Politics is like a stadium crowd watching a tennis match. Back and forth, the players hit the ball, often scoring points by drawing the other player way off to one side.
Politics also is very much like a jury watching the exchanges between the two lawyers. If one lawyer takes a position seen as extreme, that accrues to the benefit of opposing counsel.
In America, especially in the 24/7 news cycle, the electorate is constantly watching the policy positions and behaviors of the two major parties.
Television coverage is critical, as viewers take in their impressions of what they see, just like those jurors or the tennis fans in the stands.
What did they see this past week?
They saw an outgoing Republican president airing complaints (again) about his recent election defeat to a huge crowd of similarly wounded supporters.
The viewers saw him encourage that same throng to march up to the U.S. Capitol, where Congress was in the process of certifying the results of that election, challenges to which have been dismissed in 60 court cases.
Then they saw mob rule take over in all of its ugliness.
The violent images flashed on millions of TV screens across the country cannot be unseen and will be what viewers long remember.
No sincerely patriotic American likes seeing the U.S. Capitol trashed. No sane person endorses violence as a legitimate form of political expression.
So how much blame can be legitimately laid at President Trump’s feet for this mayhem, violence which resulted in four deaths, thousands of dollars in damage to the U.S. Capitol and an incalculable loss of face for the U.S. internationally?
The morning after the debacle, one clear-eyed pundit had it right. She noted that, when you have an aggrieved crowd of tens of thousands come together, who are then revved up by an angry leader they revere, it is inevitable that some of those gathered will hit a tipping point.
The many protesters who battled with the U.S. Capitol police, broke windows and terrorized Capitol staff were all Roman candles waiting to go off that day. President Trump openly lit them up, knowing what could happen as he encouraged them to march to the Capitol. Millions of Americans across the country watched this sad drama play out before them.
Trump does not represent just himself, but the Republican Party and, as president, the nation. All those Americans up in the tennis stands or the jury box are still watching for what’s next.
Will enough cooler heads in the Republican Party prevail by actions and words that begin to separate the Party of Lincoln from the worst parts of Trumpism?
Will the better Democrat and Republican leaders in Washington and around the country find ways to debate matters with civility and respect?
Will we, as a people, stop looking at others as the enemy? Americans have often disagreed with one another. Important issues will always have more than one side. But it is high time to teach our children — and re-learn ourselves — the rich inheritance generations of Americans have passed down to us in the form of simple, beautiful procedure.
Yes, procedure: the intelligent way we hash things out as a civilized people.
Americans are the envy of many around the world for our stable court system, imperfect but regular elections and First Amendment freedoms that allow us to express ourselves robustly yet peaceably.
If Americans across the ideological spectrum could just agree on this brilliant concept of proper procedure we’ve been given, the temperature nationally can go down several degrees.
The contested issues will still be there. The persuasion of the electorate from all sides will continue. Debate is natural to us. But that’s America, always will be. Freedom of expression is in the air we breathe here.
Inciting mobs to violence contaminates that air and should always be rejected by us all.