By JIM SPEHAR
“Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
— John F. Kennedy
JFK was one of many leaders, Winston Churchill another, who adapted the old Chinese proverb I recalled while viewing the chilling events of last Wednesday.
“He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount,” is one common translation of the original warning that once you find yourself in dangerous circumstances of your own making it might be impossible to find a soft place to fall.
I’m also pondering the refrain heard from many observers inside and outside the Capitol Hill seat of our democracy attacked by those aptly termed “domestic terrorists.”
“This is not who we are,” that one goes. It’s a multipurpose excuse, reminiscent of “thoughts and prayers,” handy when trying to disassociate oneself or our broader society from unpleasant circumstances. But, for some, it is who they became. Donald Trump didn’t create what’s been termed “this moment of reckoning” alone. He had plenty of help.
“We brought this hell upon ourselves,” Sen. Cory Booker told colleagues as lawmakers returned to their duties late Wednesday, by “choosing Trump over truth.”
Those who enabled our departing president jumped aboard “the tiger” in 2016, some as an over-reaction to Barack Obama or aversion to Hillary Clinton. Understandable, perhaps, back then. But they incrementally descended into the rabbit hole of rationalization as Trump degraded the presidency and harmed the country domestically and internationally until they found themselves trapped inside an angry tiger in the final throes of his political career.
“Cognitive dissonance” is what it’s called. “The mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes.” In this case, many otherwise intelligent folks hitched a ride on a political newcomer whose words and deeds clashed with their usual moral values. Then, for four years, they defensively doubled down as their choice disintegrated, unwilling to instead revisit that initial decision.
That happened within my own circles …among members of my extended family, friends and acquaintances, former neighbors, respected colleagues in my private and public lives. It’s rampant in those viewed from distance, Republican politicians, local/state/national GOP leaders, conservative pundits, others now scrambling to cure hangovers from much-too-potent Kool-Aid.
Especially repugnant have been the self-serving “deathbed conversions” of lawmakers and others who previously fell all over themselves currying favor with Trump, either for political gain or to avoid the wrath of a vengeful president. Luckily, there have been a few “Profiles in Courage” along the way.
“The best way we can show respect for those who are upset is by telling them the truth,” Mitt Romney, a consistent Trump critic, offered post-insurrection.
Unexpectedly, Dick Cheney and Mike Pence stepped up, albeit belatedly. Cheney organized a warning from former secretaries of defense. Pence found backbone at the last minute, refusing to subvert the Constitution, after years of being a sycophant. Even Mitch McConnell ultimately rejected Trump’s demands.
The current president finally pledges a peaceful transition. It’s hard to imagine, though, any torch-passing akin to others in recent years. That’d include Bob Dole’s “opponents but not enemies” statement, John McCain’s “the people have spoken,” George W. Bush’s grace in passing the mantle to Barack Obama, that of his father while turning over the presidency to Bill Clinton, Al Gore declining to challenge his Electoral College loss to G.W. despite winning the popular vote and Hillary Clinton’s concession in similar circumstances.
Our 46th president will take the oath of office in 10 days. When that happens, freshly constituted executive and legislative branches might consider the advice of an earlier president, an alternative to the “rule or ruin” mentality Abraham Lincoln once warned about.
“Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” John Kennedy said at his own inauguration. “…And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power.”
Capitol Hill security breached, doors and windows smashed, offices pillaged, those we trust with our government endangered before being rushed to secret hideaways, five dead. All encouraged by ill-chosen but oft heard words and selfish actions of an arrogant and egotistical man. That will be the lasting legacy of Donald J. Trump.
We’ve experienced this last week what happens when good people do nothing, when they’re willing to tolerate the unacceptable.
“If history teaches anything, it teaches self-delusion in the face of unpleasant facts is folly.”
– Ronald Reagan
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