Things fall apart

In my dream, I’m skating across a frozen lake, but under every next step the ice cracks. I fear falling through into a cold, unfamiliar abyss. I awake in a shudder and the feeling lingers.

Days go by. The metaphor of the dream stays with me. I wonder how many others arise with a similar anxiety, provoked by new and profound events convulsing the country and beyond.

Americans are accustomed to dysfunction, but rarely of this magnitude and all at once – political realignments over budget priorities and foreign policy, a porous southern border, an inadequate response to climate change, rising populism, a second war that demands immediate attention and resources. Taken together, it all leads to questions about American exceptionalism and essentialism. Are we any more what we always thought we were?

As the autumn leaves turned, the fractures spread, leaving more suspect terrain, especially within the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where divisions and mistrust are deeper than in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Where once all hands were united behind Ukraine in its war against Russia, lawmakers became split over how much more economic and military aid we can afford, if we can afford any at all. New demands for aid to Israel clashed with continuing aid to Ukraine. Some members favoured helping both in a single package; others wanted to consider them separately.

Left in the wake of a leaderless House were all the issues of the day

In a rare Oval Office address in which he proposed huge aid packages for both Israel and Ukraine, President Joe Biden begged Americans not to abandon either country to safeguard them as democracies.

Meanwhile, arguments over spending limits impeded House efforts to pass the annual budget in September. Some lawmakers wanted to slash entire programmes; others wanted to hold the line at current spending levels or just below them.

Within hours of the 2023 fiscal year deadline at the end of September, Speaker Kevin McCarthy cut a deal with the Democrats for a 45-day extension to negotiate a budget package. All that did was cost him his job, the first time in American history a speaker was removed. A small band of ultra-conservatives, joined by all the Democrats, who never much cared for McCarthy anyway, engineered a no-confidence vote for agreeing to the extension.

His ousting left the House leaderless and Congress paralysed for weeks as fighting escalated in the Middle East, Ukraine waited for more military aid, and days ticked away, wasted, in which to set a budget by 17 November.“It makes us look like a bunch of idiots,” said Austin Scott, a Republican House member from Georgia.

More Republican chaos ensued. McCarthy’s second-in-command, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, had insufficient support and stepped aside. Next up, Jim Jordan of Ohio, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump and a 2020 election denier, failed in each of three rounds of voting despite anonymous death threats — death threats — against members who voted against him. Tom Emmer of Minnesota was next to fall. Finally, after 22 days with no Speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, another Trump-endorsed election denier, won with every Republican vote.

Left in the wake of a leaderless House were all the contentious issues of the day, one especially thorny: how to stem the daily flood of illegal immigrants pushing into the United States from Mexico. Republicans wanted a total border blockade, while Democrats sought an orderly procedure to manage the influx. In Texas, where Republicans call the shots, state officials continued busing thousands of border-crossers to Democrat-led cities to spread the crisis, causing overflows in big-city shelters and raising the homeless population.

Exasperated by criticism that he wasn’t doing enough to seal the border, President Biden took the extraordinary step of proposing to finish building the wall that Trump started, a wall Biden long insisted was inefficient and unnecessary. That decision won him even more criticism, this time from his own party. Trump, who remains the leading Republican candidate for president next year, claimed with no evidence that those crossing into the country included “the same people” who attacked Israel.

With thousands of Israelis and Palestinians killed, it didn’t take long for ascribing blame to begin. Even as many held Iran responsible for years of supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and other organisations branded as terrorist by the US and EU, Left-wing Democrats in Congress and progressive groups across the country blamed Israel and, by extension, the US for condoning what they called Israel’s “apartheid” control of Gaza and the West Bank.

Biden also came under attack for a deal in which Iran released five American prisoners in exchange for $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds to be used only for humanitarian purposes. Once the war in Israel started, Biden re-froze the money. That didn’t stop Republicans from accusing him of helping to finance Hamas.

College campuses became hot spots for opposing views on the war. At Harvard, 30 student groups issued a joint statement saying they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence”. At Rutgers University in New Jersey, a group called Students for Justice in Palestine expressed sympathy for the “Palestinian resistance”, supporting Hamas’s attack as “justified retaliation”. Pro-Israel demonstrations were widespread as well. After a Palestinian literary conference on the University of Pennsylvania campus included allegedly anti-Semitic speakers, wealthy donors cut off donations and called for the resignation of the school president.

