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Partisans Without Purpose

If the US is in the throes of a constitutional crisis, it's one oddly devoid of social substance.

Adam Schiff (D-CA), ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, takes a break from a closed door interview with Steve Bannon on January 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

You hear a lot of talk on Twitter these days about a constitutional crisis.

The thing about previous moments of constitutional crisis in the United States is that they were never strictly about institutions and narrowly political questions; they were always about something socially substantive, something larger than the specific issue itself. The crisis provoked by the election of Lincoln in 1860, which led to secession and then the Civil War, was, of course, about slavery. The crisis of FDR’s court-packing scheme was about the New Deal and whether the American state could be used to bring American capitalism to heel. Watergate was about the Cold War and a murderous foreign policy.

What strikes me about the current crisis over Trump and the FBI, if that’s even what it is, is how far removed it is from the larger social questions that animated these previous crises. Obviously Trump and the GOP have a social base and are pursuing a social agenda, but the constitutional expression of the disagreement over the FBI and the Mueller inquiry bears no relationship to that social agenda.

It’s not as if what Trump is really seeking is an FBI or Justice Department that’s willing to pursue his anti-immigration agenda; that Justice Department already exists. And it’s not as if Congress is releasing this memo in order to protect Russian interests; this is the very same Congress, in a lopsided bipartisan vote, that slapped heavy sanctions on Russia. And even if you think the real story behind the immediate controversy is the rise of an international oligarchy that’s removed from all political constraints, it’s not as if the Democrats have any great interest in restraining that oligarchy. Nor have the Democrats shown, prior to Trump, any great interest in restraining the presidency.

So the narrow political controversy that is so dividing the two parties and leading to talk of a constitutional crisis is completely stripped of almost all the larger questions that are said to currently divide our country. As Seth Ackerman said to me the other day, you hear this talk on Twitter and Facebook of a massive constitutional crisis, but when you go to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times, you learn that the larger social and economic and even political world is just humming along, as if nothing’s happening. If there’s a constitutional crisis, the New York Times doesn’t seem to know about it. That’s quite different from the Watergate years, when every social conflict — over race, Vietnam, the economy, and the Cold War — was refracted through this massive showdown over a break-in at a hotel, which was then reflected in the day-to-day reporting.

And even if you think that what the Right is really doing here is trying to salvage a presidency from what it fears is impending damage — and I do think that’s the most plausible interpretation of what the congressional Republicans are doing — you still have to confront the fact that in doing what they’re doing, they’re not salvaging their substantive agenda, but instead jeopardizing it. As the Boston Globe recently reported, at their annual retreat, the congressional GOP spent almost the entire time talking about “the memo” rather than any real agenda — whether immigration, taxes, health care, and so on — they wanted to pursue. So salvaging the presidency seems to be divorced from pursuing a substantive agenda.

Conversely, on the liberal side, you might say that Democrats and progressives see in this controversy everything that’s wrong with Trump — the lawlessness, contempt for institutions, and so forth — but even the most imaginative liberal would be hard-pressed to see in the protection of the FBI from Trump’s meddling hand a path forward on immigration, Obamacare, sexual harassment, the alt-right and racism, and any of the other myriad issues that make Democrats loathe Trump.

It’s almost as if we really are living in a perfect Schmittian moment, where the political issue that divides friends from enemies is not in any way related to factors and concerns that lie outside the political realm, but is instead wholly unto itself. In the same way Schmitt believed that the political divide of friend and enemy had to be removed from, or somehow transcend, whatever social or economic or religious or cultural question that might have originally underpinned that divide — so that the divide would be purely existential, a question of life or death of one’s own side, without any external concern for the substance of the divide — so does this current crisis seem to be almost entirely about itself. It’s a court-packing scheme without the New Deal, a Civil War without slavery, Watergate without Vietnam. Partisans without purpose — save partisanship itself.