‘We’re facing a crisis far more dangerous than Watergate’
By Edward Dolnick
Special to the Rappahannock News
Since the 1980s, every political reporter struggling to make sense of Washington has sooner or later turned to the same person for insight. Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is perhaps America’s most eminent political analyst. His newest book, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Departed, immediately soared onto the best-seller list.
On Friday, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m., Ornstein will give RAAC’s Second Friday Talk. Because he will likely draw a large audience, Ornstein will speak at the Theater in Little Washington, 291 Gay Street, and not at the library. The talk is free, and all are welcome.
Ornstein rose to prominence partly because he has a reputation for non-partisanship (his home base, the American Enterprise Institute, leans conservative). But the rise of Trump has shaken him.
In an interview, Ornstein laid out some of the themes he plans to explore in his Second Friday talk. He’ll discuss “the arc of Trump and Trumpism – how we got here, and the dangers he represents, and what we can do about it.”
Ornstein will look not just at Trump but at the forces that drive American politics today. In a sort of political geology, his subject is the most recent earthquake, and, what is more important, the forces that make the ground shake and shift.
Curiously, Ornstein finds himself feeling optimistic about the political future despite what he sees as the darkness of the present moment.
“This is not business as usual,” he says. “We’re facing a crisis far more dangerous than Watergate.”
Even so, he foresees what he calls a “backlash against the backlash.” Trump’s excesses are so impossible to miss, in Ornstein’s view, that new coalitions of outraged voters may rise up to challenge him.
“The elections in Virginia and Alabama should give us a little hope,” he says. “There are heartening signs that people have been jolted by what’s happening.”
Ornstein himself has been jolted by seismic shifts in politics over recent decades. In 2012 he published a book — also a best-seller — called It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Six years before, Newt Gingrich had praised Ornstein’s analysis of Congress. Now Ornstein wrote that the two parties were not equally to blame for our political woes.
Journalists continued to churn out “both sides are at fault” stories, he charged, but that supposed evenhandedness was in fact laziness and bad reporting. Ornstein made his own views plain. Republicans had “become more loyal to party than country,” he wrote, which left “the political system grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats.”
In the years since, Ornstein argues, the stakes have risen even higher. He points to issues linked with Trump in particular — “we’d never had a president who raised grave and widespread doubts about his commitment to the institutions of self-government” — and to issues that reach beyond any individual — “our political system is now biased against the American majority,” because of gerrymandering and the electoral college and the structure of the senate (where empty states and crowded ones have equal say) and voter disenfranchisement.
“I’m trying to be hopeful,” Ornstein says, “but you can’t underestimate the dangers here.”
Edward Dolnick is a writer who lives in Rappahannock.