Viewing the American political scene today, I can’t help thinking about what Yeats wrote more than a century ago:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
I’m not suggesting anarchy is imminent, or that our governmental structures are collapsing, but there are warning signs that should be heeded for our nation to cope with the enormous challenges facing America at home — and throughout the world — effectively. Not only is there bitter partisanship between the parties, there are also bitter divisions within them.
There can be honest debate as to when this severe fracturing began. Politics is always a combat sport. The days of peace, love and harmony — the “good old days” — never existed. Certainly not during the 28 years I was in Congress. But no matter how bitter the debate and severe the divisions were, certain lines weren’t crossed.
Richard Nixon had reason to contest the 1960 election results, but gracefully conceded the race to John F. Kennedy. Al Gore challenged George W. Bush’s razor-thin electoral vote margin in 2000, but conceded with class after losing a similarly razor-thin 5-4 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court.
I believe the major turning point in the rules of political combat was the 2016 Trump-Clinton race and its aftermath. It wasn’t just the heated charges and counter-charges of the campaign, but the refusal of some Democrats to accept Trump’s victory, and much of the mainstream media’s defense of their erroneous predictions.
Nor was it just the refusal of prominent Democrats such as Rep. John Lewis to attend President Trump’s inauguration, but the allegations made by Democratic leaders, the intelligence community and major segments of the mainstream media that Trump’s election resulted from his campaign colluding with Russia.
This led to the Mueller investigation, which went on for almost two years, tying up the Trump administration and — with media support — giving credibility to the unprecedented belief that an American president was elected by colluding with a foreign enemy.
Being on the House Intelligence Committee and sitting through endless hearings, listening to countless witnesses and studying reports and analyses, I was convinced there was no collusion whatever. Stripped of defensive rhetoric, the Mueller report reached the same conclusion. But the damage had been done, and the political well was further poisoned.
Then there were the riots in the summer of 2020, which raged throughout the country following the police killing of George Floyd. At least six people were killed. Cities like Spokane, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, were under siege. New York streets became nightly war zones. Police stations were attacked and set on fire. Churches were vandalized. The White House itself was threatened.
Yet Democratic leaders offered only perfunctory disapproval of the violence, emphasizing that most demonstrations were “peaceful.” Following a night of violence in Brooklyn — in which bottles and other objects were thrown at cops — then Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, “I stand with the protesters.”
In Manhattan, the Democratic district attorney refused to prosecute hundreds arrested for looting and rioting, including a getaway driver aiding those caught on video vandalizing St. Patrick’s Cathedral. All further poisoning the well.
Then, beginning on election night in 2020, Trump — citing no credible evidence — charged that the election was “rigged” and “stolen.” Never explaining why, in a rigged election, Republicans would pick up 12 House seats while he lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by more than 7 million, Trump continued to attack the results.
The culmination of this constant onslaught — whether intended or not — was the disgraceful and violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. No rational American — certainly no Republican claiming to be a patriot — can defend that outrage in any way.
Shockingly, however, too many Republicans are willing to minimize the violence as just a protest out of control, and still deny the election results.
What the nation saw last month, when it took 15 ballots over five days for Republicans to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House, was a further rejection of tradition and civility. It is an ominous sign that this was the most protracted election for speaker since the decade preceding the Civil War.
It’s time for the sane forces on both sides to step forward. The United States has come too far as a nation, and faces too many challenges, to allow the voices of anarchy to prevail over our traditions and values.
Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. A version of this essay originally appeared in The Hill.