The saddest tweet came through my timeline on Monday.
I’ve been trying to put into words, in my own mind, the problem with all that’s going on surrounding the death of Senator John McCain. And this tweet helped put it in perspective for me.
Erick Erickson passed the sentiment on without comment, but my sense from other things in his tweet stream is that he largely agreed with it.
It’s not to disparage either Erickson or the unnamed senator that I write here. It’s to comment on the perspective the senator’s words represent. And why the perspective doesn’t really resonate, with a big segment of the American public.
First of all, there are a lot of people who doubt that Trump intentionally dissed McCain by raising the flag to full staff on Monday (which accorded with the prescribed protocol for the death of a member of Congress).
Some people may suppose Trump was consulted and said “Follow the rules,” instead of saying “Leave it at half-staff; we must honor Senator McCain by keeping it lowered longer than prescribed.” Others — and you could convince me on this — suspect Trump didn’t intervene at all, and wasn’t asked by the White House staff.
That probably seems unimaginable to the senator, and to many whose hearts and minds dwell somewhere between Capitol Hill and the Ellipse on the National Mall. The very idea that a president might not vibrate to the rhythm of flag protocol in Washington, D.C.? Everybody vibrates to that rhythm in Washington, D.C. The president must surely be always thinking about it.
But out in America, where Trump came from, everybody doesn’t vibrate to it.
That’s not about any lack of respect for the flag. It’s about what the flag is for, and what constitutes a respectful attitude toward it. For a great swath of America, we respect and love the flag, because of all it represents.
For people like Erickson’s senator — and for many in Washington — the flag is more of a prop to honor public officials with. That, at least, is what one can deduce from seeing which transgressions involving the flag really get them aggravated.
Again, this isn’t about being angry with the senator or pointing a finger at him. But it is about where the yawning divide lies in America today.
I think of the protracted agony of our current public discourse as a long goodbye to a ruling idea, and the political class that hitched its wagon to it: the idea of navigating from one compromise between radical ideology and constitutional principle to the next, until our nation is left in unsustainable debt, unsustainable social conflict, unsustainable departures from the rule of law, and unsustainable illusions about how feasible it is to keep enslaving more and more future generations to the cost of grievance-tending today.
The officials of Washington never bear the cost of those unsustainable conditions. It’s the people who bear the cost. Indeed, the officials of Washington by and large benefit from expanding an unsustainable mode of government and its infrastructure.
But it’s still unsustainable. The people are trying to roll it back peacefully, by electing someone to the Oval Office who doesn’t see the continued expansion of divisive, grievance-tending government as the core mission.
It was virtually inevitable that the person who didn’t see Washington that way would be someone who doesn’t vibrate to Washington’s rhythms. The media have made it their mission to demonize that failure of sympathetic vibration in Trump. Every case in which Trump is out of step with the prevailing local sentiment is depicted as Trump being petty, petulant, childish, obnoxious, etc.
And sometimes Trump is indeed obnoxious, to the point of being inexcusable. But soberly, I think only the petty themselves see him as uniquely petty. Unlike the petty, Trump does something that resonates with a whole, very real America out here: he shoulders his ruck every morning and goes out to get the job done, in spite of the unprecedented volley of slings and arrows deployed against him.
That resonates because it’s what millions and millions of Americans do. They are castigated as hateful bigots, lazy slobs, ignorant rubes, fascists, racists, warmongers. They shoulder the ruck and keep going. They are accused of destroying the planet, oppressing whole peoples, harshing everyone else’s mellow no matter what the situation. They shoulder the ruck and keep going.
They see their religious beliefs, their intellectual ideas, their leisure activities, their very livelihoods made “illegal” by laws and regulations, and their liberties shrinking year after year. They see their flag desecrated and all they believe in denounced ritually and incessantly. Their spirits are weary. They are lectured and rebuked constantly. They never hear good news; only bad. What is framed for them as good news is merely information they don’t even care about. One word of genuine encouragement, however inelegantly expressed, can be a drop of water in the desert to them.
In none of this are they spared the usual problems of human life: sickness, loss, death, disappointment, setbacks, pain, sorrow.
And unlike the senator who would “almost” impeach a president over the use of the flag to honor a fellow politician, these Americans out here just shoulder the ruck and keep going. Usually with a wisecrack and a “Git ‘er done!”
But when it got perilously close to the point that there was no ruck to shoulder — too much of the private economy paralyzed and stagnant — but only a mill wheel driven by someone else, because of all that had been made illegal for them, they said, “Enough.”
We are now in the long goodbye to that era of castigating the American people as a host of demons that needs legislating and regulating against. Of course, the great shift in narrative that goes along with it is an unwelcome intrusion for the legacy political class. To them, it looks like other people being simply awful, starting with taking the power of the narrative away from them. The whole way of life of the political class, the purpose and meaning by which they have navigated, is on the chopping block.
But that legacy political class has nothing on its side to justify continuing under the old banners. Its mode of operation is the very opposite of constitutionalism and the rule of law. It is, rather, about harshly enforced political orthodoxy and the rule of ritual.
Never forget that. The political orthodoxies of Washington, D.C. in 2018 are not constitutionalism. They are not the rule of law. It is deeply sad to see officials and pundits who mistake them so. Today’s political orthodoxies are contingent traditions that have built up incrementally over the last 8 to 10 decades, and in too many cases, all they do is make the rucks shouldered by the American people heavier.
Calling this “America” is just one of many false depictions of reality that the people are increasingly tuning out. Another, very proximate one is the idea that the only way to honor John McCain — whom we should honor — is to align oneself with the rhythms of Washington and a set of ritual incantations against Trump and “Trumpists.”
Let us remember Senator McCain in largeness of spirit, recalling his remarkable life and contributions, his war service, his courage in captivity. Let us sympathize with his family and friends, and not doubt their sincerity. Let us set aside, as we commemorate him with our little human rituals, the political disagreements we may have had with him in life. Let us find the good to say; as a rule, let us say little, and ponder more.
In the meantime, let us remember that the invested in it are saying a long goodbye to a way of life that others have been paying the cost of for decades. It won’t look pretty, and as we see daily, the enormities against social harmony will erupt from both sides. Take the bad with the good. We can get constitutionalism and the rule of law back, but the path will not run backwards, through the one we have been on.
The unsustainable is what will lose in the end. It always does. Let us pray that it loses peacefully, with as much reconciliation and forgiveness as possible in the new beginning.
For the here and now: I’m not even a Trump voter, and I am done — long past done — with having “reality” defined for me by people who want to return to an illusory “America” that was becoming so dysfunctional for so many. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to think of Trump, and I’m done with listening to dementedly biased interpretations of him. Sell it somewhere else. I’ve got a ruck to pick up again, and miles to go.