Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) called us all out on the carpet last night with a speech that will go down in history as one of the greatest ever given by an American politician.
In a halting, soft-toned voice, often cracking with emotion, Mr. Flake said, “We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”
And then, of course, many of us did just that. We all saw it from friends on Facebook and other social media outlets. People we “know” immediately bashing Mr. Flake for being a “RINO” or, in what they must see as cleverness, a “snowFlake,” while completely missing his point.
What Sen. Flake was begging us to do was to defend conservatism against the threats coming from Donald Trump and others like him who have absolutely no fealty to a political cause other than their own – or to a philosophy other than self-aggrandizement.
What Jeff Flake was warning us about, that our angry, window-shattering vandal friends are, apparently, too tone deaf to hear, is President Trump and his “deplorables”, the “forgotten men”, as Sinclair Lewis called the angry electorate capable of ushering in dark moments in American politics in his brilliantly prophetic novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” are capable of doing damage tothe sanctity of our political culture that cannot be repaired, at least not without great and painful cost.
We heard a similar warning from Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) as well this week, who added his voice to warnings coming from other Republican senatorial heavy weights as John McCain, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse, among others. I defy you to find another time in American history when so many leaders of the Senate spoke out against the leader of their own party.
What these men are warning us about goes deeper than just the threat that Donald Trump poses to American political and social society. They are warning that Mr. Trump simply gives cover for darker forces buried in our culture, forces that can, under the right conditions, overwhelm the political climate and turn it into something we won’t recognize.
They warn that the sort of movement started by Mr. Trump, a movement that seems to think breaking norms of civility, that crossing lines of acceptability simply to thumb one’s nose at the establishment, that brazenly lying simply because one can get away with it, is acceptable, comes at a cost, often at a cost that cannot be easily or accurately calculated.
The question is: are we listening? Many have warned the American people for a long time that Trumpism poses a fundamental threat to the American position in the world, both as a political force dedicated to the promotion of freedom and peace, and as an example of how a moral nation conducts itself.
As Sen. Flake said yesterday, “Despotism loves a vacuum. And our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership. Why are they doing this? None of this is normal. And what do we as United States senators have to say about it?”
Our allies are looking elsewhere because they see what America is becoming and they don’t like it. Who better than the Germans, the French, the Italians to extrapolate the logical end result of Trumpism than the nations that paid the highest price for missing the same signs Sinclair Lewis warned them about in 1935?
Of course, no one in America believes that our political freedoms, our way of life, can fundamentally change in just a few short years. No one believed that was true in 1933 Germany, either. But as Mr. Sinclair warned in his book, things in a nation corrupted by anger and self-absorption, whose national character is corroded by the hate-filled rhetoric of propagandists masquerading as newsmen, whose political leadership is craven and complicit, have a way of spinning out of control faster than one can imagine.
Replace the calm, resolute leadership of George W. Bush on 9/11/2001 with that of Donald J. Trump and imagine how different our world would be today.
The thing is, we, the everyday people who make us this nation, are just as complicit as the leaders who stand by and do little to condemn its decline. If we so choose to participate in the collapse by piling on, by sneering like ill-raised children at men with the spine of a Jeff Flake, we are no better than Mr. Sinclair’s protagonist, Doremus Jessup, the newspaper editor who did too little to stop the descent of America in the novel “It Can’t Happen Here”.
“The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work,” realized Mr. Jessup, when it was too late. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups, who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”
It is the choice of each of us that matters now, now at this point when we can do something to stop the slide into disaster that is inevitably coming for this country and the world it protects. We must choose between fighting back against the incivility, the harshness, the long descent into a nightmarish version of America that we cannot, at this time, accurately predict or of discounting the threat and going about our business until it too late.
Do I honestly believe that America may be descending into tyranny? Yes, I believe that is a possibility, one greater than at any time in my lifetime, one greater than in any time in American history since the death of the demagogue Huey Long.
As Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
That is the choice we face now. Ignore it if you will, but that, too is a choice. It is time for us to choose.