by Gallagher & Schleicher
Well, the moment many have anticipated since then-candidate Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016 is upon us: a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Under an official impeachment inquiry gaining popular support with each day’s bizarre presidential tweet and foreign policy blunder, the White House has declared “war” on congressional authority, the Constitution and by extension we the people. Refusing to comply with subpoenas for documents and witnesses, creating geopolitical emergencies abroad and literally raising the prospect of civil insurrection has taken us to a very dangerous level of uncertainty.
We the people should have seen this coming (and in fact, many of us did). Prone to vulgar locker room talk; ever solicitous of foreign support, influence and interference; and utterly contemptuous of the constitutional principles that bind us all, the president has backed the nation into a proverbial existential corner.
It’s tempting to view this drama as a tale of hubris and downfall, of absolute power corrupting absolutely or the unbearable Faustian consequences of dealing with the devil. But this would be misleading in at least two ways: He isn’t done yet, so his story arc is unresolved and, more importantly, he’s not the main character of this story.
That would be us, fellow Americans.
There’s a storytelling adage that all great narratives tend to follow: Crisis creates change. And friends, we’re in a crisis. The president is not going to mend his ways or alter his course; his demise, whether legal, political or medical, has already been written.
The real story, and the greater question, is not whether we will find ourselves transformed as a citizenry, but how, and into what? Granted, the impeachment drama has a number of scenes yet to play, and it’s entirely possible the president may survive them all, though the conventional wisdom of an inevitable acquittal in the Senate is beginning to crumble, even with televised hearings yet to begin.
Whether at the hands of Congress or the voter, he has played his part — he has wrought the crisis before us — and we must now confront the fates that await us collectively. There are at least three possibilities.
One is complete collapse. Historians will debate whether the Trump movement was a catalyst for the divisions now riving the nation, or the result of long-simmering resentments, or a bit of both. But it’s possible the gaps that now separate us have grown too wide to bridge, and we’ll never regain a sense of national unity and shared purpose, if that was ever realistic in the first place.
One need only look at the very real prospect of an un-United Kingdom and divided Great Britain to see the stories that bind us are far more fragile and temporary than any of us (other than perhaps Vladimir Putin) could have imagined even just five years ago.
Another route would be a return to shared emotional suppression. One reality the past few years have illuminated is just how shallowly buried our national skeletons are. Divisive issues of race, religion and sexuality were pushed just beneath our collective consciousness, erupting periodically but never comprehensively acknowledged or addressed, perhaps part of a shared coping strategy to maintain an illusion of cohesion.
Some may hope for a silent agreement to look at the past few months and years as something like an embarrassing night out with too much to drink, even as the stresses and anxieties that provoked the bender in the first place go on unabated. It is more likely that those on the left and right who found these troubling times empowering will be reluctant to surrender their megaphones.
A third option — one we prefer — is redemption. We’re not suggesting there’s a Hollywood ending ahead. Those who have whole-heartedly supported the president aren’t likely to say they were mistaken, any more than those who have opposed him are likely to refrain from smug self-satisfaction . Temptation to say, “I told you so,” will be near irresistible for whomever wins the Impeachment War of 2019 and the 2020 election.
We have entered the chase-scene of our national drama. It’s likely to be drawn out, full of implausible explosions, gravity-defying lurches to the left and right and with heaps of smoldering wreckage left in the wake. And when the smoke clears and focus tightens, we’ll find ourselves standing, bloodied and soiled, surveying not just what has happened but what we have become.
Is it too early to begin planning for a time of healing? Can we achieve “with malice toward none; with charity for all” in a way we miserably failed to in a previous time when our nation found itself in an uncivil clash of citizen versus citizen?
One way or another, we’ll all be changed. It’s our hope it’s for the better.
David Gallagher is a transplanted Texan, living and working in London and tweeting at @TBoneGallagher. David Schleicher is an attorney splitting his time between Waco and D.C. This piece originally appeared in the Sunday, October 13, 2019 Waco Tribune-Herald, where the Davids are on the Board of Contributors.