From the halls of Congress to the corridors of the State Department, there reigns an air of strange defeat.
Though shutdowns are part of the repertory of legislators, the one that ended in January was not only the longest but also the most absurd in the country’s history of representative obstruction.
Because President Trump wants his wall on the Mexican border.
Because hordes of migrants, he asserts, are poised to invade Texas and Arizona and have to be stopped at all costs.
Because the Dreamers, whose real plan is to embrace the values and the credo of American exceptionalism, are in Trump’s eyes representative of a colossal enemy straddling the Rio Grande, leapfrogging outgunned customs officers, making straight for the country’s farms, there to cut the throats of the farmers’ wives and children.
And because to stop them, he says, we need to declare a state of emergency that Congress obviously does not wish to fund.
That Trump’s mutterings are not just fact-free but also obscenely defamatory is apparent to all of the sensible Republicans with whom I have been meeting lately in New York and Washington, though too few of them are saying it out loud.
The idea that America should come to define itself as a fortress assailed by a new army of Huns (played by poor Hondurans and Salvadorans) is deplorable to anyone having the faintest recollection of the tradition of hospitality that made the United States prosperous as well as a shining example to the world.
We could go on forever about the towering cynicism of the ideologues in the president’s entourage who, through dire tweets and apocalyptic pronouncements on Fox News, stoke a fire-of-fantasy machine that causes the world’s most powerful nation to furlough its park rangers and air traffic controllers while waiting for a string of secret powwows in the Oval Office to deliver a verdict on the vital question of whether the wall should be made of concrete or steel All of that is a proper farce, one that transports democracy in America from the realm of Tocqueville to that of the Marx Brothers.
But the shutdown says something else about the debasement of the Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan.
Because this tragicomedy has occurred — how is this not blindingly obvious? — at the very moment when President Vladimir Putin of Russia is trying, through surrogates such as Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister of Italy; Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Rally party; and President Viktor Orban of Hungary, to shatter the foundations of the European Union; when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey s quietly strangling the Kurdish people who were the most valiant and pro-Western allies of the United States in the Middle East; when Saudi Arabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is dreaming of applying the Jamal Khashoggi approach to more princes or dissidents who resist him, as well as to borders; when the Iran of the ayatollahs is celebrating its 40th birthday and the new Shi’ite Crescent stretching from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad; and when the new China is making clear to the world its plans of conquest and beginning to carry them out with calm determination.
Amid all this, the United States prefers to divert its attention and its assets to an invented Latin American peril rather than to open its eyes to the fact that, throughout the world, it is being played, duped, driven out, and made a laughingstock by scheming autocrats.
In the face of these new authoritarian empires whose political clock ticks in decades if not centuries, one might expect to see a plan, a vision, or — if we must think in walls — a wall against the Pacific, an ideological and financial rampart, a moral fortification that, through bricks, mortar, and well-treated allies, would contain, in the South China Sea, the initial movements of an openly advancing Chinese imperialism and, with regard to Russia and its attempts to bring this or that central European or Baltic democracy back into line, reinforce the excellent existing wall known as NATO. Instead, Trump offers us a puerile, lowbrow, puffed up, narcissistic, and tragically clueless “state of emergency,” whose genealogy can be traced more to Barry Goldwater and Charles Lindbergh than to George Marshall, Woodrow Wilson, or John McCain.
With the result that, while Trump is indeed the brand of the prevailing political idiocy, while the tweeter in chief is indeed a lazy buffoon who can never see beyond the end of his short-term dealmaker’s nose, he is also, with his wall obsession, as feckless as the French builders of the Maginot Line before World War II; as ridiculous, in history’s eyes, as Xerxes ordering his sailors to flog the sea after a shipwreck; as strategically challenged as the Romans who, from Hadrian’s Wall to Trajan’s Wall, convinced themselves that they were safe from invasion.
The real state of emergency, in other words, is not financial or political, it is moral.
The most worrisome paralysis is not to be found in the now-on, now-off status of the government workforce but rather in the strategic thinking of the 45th president of the United States.
It lies in the kind of heedlessness, spinelessness, and laziness that can one day forget the Ukrainians, the next day leave the Kurds and the last free Syrians to die, and the day after that offer Africa to Cina’s Xi Jinping, all while presenting nitpicking accounts to NATO allies.
In all of this, there is only one plot: the heartbreaking, deplorable sight of diplomacy suicidally scuttling itself — shutting down.
It is, to paraphrase Philip Roth, the plot of America against itself.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author. He will be speaking about his new book, “The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World,’’ Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Cambridge Public Library.