For several months following the extraordinary outcome of last year's presidential election, much of the country found itself stumbling through a severe case of politically inspired post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many anti-Trump conservatives, liberals, progressives, and those further to the left were at first stunned and then consumed by a mixture of outrage and revulsion that showed itself in the enormous protests that followed President Trump's inauguration. It also fueled spasms of blame-casting, with a rotating cast of characters coming in for abuse: Russian President Vladimir Putin, then-FBI Director James Comey, the press (for unfairly focusing undue attention on Hillary Clinton's email server management practices), and finally the nearly 63 million Americans who voted to elevate a sociopathic moron to the Oval Office.
The cycle of anger and blame continues to this day. But by now the outrage has been balanced by signs of hope for the future. Hardly a day goes by when Trump's legion of critics don't console themselves with poll numbers showing his approval ratings at historic lows and muse about the inevitability of his impeachment, removal from office, or resignation. For many it has become simply unthinkable that Trump might serve out his term, let alone that he would run for and win re-election in 2020. Any day now, most likely very soon, the darkness will lift, with political normalcy restored.
Sorry, but I'm not buying it.
For one thing, the chance of Republicans impeaching and removing from office the head of their own party is quite low and will remain so no matter what the multi-year-long investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller ultimately reveals. Then there's the fact that Trump managed to get nominated by his party and win the general election with historically weak polling numbers; that should give pause to anyone inclined to assume he'll be brought down by unpopularity.
But there are deeper reasons why optimism for the political future of the country is unearned. Something profoundly destabilizing is happening to the United States. Trump is a major symptom, and a contributing cause, of it. But it goes far beyond him, to implicate vast swaths of our politics and culture. No, this doesn't necessarily mean (as some have begun to suggest) that the country is hurtling toward "a new kind of civil war." But many bad things can happen short of a literal bloodbath in which citizens organize into factions and start killing each other en masse.
We see it all around us every day and use a range of names to describe aspects of it: extreme polarization, negative partisanship, spreading politicization of everyday life, the breakdown of democratic governance, the hollowing out of liberal norms.
To highlight one recent and especially prominent thread of examples among thousands since the 2016 election, consider how events in Charlottesville, Virginia, less than two weeks ago have radiated out into the country and the culture. Several hundred people, some of them heavily armed, showed up to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They were greeted by large crowds of counter-protesters, some of whom were far-left "antifascist" anarchists. Violence escalated throughout the day, culminating in a murderous terrorist attack by one of the alt-right protesters that killed one counter-protester and injured many others.
The radicalism on each side was catalyzed in part by the internet, which (as Angela Nagle has laid out in her recent, essential book) has become a breeding ground for political extremism. Once that extremism had produced actual acts of political violence, what the country needed most of all was for its president to forthrightly denounce the bloodshed and prejudice of the alt-right and uphold the rule of law, including the decision of local communities to make their own democratic decisions about which monuments to remove or build. Instead, in a series of contradictory and inflammatory statements, President Trump seemed to go out of his way to defend the decency of the far-right protesters while eliding any distinction among ordinary counter-protesters and the antifa troublemakers.
Along the way, Trump also lashed out at those seeking the removal of Confederate statues, accusing them of stripping the country of its culture and heritage, which effectively placed him on the same side as the original alt-right protesters. He then went even further, to warn in incendiary terms that monuments to such foundational American figures as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would soon be in jeopardy.
At that point, as if to confirm the president's polarizing statements, demonstrators began toppling Confederate monuments in other communities. One group even took a sledgehammer to a 225-year-old statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore (with the act of iconoclasm captured in a video posted on YouTube and shared widely on Twitter, complete with a far-left narrative voiceover justifying the vandalism). Meanwhile, cable news chased ratings by finding commentators willing to turn the president into a prophet by defending such acts and making the case for removing statues of Washington and Jefferson from public places throughout the country.
In all, it's been a perfect storm of political and cultural polarization — and one that goes quite a bit beyond the rule recently proposed by journalist James Kirchick: "Every day, the American left behaves in ways designed to ensure Donald Trump's re-election." While that may well be true, the process also works in the reverse direction, with the right provoking the more high-minded center and center-left to move leftward and downward, into ever-more strident politicization.
We saw it this week: Trump gives an unhinged 80-minute tirade of a speech at a rally in Phoenix, including incessant lacerating attacks on the media (and especially CNN) for being his enemy. Then following the speech a panel of pundits on CNN lays into him for being a deranged lunatic who's unfit for high office — thereby making his case to his most devoted supporters.
And so it goes, round and round. President Trump is a big part of the dynamic, but removing him from the picture won't automatically steady the ship of state — especially when the act of removing him would convince millions of his admirers that, if anything, his paranoid, conspiracy-tinged accusations about the "swamp" of Washington, the deep state, and the media were understated.
The country is locked into a self-reinforcing cycle of increasing polarization — and it's unclear what could break or even temporarily disrupt it to buttress the center.
Or rather, it's unclear what could break or disrupt the cycle via democratic means. The extra-democratic path has grown clearer in just the past few weeks.
Of all the forces and factions at play throughout the executive branch, it is the high-ranking military officers alone who have seen their reputations burnished in the months since Trump was elected. They speak with caution and circumspection about complicated matters of policy. They coupishly countermand Trump's most intemperate tweets and polarizing public statements in the name of higher principle. They persuade an unschooled populist president to pursue policies favored by Washington's bipartisan (pro-war) establishment.
Trump loves his generals, and so do many of his most vociferous critics. That should worry American patriots every bit as much as the chaotic polarization that increasingly consumes us.
Destabilizing extremism to the right and left, the promise of salvation from the political whirlwind in the form of military rule from the center — as recently as two years ago, no one would have predicted such possible alternatives for the near-term American future. Yet here we are.
We can't know where we'll be four or eight years from now. But the case for optimism grows weaker with each passing week.