Worse for all of this is how the renewed violence in the Middle East stalled efforts at normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an alignment that would accrue huge benefits to Jews and their Muslim neighbours, including Palestinians. Talks had been progressing. The main objector to such an arrangement? Iran.

All that, as other events reflect business-not-as-usual across the nation: Trump is facing 91 felony counts in four different court cases. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas neglected to report favours and expensive gifts as required. Democrat Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was charged with bribery and conspiring to act as a foreign agent for Egypt. Even with two wars underway, Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville said he wouldn’t release his hold on military promotions until the Pentagon changes its abortion policy. Oil prices, food costs, mortgage rates and hate crimes are all rising again.

And in furtherance of his “America First” ideology, Trump took aim at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the intelligence failures that enabled the invasion from Gaza. He also called Hezbollah “very smart” as it opened a second front from Lebanon.

No doubt, America’s adversaries are paying close attention. On the same day Biden visited Israel, Russian President Vladimir Putin was in China, affirming his “no limits” friendship with Xi Jinping. And keep an eye on Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

As Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, observed: “The world is watching. They’re seeing dysfunctional democracy.”

And that’s hardly a dream. It’s a nightmare.

Going concerns

In their prime, Dianne Feinstein and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were American royalty, lionesses in their respective jungles – Feinstein as a centre-Left voice of reason in the Senate, Ginsburg as a powerful force among liberals on the Supreme Court.

Feinstein, who died in September as the oldest Senator at 90, won six six-year terms. Ginsburg, who died in 2020 at 87, served 27 years on the Court.

But they shared more than iconic statures. Both resisted urgent pleas to step down, and their unwillingness had far-reaching consequences for the country.

Biden, 80, has fended off similar pleas to forego running for a second term

Feinstein had been in declining health for more than a year. After missing two months in Washington to receive treatment for shingles in San Francisco, she returned to the Senate in a wheelchair, looking frail and ever-more reliant on aides to keep her abreast of issues of the day.

But even before her absence, Congressional Democrats, privately and publicly, beseeched her to step down in deference to her mounting health problems and the growing focus on old age as a perceived impediment to effective leadership. President Joe Biden, now 80, has fended off similar pleas to forego running for a second term.

Feinstein’s ill health led to problems for Biden. She was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on which Democrats had a single-seat majority, 10-9. But Republicans denied Democrats a request to appoint a temporary replacement when she was receiving treatment, thus leaving some of Biden’s judicial appointments in limbo. All such appointments have to be approved by the committee before a full Senate vote.

The committee remains at 9-9.

After Feinstein said she would finish her sixth term but not seek a seventh, it opened the door for nearly 40 candidates to declare their interest in running for the seat. The field includes three prominent California House members – Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter – but not the woman Governor Gavin Newsom nominated to serve out Feinstein’s term. She declined.

Recent polls show Schiff, who led the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump, holding a slight lead in what could become the most expensive Senate race in history. But California, a majority Democrat state, conducts what is colloquially known as a “jungle primary” – which means all contestants run in the same primary election, and the top two finishers advance to the general election.

No matter that the state has not elected a Republican senator since Pete Wilson in 1988. Voters here love celebrities who run for office, and Steve Garvey, a political neophyte who was a wildly popular member of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team of decades ago, is running as a Republican. A long shot, you say. Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger? How about Ronald Reagan?

As for Ginsburg, after five bouts with cancer through her later years on the Supreme Court, Democrats pressed her to step down before the 2016 presidential election so President Barack Obama could nominate a liberal-leaning judge in her place. Justices typically serve for decades. She refused and lasted through all but the last two months of Donald Trump’s single term in office when she died.

Trump had already named two conservatives to fill vacancies: Neil Gorsuch, following the death of Antonin Scalia, and Brett Kavanaugh, following the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, sustaining a 5-4 conservative advantage. Then, Trump named a third, Amy Coney Barrett.

Ginsburg’s refusal to step down brought the conservative majority to 6-3, a protective edge for Republican interests, not least the elimination of federally guaranteed abortion rights – something Ginsburg had held sacred.

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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Columns, November 2023, Stateside

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