For the past week, firefighters in California’s famed Yosemite National Park have fought to save hundreds of ancient redwood trees from being consumed by flames from a rapidly spreading wildfire. The trees have been growing for hundreds, in some cases thousands, of years. They have survived numerous natural disasters over the centuries; yet today’s escalating climate crisis has so altered the calculus around fires in America’s parched West that these trees are now at risk.
Reading about this, it strikes me that there’s a metaphor here.
Tuesday afternoon, I was watching the latest congressional hearings into the putsch attempt of January 6, 2021. This episode was the one detailing efforts by Trump, via ultimately unpublished executive orders, to appoint Sidney Powell as a special prosecutor to pore over voting machines that would be seized by the federal government, and to start prosecuting people left, right, and center until the middle caved and Trump was somehow reinstalled as president. It detailed screaming matches in the White House, as a bevy of fanatics pushed Trump to bypass his cabinet and his legal advisers, and to simply order the seizure of voting machines. Most damaging of all, it detailed a ferocious, and clearly coordinated, effort by a huge network of white nationalists, fascists, street-fighting outfits, and other unsavory, dangerous organizations to bring firepower and the threat of violent revolution to D.C. on January 6 in their efforts to keep Trump in power at all costs.
The hearing showed footage of far-right social media influencers, including one calling for a “red wedding,” a phrase in pop culture intended to conjure up images of blood flowing in the streets. It detailed how the Oath Keepers’ leader, Stewart Rhodes, wanted to distribute a deck of cards, each one of which would have featured a high-profile politician whom the organization wanted to kill off. (So much for the Oath Keepers’ claims of simply being stewards of the Constitution; it turns out they were a death squad in the making.) It showed direct links between Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and other inner-circle Trumpists, and the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and other fascist militias.
Given what is being detailed in these hearings—and given the miasma of extremism that makes up much of the Web these days—it’s not a stretch to say that American democracy is clinging to life by the thinnest of threads.
And yet the country’s top political figures are showing a woeful inadequacy to meet the needs of this moment. America’s political leadership, especially in the Democratic Party, is ancient, staid, and entirely vulnerable to escalating crises with which they are personally and temperamentally ill-equipped to deal. President Biden is fast approaching 80. His main primary rival in the Democratic race from 2020, Bernie Sanders, is nearly 81. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 82. California’s senior senator, Diane Feinstein, is a whopping 89.
The list goes on. Even Senate majority leader Charles Schumer, the baby of the bunch, is now in his 70s. They grew up in a different (pre-Nixon) era, one in which politics was often feisty and frequently nasty, one in which violent extremists on the margins certainly inflicted pain and suffering. But it was one in which key players at the heart of power could mostly be counted on to accept the basic democratic mechanisms of the American political system and could generally be assumed to shy away from civil-war-promoting rhetoric. The world they grew up in was capable, at least belatedly, of reining in the Joe McCarthys and John Birchers before those thugs could completely eviscerate the democracy. That world has vanished. It was already fragile when Trump got his hands on power in 2016; it was largely a dead duck by the time he lost the election in 2020. In the two years since then, that fury, that irrationality, that language of violence and vitriol has, if anything, only intensified.
Yet the gerontocrats currently running the country seem to have no ability to comprehend the five-alarm urgency of the moment. They proceed with their politics as if they are still playing the gentlemen’s games of the past.
That goes for the extraordinarily milquetoast responses to Trump’s ongoing outrages. But it also goes for the normalization of extremism that transpired after Trumpism essentially conquered the Republican Party, and now that Trump-appointed judges have taken a wrecking ball to everything from the right to abortion to the right to vote to the ability to regulate climate-change-inducing greenhouse gases.
Why isn’t the Biden administration moving more forcefully to take on domestic extremists, including Trump? Why is there virtually no discussion of expanding the Supreme Court, three of whose members were appointed by a president now under investigation for plotting to overthrow the constitutional system of government? Why was the administration so utterly unprepared to deal with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, given that it must have known from the very first day Biden took office that such an outcome was likely? Why has the administration been so woefully unable to secure meaningful climate change prevention and mitigation investments? Why did the administration sleepwalk its way into an inflation crisis that now threatens to hand congressional power back to a far-right GOP? There is a lack of stamina and focus in their responses that gives the impression of an administration and a presidency chronically, perhaps terminally, unengaged, one seeking to avert crisis simply by turning a blind eye to the bad news.
A poll earlier this week showed that only one in three Americans approve of Biden’s job performance. That same poll found that nearly two in three Democrats—yes, Democrats—wanted someone other than Biden to be their presidential candidate come 2024.
These are calamitous numbers not just for Biden but also for the Democratic Party, and, because of the stakes involved, and given the Republican embrace of extremism and denial of climate-change realities, not just for the Democratic Party but also for the country and the world.
The saying “shit or get off of the pot” may be crude, but it contains a valid truth. Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, et al. were handed a golden opportunity in 2020 to puncture the Trumpian balloon, to truly tackle his deadly personality cult, and to refashion politics in a big, bold, progressive, and durable way. They have spectacularly failed to do so. After weeks of prime-time congressional hearings that have copiously detailed Trump’s narcissism, dishonesty, penchant for violence, and willingness to stoke the flames of civil conflict solely for his own personal gain, he still remains politically competitive and hovers over the country as a potential GOP presidential nominee come 2024. It all shows just how damaged the political culture is and just how ineffective the Biden administration and its brand have become.
Those venerable old trees in Yosemite may or may not survive the coming week. But if the fires don’t get them this time, it’s fairly likely they’ll succumb next year or the year after that or the one after that. They have stood gloriously for centuries, but now their environment is shifting too quickly and too destructively for them to be able to successfully adapt. I fear the same may be true for America’s body politic, and for the antiquated political leaders who seem paralyzed just at the moment when the flames are starting to lick all around them.