Politics & Policy

How the Center Does Not Hold

(Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
A climate of ‘mere anarchy’ has been loosed upon Washington.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Given that things are not quite as dire as some claim, it may be a bit premature to be dropping Yeats quotes in columns about the Trump administration. Donald Trump is not the “rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem” — or toward Washington, D.C.

But just because people make fools of themselves comparing the 2016 election to Pearl Harbor and other calamities doesn’t mean things are not amiss.

There’s been a lot of talk about how Trump is a “disruptor,” overturning conventional wisdom, throwing out the playbook, tearing down the establishment, transgressing “democratic norms,” and a dozen other similar clichés. There’s little debate about whether or not Trump has done these things, but there’s a massive divide out there about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. That debate itself is part of the problem. It’s not either/or but both/and.

Some of the things Trump has done to turn the page on politics-as-usual are probably good, and some are obviously bad. The problem with a bull in a china shop is that he doesn’t discriminate between the lousy dishware and the good stuff. More importantly, what distinguishes the lousy from the luxury is in the eye of the beholder.

Consider the current “war” between the intelligence community and the Trump White House. High-ranking officials somewhere inside the “deep state” have broken the rules to embarrass the Trump administration. Their campaign of extraordinary leaks paid off. They collected the scalp of retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who lasted as Trump’s national-security adviser for about three weeks.

It remains unclear whether Flynn is a victim of an unfair smear, a bureaucratic bumbler who invited trouble, or some kind of nefarious collaborator with the Russians.

Flynn’s defenders, starting with the president himself, insist the leaks are the real scandal — and that Flynn was unfairly done in by “fake news.” This raises the question of why the president fired a trusted aide for a bogus accusation.

But the dynamic that concerns me is how a climate of “mere anarchy” has been loosed upon Washington. Trump spent much of the campaign touting, celebrating, and promoting WikiLeaks as a “treasure trove.” “I love WikiLeaks!” Trump told a crowd that was chanting “Lock her up!”

He’s changed his tune of late, railing on Twitter against “the low-life leakers!” and insisting that stories based on leaks are outrageous and fraudulent: “FAKE NEWS media, which makes up stories and ‘sources,’ is far more effective than the discredited Democrats — but they are fading fast!”

Democracies — never mind civilizations — depend on a minimal amount of buy-in to rules of conduct and behavior.

Now, there’s certainly an important difference between government officials releasing top-secret information to settle political scores and a foreign government aiding in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. But in the environment we’re in now, such distinctions seem more like niceties or talking points for professional spinners.

And that’s because in a world where one side sees inconvenient rules as illegitimate, it’s only natural that the other side will see rules that inconvenience them as illegitimate too.

This applies not just to laws or democratic norms, but to simple good manners. Trump and his biggest supporters saw nothing wrong with insinuating that Ted Cruz’s father was an accomplice to JFK’s murder. They shrugged at his insults of his political opponents and even their wives. He and they reject any suggestion that he should apologize for such statements. But the merest slight against Trump or his family is an outrage.

This is how the center does not hold. Democracies — never mind civilizations — depend on a minimal amount of buy-in to rules of conduct and behavior. It’s no different than good sportsmanship. If you claim that every bad call by the ref is illegitimate because “the fix is in,” and this behavior pays off, the incentive for the other side to play by the rules evaporates.

Trump didn’t create the crisis of confidence in the rules, but his passionate intensity has accelerated the collapse.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

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