For 150-odd years, since the time of the Civil War, the political contest in this country has been between the two parties we have now, Democrats and Republicans. This match constitutes what historians call “the third party system,” the first having been the competition between Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, and the second the one that featured Jackson’s Democrats versus the Whigs. The Republicans replaced the Whigs in the late 1850s, and we’ve been in the third system ever since.
Lately, I’m wondering how much longer it can last.
I just can’t see how a party as brain dead, soulless, mercenary, and unprincipled as Donald Trump’s Republican Party can survive for long. I know; the party still does represent a set of positions—one would be hard-pressed at this point to call them principles—to which millions of Americans attach themselves. And it serves as a great megaphone for many Americans’ racial and sexual repressions and resentments, and the unfortunate staying power of all that is not to be gainsaid.
But the party just has no intellectual integrity or credibility left. These thoughts barged their way into my mind as I was thinking Sunday about John McCain and Orrin Hatch. Here were two once-respectable Republican members of the Senate. They were conservative, to be sure; anyone they weren’t conservative enough for was an extremist.
But yes, they did some things with Democrats. They compromised. They did, in other words, their jobs! McCain on campaign finance and tobacco legislation. Hatch on health care and all manner of domestic policy, usually working with none other than the Mephistopheles of Chappaquiddick himself. One used to read stories in the 1980s and 1990s of the two of them spending time together. Teddy, who was getting around town pretty good in those days, let’s just say; and Hatch, the Mormon teetotaler, who wrote these religious songs that Teddy used to sit down and listen to and, no doubt, praise to the skies. That’s what the founders wanted senators to be: high-minded and transpartisan. And that’s what Hatch, as often as could reasonably be expected ofa Utah conservative, was. McCain too.
And what did we see last week?
Well, we saw McCain bumble his way through incoherent questioning of James Comey. But more interesting than McCain’s discombobulated mental state was what he was apparently trying to do, so far as anyone could tell. He was trying to pin a double-standard charge on Comey because Comey exonerated Clinton before the election but left an investigation hanging over Trump. Never mind that Comey hammered Clinton publicly in July and then announced with flimsy justification the reopening of the Clinton probe in late October but never spoke of the Trump campaign probe. What McCain was doing was trying to carry water for Trump.
That is to say—to carry water for the man who had mocked his time as a hostage in Vietnam, and who once had the gall to say his efforts to make it through the Sixties without contracting venereal disease were his “personal Vietnam.”
Back to McCain: How self-abasing can a man get? How little self-respect must a man have to behave like that? Let’s review the full quote: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you.” And here’s McCain two years later, using the mental candlepower he has left to comport himself as a sycophant for a man he surely knows to have no morals or scruples.
A glimmer of hope emerged Sunday when The Guardian reported that one of its reporters asked McCain if America’s global standing was better under Barack Obama than now, and McCain said: “As far as American leadership is concerned, yes.” Who knows, maybe McCain is starting to turn a corner. Maybe he doesn’t want “gave America Sarah Palin” and “sucked up to Donald Trump after Trump humiliated him” in the first paragraph of his obituary.
As for Hatch, this other ex-lion of the Senate—at almost the exact same time McCain was making a fool of himself last Thursday—was offering his body up to a different god, but one equally false. This was the now-famous Claire McCaskill smackdown of Hatch at a Senate committee hearing on the health-care bill. If you’ve not seen the video, take a few minutes and treat yourself to it. McCaskill challenged Hatch, the committee’s chairman, on whether he planned on holding even one single hearing on the GOP Obamacare alternative. Hatch stayed stony silent until he finally muttered that Democrats have been “invited” to “give your ideas” on the bill.
Right. As McCaskill and everyone else in Washington knows, it’s an invitation that leads directly to the majority staff’s shredding machine. Everyone knows that if Senate Republicans hold any hearings at all, they will be a) brief, b) completely unsubstantive, and c) two in number so that Republicans can then go on TV and say they held “hearings,” plural, on the bill.
McCain abased himself before Trump and Trumpism. Hatch, before the intellectual corruption that has swallowed his party lock, stock, and barrel. But the distinction hardly matters any more. The two impulses need each other and feed off each other. This is why so many intellectuals and writers—David Frum of course (long ago), but now Max Boot, Peter Wehner, Jennifer Rubin, and even, tentatively, Bill Kristol!—are disentangling themselves from these rancid entrails.
Obviously, I’ve never liked the Republican Party. But I used to give it credit for certain things. And conservatives had a point about some matters, had a critique of the liberal welfare state that once deserved to be taken fairly seriously. Even George W. Bush, much as I was against almost everything he did, had a point about the United States being on the side of peoples struggling to achieve democracy for themselves. I thought an invasion was a terribly wrong way to get there, but in theory, he had a point, and the Democrats had no compelling ideas of their own about all that.
But today, conservatism and Republicanism are totally empty. As I said, they still have many adherents, and of course they still have power. But they don’t have ideas, they don’t have any intellectual honesty, and they don’t have any pride in themselves, if they’re letting themselves be lacerated by this man. But then, they handed him the knife.