Trump, Capitol riot show dangers of violating invisible values – opinion
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The Jerusalem Post 13/01/2021
Trump, Capitol riot show dangers of violating invisible values – opinion
Three hundred American historians and constitutional scholars just signed a petition demanding Donald Trump’s impeachment. Initially, I hesitated to join. Without enough Senate Republicans agreeing to convict, I feared the gesture would be futile, divisive, and distract from Joe Biden’s efforts to lead — every day focused on Trump diminishes Biden. Moreover, some elements of the anti-Trump backlash disturb me: Freedom of Speech should protect his reprehensible but not prosecutable rant to the anti-Congress crowd; Twitter-Facebook-Instagram should not start censoring presidents, no matter how despicable; and, unlike Congress’s impeachment resolution, I consider the violence a riot not an “insurrection.” But the historians’ petition emphasized “norms, practices, and precedents,” and that’s our expertise.
Historians are custodians of America’s Oral Law: our memories, sensibilities, traditions, and values. Federalist 65, the best Constitutional commentary, justifies impeachment for “public… misconduct” or the “violation of some public trust.” Donald Trump clearly pulverized public trust, from refusing to accept democratic election results to riling a mob, to being “excited” as rioters invaded the Capitol, because he “wanted chaos on television,” according to a Republican Senator, Ben Sasse.
This is the key takeaway from the Trumpistas’ trashing of Capitol Hill: democracy’s magic mixes the visible with the invisible. Constitutions define elections, structures, laws; the people and their leaders nurture tone, tradition, values – and trust.
What was damaged on January 6? Five lives were lost – but 4000 Americans died from Coronavirus that day. Some windows were smashed, some offices vandalized, some items stolen – all replaceable. And these fake-triots –unpatriotic patriots, talking patriotism while desecrating America – blew it: their efforts backfired. Eventually, Congress stubbornly, heroically, democratically certified Biden’s election. Meanwhile, many Republicans who blindly defended Trump for five years suddenly went silent. Especially when combined with losing both Georgia Senate seats, with any luck, January 6 will be remembered as the day Trumpism died.
Nevertheless, Americans are traumatized because these thugs defiled American democracy’s holy of holies. They ripped the social fabric, violated norms, assaulted tradition – all abstractions yet palpable, formidable, civilizing, democratizing forces. Tragically, this abomination marked the logical culmination of Trump’s five-year-assault on the Invisible Presidency and America’s Oral Law – those extras beyond the Constitution’s text that make most presidents act presidential, make America America, and make democracies democratic.
Since 2015, we’ve lived a fractured fairy tale. “Yes, he flirts with Neo-Nazis, but look, he recognized Jerusalem, pressed Iran, and charmed the Emirates,” said the Orthodox rabbi. “Yes, he is vulgar, sexist, bigoted, but see, he appointed pro-life judges,” said the Evangelical minister. “Yes, he is divisive, stirring the beastliest Americans and the beast within Americans, but watch that stock market soar,” said the tycoon. These supposedly-more-worldly-types ridiculed any ethical, existential, tonal concerns as lofty, academic, childish. Many of these Trump-enablers also excuse Benjamin Netanyahu’s parallel I-am-greater-than-the-state assault on Israel’s invisible norms and necessary guardrails.
The Capitol Riot proved what happens when you pooh-pooh these niceties as “silly.” The normal brakes that should have stopped people from behaving abominably failed. In other contexts, many rioters undoubtedly walked the Capitol as I always have – silently, awestruck. That is why, ultimately, they foolishly, self-destructively, took selfies against these sacred backdrops, which are now helping the police hunt them down. But inflamed by their lying, demagogic, sore-loser-in-chief, riled by one another, they experienced that mass Frankenstein moment when humans merge into a mob and become monsters.
Clearly, although Donald Trump and his fake-triots are guilty, the Capitol Hill police failed – despite their $450-million-a-year budget. But it’s unfair to accuse them of racism, as Joe Biden (and his granddaughter) did– especially with 50 of them hospitalized and one buried. It’s too soon to forget how many American downtowns burned amid a tepid police response when African-Americans and their allies rioted this summer, as the media invented that absurd Orwellian phrase – the “largely peaceful protest” – which is like having a largely living corpse. And the democracy-destroying cry “no justice no peace,” comes from the anti-racism Left, not Trumpville. No extreme has a monopoly on virtue – and both sometimes overwhelm the police.
That’s why this moment is so fraught. Dictatorships operate from fear, democracies by choice. Democrats can choose to demand self-righteous revenge – which will poison the communal well. Republicans can react with self-righteous whataboutism. Alternatively, moderates can help us choose to deescalate. Why not use Biden’s inauguration as a bipartisan celebration of America’s Constitution – it’s formal written law – and its oral law? Empower Biden not just to serve but to use the invisible presidency’s informal powers to help lower the rhetorical temperature, stop the hysterics, and start agreeing to agree again on some issues, values, basic behaviors, while agreeing to disagree about others.
Anyone who doesn’t see the warning signs for Israel beaming brightly – and darkly – from Capitol Hill, isn’t looking. Knesset security would probably be more effective. But note what happens when democratic leaders go demagogic – and how destructive a few inflamed hooligans can be.
I don’t worry so much in Israel or the US about a monstrous minority destroying formal political structures, both democracies are impressively resilient. Consider America: Congress certified the results, Biden’s transition is progressing, all ten living defense secretaries wrote a truly-patriotic Washington Post article affirming that the military will remain non-partisan. But unhinged brutes riled up by a rabble-rousing president — or desperate prime minister – could threaten those invisible ties that civilize people, and feed the most powerful force that keeps democracies democratic – legitimacy: most citizens’ faith that their government is fundamentally free, representative, and fair.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.
Copyright © 2021 Prof Gil Troy, All rights reserved.
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