Poor Elijah’s three-volume New Century Dictionary was published when the new century was the 20th. Some of its entries come up a little short. For example, it imagines television as the “sight of objects at a distance” reproduced through “electrical or other means.”
He prefers it, nonetheless, to looking words up on the internet. He’s especially partial, for instance, to its classical definition of politics as the “science and art” of governing. As a history teacher, he thinks it captures the noblest intentions and methods of the noblest politicians. As an English teacher, he works it into his spelling list in the hope his students will keep it in mind when they return for history class later in the day.
It would be nice to think it’s made an impression on some of his eighth-graders over the years. The fact is, though, if you ask most Americans what they think of politics, their answer is unlikely to touch on art, science or nobility, and more likely to run along the lines of “it’s a dirty business.”
Why is that?
Some ardent, sincere politicians will tell you the problem is that too many elected officials are too willing to compromise on issues and initiatives with politicians across the aisle.
That’s not the problem. First of all, it’s the failure to compromise with the other side, and the resulting persistent stalemate, that rouse most voters’ ire and frustration. Second, representative government — meaning small “d” democratic and small “r” republican government — runs on persuasion and requires compromise. Yes, campaign and argue for what you believe, but bear in mind you’ll usually be arguing with the other half of the country. Americans need to be prepared to either compromise, live under a constantly careening policy pendulum, or for nothing to get done.
Bargaining over policy preferences and legislative initiatives in pursuit of the public good isn’t the problem. Pursuing what’s good for my party and for me personally as an officeholder instead of pursuing the public good, is our problem.
I don’t primarily mean the politician who opens his desk drawer and waits for the envelope with the cash bribe in it. That should be easy to condemn, even if it isn’t easy to eradicate.
Sometimes the bribes and benefits are subtler and even more pernicious.
Donald Trump lost the election. You needn’t believe me. Believe the absence of evidence he’s presented. Court after court, judge after judge — Republican and Democrat — have ruled against him. His own lawyers have withdrawn and conceded they have no evidence of fraud. His Department of Homeland Security, concurring with the nation’s secretaries of state, has concluded there is “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” and described the election as “the most secure in American history.”
It doesn’t matter if his lie is motivated by arrogance or vengeance, or his fear of prosecution once he surrenders his office, or his ambition for future office, or his reliance on income derived from the government, from foreign emoluments and the fees the Secret Service pays at his resorts, to the convenience of being his own landlord via the government-owned post office building that houses his D.C. Trump International hotel.
It’s interesting to note he rents the old post office building from the same executive branch General Services Administration that’s refused to authorize the transition and acknowledge Joe Biden as the president-elect.
There’s nothing subtle about any of this. But it’s long past the time when Donald Trump’s avarice and narcissism should surprise us. Anybody who’s looking for him to place anyone else’s well-being, including the nation’s well-being, ahead of his own is expecting something that never was and never will be.
I’m more troubled by the chorus of Republican officeholders who indulge his delusions and abet his deceit. I wish I could say I was surprised by their cowardice and political expediency, but while their strategy is subtler than his, it isn’t new. Like many Americans, including many Republicans, I’ve been waiting four years for Republican leaders to find their spines and their love of country.
Instead we get averted eyes, mumbled excuses and legalistic sophistries that are long on rationalization and short on truth.
Enough about giving him time to nurse his hurt feelings and accept his defeat. We’re talking about a president of the United States vested with the power to reduce the Earth to a radioactive cinder. A man who can’t deal with losing an election can’t be trusted with the power to launch a nuclear strike.
Republicans know this.
Enough about his right to exhaust his legal options. He has the right to sue in court, and courts have the jurisdiction to dismiss his suit as baseless. Defending his right to due process doesn’t require endorsing the fraud and deceit he presents in court or broadcasts on Twitter. The ravings of Giuliani don’t deserve consideration. Silence implies consent and makes you complicit in the lie.
Republicans know this.
Enough about widespread fraud. There is no stash of illegal votes. The election wasn’t rigged. Dead voters didn’t determine who won.
Republicans know this.
Finally, enough about political calculations. If Donald Trump runs and wins in 2024, half of us will deserve him. If that prospect makes life difficult for Nikki Haley or Mike Pence, I’m afraid I need to set their electoral fortunes aside in favor of the pandemic and the peaceful transfer of power.
Closer to the present, Republicans may see their priority as winning the upcoming Senate races in Georgia so they can advance their policy agenda and retain control of the Senate. They may regard Donald Trump’s engagement and assistance as essential, and opposing his death grip on the White House as the surest way to lose his support.
Even if their future electoral triumphs were in the nation’s best interest, and regardless of whether I believe they are, righteous conduct in our present crisis has to come before policy and partisan advantage.
There is no point in plotting our republic’s future course if in the process — now, today — you corrupt and kill it.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.