Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The split screen between President Joe Biden in Tempe, Arizona, and House Republicans on Capitol Hill this Thursday captured the rupturing fault lines of American politics.
Biden was honoring late Republican Sen. John McCain, recalling a bygone era of bipartisan friendship while warning that our democracy is in grave danger in this upcoming election.
Meanwhile in Washington, House Republicans convened an impeachment inquiry — which even GOP witnesses admitted lacked concrete evidence — while divisions in their own party thrust the nation even closer to a government shutdown.
When Biden decried “extremists in Congress more determined … to burn the place down than to let the people’s business be done,” it might have sounded to the casual observer like presidential hyperbole.
But it was a direct echo of a statement made by Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who slammed members of the far-right in his own party as “individuals that just want to burn the whole place down.”
It has been a slow burn. Frustrations with the far-right caused McCarthy’s two GOP predecessors — John Boehner and Paul Ryan — to leave their powerful positions, raising the question of whether Republicans can be corralled into constructive governance as long as the far-right is calling the shots.
It is a truism that appeasement only invites aggression, and yet most Republicans remain afraid of publicly condemning their four-time indicted front-runner, Donald Trump. The man who tried to overturn an election on the back of a lie is seemingly steamrolling his way to the nomination — despite the fact that dozens of former Trump administration alumni warn that he is unfit to serve in the office again.
As former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “Donald Trump is the most grave threat we will face to our democracy in our lifetime, and potentially in American history.”
Trump’s increasingly unhinged autocratic outbursts are becoming background noise in this campaign, with initial shrugs greeting his suggestion that outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley be executed. Even this lawless impulse did not draw broad condemnation at Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate.
Make no mistake: Trump’s self-styled “retribution” campaign for re-election is more than just outbursts, it comes with policy proposals like firing up to 50,000 non-partisan civil servants and replacing them with Trump loyalists. As CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote, a second Trump presidency “would be even more extreme and challenging to the rule of law than his first.”
In this atmosphere, Democrats might believe they have a clear upper hand when it comes to defending democracy. They can comfort themselves with Biden’s historic record of bipartisan legislative successes and string of big wins in state legislature special elections. But there are flashing red signs that the division and dysfunction is fueling a pox-on-both-your-houses alienation.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that 65% of Americans say that thinking about politics makes them feel exhausted while just 4% say our political system is working extremely or very well — and a growing share of the public says they dislike both political parties.
Even more troubling for Democrats, a recent NBC News survey found that Republicans have an 8-point advantage when it comes to “protecting constitutional rights” and a one-point advantage on “protecting democracy.”
This doesn’t square with the facts. After all, outgoing Republican Sen. Mitt Romney admitted to The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, “a very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.” But negative partisanship drives perceptions of politics beyond reason. Arsonists can make the entire neighborhood feel unsafe.
Numbed by exhaustion with endless political division and dysfunction, America is in danger of sleepwalking into our next presidential election. As President Biden warned, “Democracies don’t have to die at the end of a rifle. They can die when people are silent, when they fail to stand up.”