicity until the tax cut that is their lodestar is enacted into law. On this question, Trump and his party are at one in offering misleading claims that their bill is designed primarily to help average Americans when in fact its largest benefits will flow to the very wealthy.
But is a tax cut worth the price of colluding to undermine an honorable profession?
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.