Our Insurrectionist Age

Among all the comments about last night’s debate, I thought these brief sentences, by J. D. Vance, were notable:

The headline from last night’s debate nearly writes itself: A major party presidential candidate refused to accept the legitimacy of the 2016 election.

This is unprecedented in recent political history, and Donald J. Trump will undoubtedly wallow in the scorn of the mainstream press over the next few days. Yet I found myself wondering, as debate co-watchers gasped over Mr. Trump’s statements, whether any of the Trump supporters I know back home in southern Ohio will actually care.

The answer is probably no. At the core of his appeal is a rejection of mainstream political norms, and this is just another example of Mr. Trump slaughtering a proverbial sacred cow.

The question now is not whether Mr. Trump will lose the election — he will — but whether the segment of our country that gasps when he delegitimizes our democratic institutions can ever be reconciled to those who cheer the same.

Vance’s assertion that a sizable minority in this country cheers the delegitimization of our democratic institutions is probably correct. The word “treason” comes more readily to the lips of the political right, as a kind of invective (Ann Coulter made a pile writing a book accusing liberals of it, apparently just by being liberals). Here, it’s just plain descriptive. You have to wonder how we got here, to where millions want to make America great again by overthrowing it; and, much more important, how we engineer a U-turn. Decades of Republican malpractice are part of the answer: political purposes were served, and individuals enriched, by egging on the ignoramuses. I’ll confess to feeling a little Schadenfreude that these reckless games have finally blown up in the Republican Party’s face.

But only a little. Schadenfreude literally means “pleasure in harm” (implicitly, harm experienced by someone else). In this case, we’re all harmed. “You broke it, are you happy now?” isn’t an adequate response. Coming up with something better, and soon, will be essential.

Still, understanding how we got into this situation may help us figure out how to get back out. George H. W. Bush has said he’ll be voting for Clinton this year. I wonder if he sees the line that runs back from Donald Trump through Willie Horton and attacks on “card-carrying” members of the ACLU (an organization whose express mission is the safeguarding of the Constitution!), and has second thoughts about what must have seemed merely expedient at the time.