Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

What’s wrong with us? We’re living in a tragedy but we don’t know how to do that

For the first time in my life, I fear for the future of our country

A mosaic depicting theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy. (Palazzo Nuovo, Hall of the Doves via Wikimedia Commons)
A mosaic depicting theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy. (Palazzo Nuovo, Hall of the Doves via Wikimedia Commons)

Gordon Wood, the great historian of the American Revolution, in assessing the flaws of Thomas Jefferson, came to a devastating conclusion. Our third president, he wrote, had “no tragic sense whatsoever.”

I mention this because as I was reading it, I instantly thought: We are now, in Trumpian America, living through a tragedy.

What does that mean? First, it means that things can get far worse than we ever suspected, and end horribly.

Gordon Wood, the great historian of the American Revolution, in assessing the flaws of Thomas Jefferson, came to a devastating conclusion. Our third president, he wrote, had “no tragic sense whatsoever.”

I mention this because as I was reading it, I instantly thought: We are now, in Trumpian America, living through a tragedy.

What does that mean? First, it means that things can get far worse than we ever suspected, and end horribly.

It also means that every day we will see good people dragged down into the mud, while middling people make the wrong decisions and contribute to the erosion of our freedoms. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, was a sprightly figure with a gimlet eye for the flaws of others, but lately he seems to be looking only for new opportunities to lick Trump’s golf shoes. Sen. Susan Collins inspired her constituents earlier this year, but lately seems to have committed herself to tepidly supporting the worst tax bill in modern times, as if weak support is an alibi.

When honest people must lie, when mediocre people decide to embrace evil, when evil takes on an air of inevitability — that’s a curtainraiser for tragedy.

But there’s more. People stuck inside tragedies often make the mistake of thinking they are nearing the end when they are only in Act I. And that is where I think we stand, still at the beginning of this long ride. All around us, the selfish and malevolent are thriving, flatterers are rising, and good people feel simply powerless.

What especially bothers me is this: For about a year now, I’ve feared for the future of our country, for the first time in my life. But lately, on top of that, I’ve begun to suspect that I won’t live to see the final act.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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