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How political extremism became the norm

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., talks to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after Gaetz voted “present” in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023.

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 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 Kennedy. Al Gore did challenge George W. Bush’s razor-thin electoral vote margin in 2000 but conceded with class after losing a similarly close razor-thin 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court.

I believe the major turning point in the rules of political combat was the 2016 Trump-Clinton race and its aftermath. It was not just the heated charges and countercharges 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 (D-Ga.) 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 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 concluded likewise. 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, Wash., and Portland, Ore., were under constant siege. New York’s 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 violence emphasizing that most demonstrations were “peaceful.” Following a night of violence in Brooklyn which saw bottles and other objects thrown at cops, then Governor 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. Further poisoning of the well.

Beginning on election night in 2020, President Trump, citing no evidence and having nothing credible, charged 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 election results. The culmination of this constant onslaught, whether or not intended, was the disgraceful and violent assault against the Capitol on Jan. 6. No rational American, certainly no Republican claiming to be a patriot, can defend this 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 earlier this month when it took 15 ballots over 5 days for Republicans to elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as Speaker, was a further rejection of tradition and civility. It is an ominous sign that this was the most protracted Speaker’s election since the decade preceding the Civil War more than 160 years ago.

It is time for sane forces on both sides to step forward. The United States has come too far as a nation and has too many challenges facing it to allow the voices of anarchy to prevail over our traditions and values.

Peter King was the U.S. representative of New York’s 2nd and 3rd congressional districts for 28 years, including serving as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Follow him on Twitter @RepPeteKing.

Tags 2016 presidential election 2020 presidential election Andrew Cuomo Donald Trump George Floyd protests Hillary Clinton House speaker vote Jan. 6 Capitol attack Joe Biden John Lewis Kevin McCarthy Mueller investigation Peter King political polarization Politics of the United States

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