We recently agonized over the burning of a building most of us never have and never will see, yet we felt the sorrowful loss of something grounding and foundational to our humanity. Notre Dame is a true institution, a reflection of our desire for meaning and order, a symbol of the permanent and the trustworthy.
We have such a foundational entity in our American culture – our Constitution. And it is burning. The flames consuming it, however, don’t have that immediate flash that compels our attention and thus it is possible, unlike with Notre Dame, that we cannot stop its demise in time.
Our Constitution has persisted because, until now, no one has freely torched it, this largely because the Constitution itself institutionalizes restraint. By design, the branches of Presidency, Congress, and Courts all are to serve as correctives to the others. The inflammatory fuel however is raw power that has doused one branch, and the match in the President’s hand is an emasculated Congress and a Court picked for its preference for the autocratic strength of the Presidency.
The result has been for one man to decide that the rule of law is according to his personal rule book; that courts holding to precedent are to be dismissed as biased against him; that civil liberties like the basic right to vote are suppressible; that our role among nations is a monetary rather than an ethical and leadership issue; that the free press is to be a mouthpiece for the Presidency or is to be scourged as false; that we are suddenly no longer a nation of immigrants.
I listened this week to an Oxford style debate on NPR between two teams of nationally known Republicans over the issue of whether Trump should be re-elected. The “should re-elect” Republican debaters said that Trump owns the Party given the definiteness of his decision making and the belief that no other Republican can beat him. The “should not re-elect” Republican debaters pointed out that policies come and go, but it is principles that last; that this administration is changing American principles in such damaging ways that Republican values are losing their place among that which counts as the institutionally sacred. Republicans, they said, are exchanging their future for here-and-now gains.
Of note, the audience sided with the “should not re-elect” Republican argument 81% to 16%. Firemen?