By Frank Bowman
I’ve been in Washington these past few days, burrowed in at the Library of Congress researching English impeachments for a chapter in my upcoming book on Impeachment in the Age of Trump (University of Cambridge Press 2019). Sitting in the Main Reading Room of that astounding institution — both a breathtakingly beautiful building and perhaps the greatest repository of knowledge in human history — during the events of the past week or so has both inspired and deeply depressed me.
The United States is a great nation, not merely because of its great size and abundant resources, its fortunate geographic insulation in its formative years from the wars of Europe, or even its thriving economy and powerful military. What has made America great — in a sense Donald Trump will never understand — has been the accretion over two-and-a-half centuries of many foresighted, large-minded decisions grounded in a belief in democratic government and human possibility. At any given moment in our history, we like every people will be found making mistakes, sometimes even violent and vicious ones, but the throughline has been reversion to a mean of remarkable wisdom and generosity.
The Library of Congress is but one among many monuments to our happy inheritance. A place where, long before there was a thing called the internet, Congress decreed that virtually all the knowledge in the printed universe would be gathered under a single roof. The impetus for this creation is, in the present moment, even more remarkable than its execution. Congress created a library for itself because it recognized that making sound policy for a nation required knowledge, and it wanted all the available knowledge at its immediate call. And then Congress decided something even more remarkable — that all the knowledge it was gathering for its own use should be freely available to the citizenry. Because they deemed an informed and educated citizenry as essential to the operation of a democratic republic as an informed legislature.
These were quintessentially American choices. I will not say that no other nation has ever made similar ones. Certainly most of the democracies in what we, with increasing anachronism, have referred to as the West have, at least at some points in their histories, arrived at similar conclusions and created similar institutions. But in America, the dedication to political choice informed by knowledge, study, and reflection by both leaders and citizens has been central to our identity since our beginnings.
Sitting in the Library of Congress and drawing on its treasures inspires awe and gratitude for the good fortune of living in this marvelous country.
But, at the close of a day in the cocoon of our brilliant past, one emerges and looks across the street at the U.S. Capitol. There it stands, its classical forms massive and inspiring, but a moment’s reflection on those who now inhabit the place can only plunge an American patriot into gloom.
It is literally inconceivable that today’s Congress would imagine or vote to maintain a Library of Congress if it did not already exist. And every day, that once-august body betrays the ideals upon which the Library was founded and long maintained. Both Houses are presently controlled by a party aggressively uninterested in knowledge, particularly knowledge that might threaten the short-term political interests of its members or the transitory prejudices of its “base.” That same congressional party is now in thrall to an administration even more actively determined to suppress inconvenient knowledge. More particularly, that party has apparently surrendered even its own capacity for independent thought to a president who is both utterly ignorant in virtually every sphere of science, technology, history, and economics, and proudly determined not to learn anything new, even when the safety and prosperity of the country depends on it.
Yesterday, Mr. Trump effectively spat on both the Western military alliance and the world economic architecture that have together maintained peace among the great powers and been the foundation of American economic prosperity since 1945. His boorish, petulant, bottomlessly ignorant performance was only the latest in a series of mindless assaults on global institutions created by generations of American statesmen, Republican and Democrat, wise enough to recognize that America thrives, not as a selfish bully, but as the keystone of an international structure of mutual benefit.
This is not a partisan judgment. Before November 2016, while there would have been disagreements about details, no serious national political figure doubted that the NATO alliance, a strong and unified Europe, cordial trading relationships with our North American neighbors, and an existing world economic order markedly attuned to American needs were all fundamentally beneficial to the United States. Indeed, these ideas and institutions were, if anything, more firmly embraced by Republicans than Democrats.
And yet, the response from the Congressional Republicans to Trump’s steady destruction of a world order from which this country benefits so profoundly has been … silence. There have been occasional mild bleatings of disapproval at one or another particularly obnoxious Trumpian utterance. But the bleats have come almost exclusively from legislators who have decided not to run again, or in the case of John McCain, a man whose heroic struggle against death will, sadly but inevitably, preclude any future electoral contests.
Remember that the Founders imagined Congress as the dominant player in American government. And remember that, even though since the early 20th Century Congress has steadily ceded much power to the presidency, Congress retains ample constitutional authority to thwart any chief executive if it chooses to use that authority.
But the Republican party which now commands Congress has instead meekly abandoned virtually everything it professed to believe about America’s relations with the world. It would be one thing if this about-face were the result of a revolution in economic or political thought stemming from careful study of all the knowledge carefully stored in the great Library across the street from our congressmen’s offices. Intellectual revolutions do happen. And they are sometimes profoundly beneficial.
But we all know that nothing of that sort has occurred. Instead, Republicans have simply bowed to the demonstrably irrational whims of their vapid puppet master. Individually and collectively, they quake and cower, as the world America built crumbles. Perhaps the most maddening feature of the Republicans’ moral collapse is that it does not even come in the service of a definable new world order. Even the evils of the great 20th century dictatorships in Germany, the Soviet Union, and China were inflicted by servants of articulable, if twisted, ideologies.
There is no new ideology at work in Trumpism. No plan. No thought. No rational end state. Everything that now happens at the pinnacle of American government is simply that day’s whim of a bloated, narcissistic fool.
And congressional Republicans know this as well as you or I. Yet they do nothing.
Lest it be thought that all blame devolves on the Republicans, congressional Democrats bear their share, however much diminished by their minority status. While I recognize that Democrats cannot pass legislation on their own, as a group they seem to me remarkably quiet at a time when our circumstances call for unceasing, intelligent, forceful resistance to the daily outrages of the president and his minions.
History will not be kind either to the overt cowardice of congressional Republicans and the tactical meekness of congressional Democrats. This feckless Congress is not the institution the Founders imagined, past generations celebrated, or the present generation desperately needs.