The temptation toward unearned nostalgia about political life should normally be treated with a large dose of skepticism. But sometimes, when things get really bad, the nostalgia can be earned.
This is one of those times.
Imagine a politically informed citizen from just about any prior era of post-Civil War American history being transported to this past Sunday afternoon to observe the viciously polarized, thoroughly scummy spectacle that has infected our public life. The person could come from the late 19th century, when both major parties were challenged by the upstart People's Party. Or from the darkest days of the Depression. Or from any moment during the destabilizing cultural upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It wouldn't matter. Nothing would have prepared them for what they saw here — the constant smarmy swirl of charge and counter-charge between the president and leading members of his own party, the anxious striving for continual outrage on the part of journalists, partisans, and pundits, who act like emotional drug addicts eager for an hourly fix of self-righteousness. And all of it coming at the end of a week when a major topic of debate involved the question of whether the secretary of state did or did not refer to the president of the United States as a "moron."
In his astonishing multi-hour feud with the president on Sunday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) claimed that the Trump White House is an "adult daycare center." He was too generous. The Trump White House may well be a dysfunctional mess, with staffers constantly scrambling, and often failing, to contain the ignorant, narcissistic malevolence and incompetence of the commander in chief. And Corker may even be right that Trump is setting the country on a "path to World War III." But that still doesn't capture the gravity of the situation in which we find ourselves.
The United States is a great nation. A superpower the likes of which the world has never seen. The single most essential guarantor of global order since 1945. The engine and overseer of worldwide economic growth and technological advancements over the same period. And yet here in the second decade of the 21st century, our political culture has descended into pure mayhem. It's become a madhouse, a freak-show circus. Donald Trump is its ringleader, but the rest of us gamely play along, with some cheering him on, and many others relishing every opportunity to express our hatred of him and everything he and his party represents. It's all heat and next to no light at all — a grim, sickening display. And it's becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a way out.
Sunday began with Trump accusing Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who recently announced his retirement, of lacking the "guts" to run for re-election. That provoked hours of recriminations between the two men, culminating in the New York Times interview containing Corker's line about the threat of World War III.
It was hardly an edifying performance by a man who strongly endorsed Trump during the general election. But rather than noting his earlier error and then praising him for finally taking a stand against the president's recklessness, many liberals stopped at the first step — saying, in effect, "Too late, buddy. You own him."
While Trump and Corker took potshots at each other, Vice President Mike Pence engaged in an intentionally polarizing stunt by showing up at an Indianapolis Colts football game only to depart in a huff when players from the San Francisco 49ers (predictably) knelt in protest during the national anthem. It was an utterly gratuitous effort to sow race-based dissension and animosity in the country — the diametric opposite of the kind of behavior we normally label "presidential."
Slightly (but just slightly) below the level of national politics, reverberations from news of Harvey Weinstein's allegedly atrocious behavior with women over a span of several decades continued to radiate outward from the movie producer. Instead of a united front of disgust at the details revealed by the story that brought him down, reaction (of course!) split along partisan lines, with leading liberal and conservative writers denouncing one another for hypocrisy and double-standards (the easiest and laziest forms of moral denunciation). So the right accused the left of going easier on Weinstein than they had on conservatives Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly after similar behavior was alleged against them, and the left accused the right of precisely the opposite sin.
Every single event in our public life is now instantly swept up into the centrifugal whirlwind of a political culture in which the center has completely failed to hold. Democrats are increasingly defined by their hatred of Republicans, just as Republicans manage to agree about little besides their loathing of Democrats.
A few noble souls strive valiantly (and in all likelihood futilely) to keep alive a more vibrant, genuinely public-spirited, and positive vision of political engagement that places the common good of the country as a whole ahead of the good of its tribal parts. But such efforts push against powerful counter-trends that threaten to turn what remains of the political center into a vacuum characterized mainly by its disgust for partisans of every stripe.
"A pox on both your houses" might not be a viable politics. But it's a perfectly understandable response to the grotesque sideshow that American public life has become.