We all own this. Despite all the protestations, this very much is who we are, today at least. Since before the election, I’ve struggled with how I can constructively move on from the last four years, the next logical consequence of which was on full display during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. It’s a difficult process of confronting the truth, admitting mistakes, understanding my own shortcomings, and learning new ways to communicate.
The Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men,” a brilliant portrayal of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, gives some guidance. After failing to stop murderous drug criminals, Sherriff Ed Tom Bell visits his cousin Ellis, a former sheriff, now paralyzed from a gunshot wound sustained while apprehending a criminal. Bell asks Ellis what he’d do if he knew the guy who shot him was out of prison.
Ellis responds: “Well, all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After a while you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.”
Ellis goes on to ask Bell why he’s quitting. Bell says he feels overmatched, that as he got older he thought things would make more sense, but they don’t. Ellis pushes back, saying, “What you got ain’t nothing new. This country’s hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”
It’s from this perspective that I ponder the challenges ahead. Clearly, we need a way forward for this country to heal and prosper, but how? There are two groups of Trump supporters who I don’t know how to reach.
The first group are the ones who believe all the lies about pedophile rings, the Deep State, stolen elections, and a right wing messiah. Their beliefs are so separated from reality, so delusional, so unhinged, there’s no basis for discussion or debate. Facts no longer exist.
Ideally, they could be ignored. But as Jan. 6 clearly shows, their delusions, once merely an opportunity for profit by right wing con artists, are now effectively weaponized for terrorism. Our enemies are ecstatic, and unscrupulous traitors are planning. I have no idea how to engage with people so disconnected.
The second group are those who support Trump knowing full well who he is and what he’s capable of, but judges! Tax cuts! Abortion! Whatever! They say: “I don’t like Trump, but I really hate the Democrats!”
At least this is a political calculation. Mitch McConnell, the chief enabler of the Trump presidency until now, is a perfect example of this “ends justify the means” approach to politics. Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” published in the early 1500s, describes these tactics for success in the cutthroat politics of Italy at the time, awash in warfare, murder, and treachery.
The same ideas inform ruthless efforts to seize, maintain, and expand power by autocrats. They endure, because they work.
However, they are also profoundly anti-democracy. American democracy rests on two founding principles: everyone is equal, and that we all agree to support and defend a political process embodied in a document, created by imperfect humans, called the Constitution. Without that agreement, and especially about the processes that it describes for mediating disputes, allocating power, and making decisions, our government will quickly devolve into autocracy. A line is crossed when opposition to the other political party leads to destroying the system of government within which the parties exist.
The challenge we now face is that one of our political parties is finally confronting the reality of the path it has been on for the last 70 years. The attack on the Capitol is a direct result of the Trump presidency, which in turn is a direct result of Republican politics since the 1950s.
This is another thing I struggle with personally. If we are to debate about the scope of government, the role of taxes and the economy, our role in the world, the challenges of individual liberty in a pluralistic society, and the tradeoffs between security and freedom, I’m eager to discuss.
If the terms of our political debate going forward are about loyalty to a person or group who seek to overthrow the Constitution, I am unable to participate. Unfortunately, that is where a large portion of the Republican Party and their voters are, including individuals writing in this newspaper.
I don’t know how to communicate with the delusional people. That is my failing. But the Machiavellian ones, at least I can point out, and I will, how they are really advocating for overthrowing American democracy.
To help with changing the road we’re on, I’ll close with another scene from the movie. The bad guy, a murderous sociopath named Anton Chigurh, is about to execute a competitor. Just before he kills him, Chigurh asks, “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”
Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.email@example.com.