The profound truth that’s been lost in the desperate effort to end the federal shutdown is that, more than any time since the 1850s, a significant portion of the current government is hostile to what the rest of us call “union.” Well-meaning talk about doing what’s in the best interests of the country has about it a kind of heartbreaking naiveté. When commentators despair as to whether some Republican members of the House of Representatives understand the consequences of defaulting on the nation’s bills, it’s akin to asking mid-19th-century Southern Democrats whether they understood that the alternative to their intransigence on the issue of slavery was civil war. The answer was that they understood it and welcomed it. In the same fashion, a tenth of the present national legislature finds the country so fundamentally flawed and believes the nation has become such an abomination—as personified by the abomination who occupies the White House and whom they deem a grotesque miscarriage of American destiny—as to be damned in a theological sense, with the only possibility of making a “more perfect union” a cleansing by the fire of economic bedlam. At the very least the plunge of the world’s finances into a death spiral would be one more way of irrevocably staining the Obama presidency, assuming that the fact of this presidency ever having happened at all can’t be utterly nullified and erased from the cognizance of history.
That history, particularly in the past hundred years in other parts of the world, is rife with examples of a political principle that’s democratically antithetical, which is the Principle of Unreasoning Power. The mechanics of this principle involve the unreasonable cannily placing the burden of reasonableness on those who are reasonable enough to feel the moral weight of that burden, and who therefore can be counted on to eventually collapse from the burden. Reason is for the weak because, by its nature, it acknowledges doubt and the possibility of being wrong, a load from which those who consider themselves more righteous are liberated. Thus an unyielding minority of a minority bends the majority to its will in the same way that it bends to its will truths commonly held by everyone else whether they have to do with environmental science or a president’s birthplace. That minority exists within a surrogate actuality so absolute and enveloping for its most ecstatic submissives that outright hoaxes—reports, for instance, that in the course of the shutdown the president is personally funding Muslim organizations—enter the media bloodstream where they serve a higher purpose against which factuality is irrelevant. Facts themselves are contaminants, conspiratorial in their complexity. Pleas for reason by the reasonable only contribute to the power of the unreasoning by offering the opportunity to restate absolutes.
It should go without saying that the moment at hand is too crucial to spend trying to convince those who have a vested interest in not being convinced. It’s too crucial to waste preaching the virtues of lucidity to those who have a vested interest in disarray and whose long-term vision of the nation is contingent on a pandemonium that is the political equivalent of End Days. After learning the hard way, a president previously distinguished by almost pathological reasonableness correctly has concluded that more is at stake than the fleeting resolution of today’s turmoil or even the verdict of polls that mostly favor him anyway. Though we always can hope we’re wrong, it appears that his counterpart, the Speaker of the House, is too small a man to trade the status he’s always coveted for the immortality of having saved his country by calling a vote on the budget and then, minutes after its passage, walking away from his speakership, as a hero would do. The speaker, the president and the rest of us are dealing with people who mean no good to the country that the rest of us believe in, because they regard the country that the rest of us believe in as no good. This isn’t a conflict between one version of union and another but, as in the 1850s, between union and a delirious disunion for which its partisans yearn in a manner that’s barely secret anymore.