By Thom Senzee
The death and honors of Sen. John McCain pierced the heart of America in the last days of August. The nation came together for a time of reflection. That lasted a precious few days. Then, by the first week of September, the craven cynicism that defines these Trumpian times returned—with a vengeance.
As September comes to a close, the capture of the Supreme Court of the United States appears imminent. It’s a takeover that’s been methodically executed across more than three decades by a vast and loosely affiliated cadre of partisans who in generations past would have been considered far-right extremists, but who today are simply America’s political right.
For women, LGBTQ Americans, minorities and the working poor, the threat to equality, security, health, economic opportunities and basic fairness posed by a solid ultra-conservative majority on the Supreme Court is hard to exaggerate.
The final move to consummate their camp’s decades-long trudge to assume a majority on the Court has, in the last few weeks, seen Senate Republicans working with America’s right-wing communications complex and the White House to force a misshapen nomination into a seat on the highest judicial bench in the land.
Republicans have used the Constitution as kindling for a sham process to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a man with very troubling personal baggage. Charred detritus from the dumpster fire that Senate and White House Republicans ignited during the Kavanaugh hearings include discarded values that once made our nation genuinely exceptional.
Burnt to ashes in the ram-rodding of the wrong nominee for America – albeit the most convenient one for unindicted co-conspirator, Donald Trump and his loyalists – are modesty, integrity, compromise, good faith, compassion and basic honesty.
Paradoxical characteristics of American power have always confounded our enemies. Vulnerabilities in our position of esteem on the world stage have eluded our adversaries, thanks in part to our usually genteel and nuanced approach to international affairs, wrongheaded wars excluded.
America’s relative humility, even if sometimes only tonal, has inspired trust and admiration among our friends and our foreign allies. The more principled we have been in our actions, the more modestly we’ve spoken and the more generously we’ve compromise – both at home and abroad – the richer, more powerful and more culturally influential we have grown.
The reverse is also true as we are now finding out: The more self-centered, smug or stingy we are, the less influential and less respected we become. Donald Trump used to say that other countries were laughing at us. That was a lie. Yet today, even as I write, world leaders at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly quite literally laughed out loud when the president of the United States claimed he had done more in two years than any other US president before him.
At the same time our president and his acolytes loudly boast and bully everyone from longstanding nation-state allies to shivering refugees of war, they make a noise unfamiliar to American ears and they diminish us on the world stage.
At home, the party of Trump is pulling at the very fabric of American values. It is a fabric that’s held us together since the Civil War ended. It’s a governing temperament based on modesty, integrity, compromise, good faith, compassion and honesty.
If that fabric of American values had been a fitting shroud over the body of John McCain, which barely a month ago lay in state beneath the Capitol Rotunda, it’s since been set ablaze by the late senator’s own party, through the Kavanaugh affair.
We are a country whose people stood ready to listen in good faith, without bullying, without false deadlines or attacks on the mental health of a woman – a distinguished professor – who most credibly says a nominee to the highest court in the land once sexually assaulted her. We deserve to know if Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. We deserve an independent investigation. That’s the kind of compromise we’ve always reached between opposing parties in these situations in the past.
I submit that that investigation will eventually come one way or another. Mark these words: With the swearing in of “Justice Brett Kavanaugh” begins a countdown to the new justice’s impeachment.
Impervious from Without, Fragile from Within
The paradox of American exceptionalism is that the values that create it, while nearly impervious to attacks from the outside, are incredibly vulnerable to assaults from within our own society. We rattle loose the moorings and crack the foundations of our exceptional American values when we brag about how exceptional we are.
That’s the paradox that makes us vulnerable to Trumpism. We are only different than previous great powers that have risen and fallen across the eons of human history when we act differently than they did. Exceptional modesty, integrity, compromise, good faith, and compassion have, until now, distinguished America from other military and economic powers, both contemporary and ancient.
Paradoxically, we are exceptionally powerful when we act humbly out of honest strength and with the strength of honesty.
When America shows up bearing principled values, as Donald Trump almost never does, we are impervious to the provokations of our enemies, the negations of our adversaries and the bluffs of our competitors. But when we show up with simpleminded bluster, bullying, and hubris in our hearts—well, that’s when they really are laughing at us.