“Civilization is hideously fragile. ... There’s not much between us and the horrors underneath. Just about a coat of varnish.”
— C.P. Snow
The most serious, practical, pressing problem with politics as tribal conflict is the inability to draw moral lines against offensive, unethical and dangerous behavior. If our public life is reduced to the binary choice between one side that we think will save the country and another that will surely destroy it, then leaders from our side are always preferable, no matter what norms they violate or institutions they wreck. If the victory of our cultural team is all that matters, then the methods our leaders employ become secondary to the point of insignificance. And objecting to objectionable methods is seen as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
This is a far cry from the intention of America’s founders and the habits of a healthy republic. Civic health is best measured by the strength and legitimacy of institutions, even when they produce outcomes we don’t like; and by the vigor of norms, even when unenforced by laws and penalties. A healthy republic depends on respect for the rights and dignity of citizens on the losing side of an election; on the ability of legislators to make rational compromises without being accused of ideological treason; and on officials who honor traditional, self-imposed limits on the exercise of their power.
These unwritten rules of the American system have proved to be walls of paper, easily ripped through by Donald Trump. America has found a chief executive who intuitively understands and exploits the weaknesses of our constitutional order. He practices what theologians call antinomianism — the belief that grace absolves people of having to obey all moral rules. In this case, Trump views the grant of power in the 2016 election as the release of all constraints to his will. He has embraced a radical kind of freedom, involving freedom from norms of civility, inclusion and self-restraint. He has systematically tested the limits of his power and found almost no resistance from within his political coalition.
He has fed the belief of his followers that only outcomes matter. Not character. Not institutions. Not moral behavior. Only outcomes — measured in court appointments, economic growth and the defeat of the other tribe.
The presence of this chaotic influence at the center of American politics is now forcing the other players in the system to determine what limits — if any — they will place on their own support.
Members of Congress are facing a president disdainful of the role of the legislature in balancing the power of the executive branch. The White House counsel’s written response to the impeachment inquiry had all the respect and deference of a Rush Limbaugh riff. It signaled a legal strategy that is the culture war conducted by other means. As the administration resists subpoenas and refuses oversight — acting like the Nixon administration with less shame — will any elected Republicans stand up for the institution they belong to?
The constitutional balance of power assumes that all of the branches will actually defend their own rights and honor. If a president’s admitted cooperation with a foreign government to influence a presidential election is not a fair subject for congressional examination, then Congress has become a gilded doormat. If Republicans — in the interests of their political tribe — merely endorse Trump’s approach, they will be the husks and shells of legislators.
Conservative Christian supporters of the president will also be tested. Many of them — having postulated that the victory of the other side would be the effective end of America — have entirely lost the capacity to make moral judgments. Would they support the president if he did actually murder someone on Fifth Avenue? They have established no standard, no limited principle, by which they wouldn’t.
In the struggle of the children of light against the children of darkness, who cares if the leader of “our” side is a misogynist, a racist, a liar, a demagogue or a murderer? By teaching that victory is the only morality, many evangelical leaders seem to be enjoying the wild, antinomian party. But they are also bringing discredit to their faith, and are being discredited in the eyes of the next generation.
The complete triumph of outcomes over process, of outcomes over character, of outcomes over institutions will produce a degraded politics that is dangerous to democracy itself. Republican supporters of Trump are now faced with urgent, unavoidable moral questions: Are there no limits? Are there no lines?