By Thom Senzee
The death and honors of Sen. John McCain pierced the heart of America in the last days of summer. The nation came together for a time of reflection. It lasted just a precious few days. By the end of September, a craven cynicism that defines these Trumpian times returned—with a vengeance.
Capture of the Supreme Court of the United States by ultraconservative ideologues feels inevitable. It’s a takeover that’s been methodically executed across more than three decades by a wide-ranging 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, racial minorities and the working poor, the threats to equality, security, health, economic opportunities and basic fairness posed by a solid ultraconservative majority on the Supreme Court are 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 adjacent to another stolen from Judge Merrick Garland. Call it: #grandtheftscotus.
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 ramrodding of the wrong nominee for America — albeit the most convenient one for attorney Michael Cohen’s unindicted co-conspirator, Donald Trump — are: modesty, integrity, compromise, good faith, and compassion.
There are paradoxical characteristics of American power that have always confounded our enemies. Through the past 70 years or so, vulnerabilities in our position of high esteem on the world stage have largely eluded our adversaries. Wrongheaded wars, such as Vietnam and Iraq excluded, our approach to world affairs has been connoted with honesty. Our mostly usually nuanced, even genteel, approach to international affairs has for decades frustrated dictators and authoritarian governments, foremost among them former Soviet Union and more recently the Russian Federation’s dictatorial president, Vladimir Putin.
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 U.S. 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 that like that our former approach to international diplomacy has for the most part been based on modesty, integrity, compromise, good faith, compassion and honesty.
If the fabric of American values were a noble funerary shroud lain fittingly over the casket of Sen. John McCain, who barely a month ago lay in state beneath the Capitol Rotunda, its cloth has since been set ablaze by the late senator’s own party, through the tawdry and supremely Machiavellian 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 women — including a distinguished professor who most credibly says a nominee to the highest court in the land sexually assaulted her. We are a country who stood ready to hear the accused. We are a country he deserved to know the truth. But, we are a country with a major political party in near complete control of our all branches of government who’s lost sight of what makes us exceptional as a people.
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 so 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 provocations 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.
Thom Senzee is author of the “All Out America”syndicated column, as well as founder and moderator of LGBTs In The News, America’s best-known LGBTQ panel series—touring the country since 2013.