Imagine living in a country where you can get death threats for voting to upgrade bridges, roads, ports, airports and internet connections. Oh wait. We do live in that country.
America has turned into a place where it’s risky to look out for the people you represent in Congress, who may be in dire need of clean water or a power grid that doesn’t collapse in a storm. It’s risky to give a political “win” to a president from the other party. Some of your own leaders and colleagues have it in for you. They’re ready to get you kicked off committees or contested in a primary, or post your phone numbers on Twitter – and let their inflamed supporters take it from there.
And what travesty triggered all this? Against all odds, Congress passed a bipartisan, $1.2 trillion infrastructure package and President Joe Biden signed it into law Monday. The 32 Republicans who supported it are fighting a ferocious backlash. Instead of celebrating, they fear for their careers, their lives and their families.
America is devastatingly off track
Politics is supposed to be an alternative to war and violence, not an excuse to threaten, fantasize and foment them. When Donald Trump supporters invade the U.S. Capitol and people die as a result, when a Trump loyalist in Congress posts a cartoon of killing a liberal colleague, when another warns of “bloodshed” in future elections, when yet another calls supporters of the infrastructure law traitors, we are devastatingly off track.
What’s happening with infrastructure is the latest manifestation of our diseased politics. Personal security costs for lawmakers in both parties have soared this year, multiple analyses show, as a result of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Trump’s second impeachment, his continued insistence that he actually won the 2020 election and his constant vilification of those who reject his “Big Lie” or work with Democrats.
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Trump even told ABC News reporter Jon Karl that it was “common sense” for his supporters to chant “Hang Mike Pence” at the Capitol on Jan. 6 (the day the vice president and Congress were set to finalize the 2020 election results) because the vote was “fraudulent” and “the people were very angry.” Sen. John Barrasso said Sunday on ABC’s This Week that Trump is an “enduring force” in the GOP and refused to criticize what he said.
This phenomenon is not limited to Congress. Dr. Anthony Fauci has had protection since April 2020, and the Department of Homeland Security warned this month that “pandemic-related stressors” could make public health officials vulnerable to anti-government extremists. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is consulting with communities about “an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” against school officials and employees.
Why do people feel comfortable behaving this way? The tone is set at the top, by the most juvenile, selfish, anti-democratic, corrupt, power-hungry ex-president in U.S. history.
Infrastructure was once a crashing bore as a political issue. I remember the late Rep. Bob Edgar telling me in the 1980s that every time he said the word, the pen would stop moving and the TV camera would click off. But labor and business have pushed jointly for major investment for decades. A routine surface transportation bill passed by huge bipartisan margins in 2015. For most of our history, infrastructure has been recognized as a core contributor to national security, economic strength and the daily health and safety of all Americans.
But the U.S. continued to fall behind other nations. In 2014, then-Vice President Joe Biden said a blindfolded person taken to New York’s LaGuardia Airport would think, “I must be in some third-world country.” Infrastructure Week later became a running gag throughout the Trump administration.
Infrastructure is not communism
Now that it is a bragworthy success, Trump and other tear-down artists are trying to brand infrastructure spending as socialism and communism. As if the federal government has no role; as if Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate achievement was anything but a miracle for Americans and the economy. Nevertheless, given Trump’s “leadership,” Republican support for the new law is in freefall.
Trump blames Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, a ruthless Republican partisan if ever there was one, for handing a win to Biden. Whatever McConnell’s motives, whether he was looking out for his state or proving the Senate can work despite its paralyzing filibuster rule, he supported the infrastructure package. Trump also blames McConnell for the 2019 failure of his own infrastructure plan. In reality, bipartisan talks were on track but Trump blew them up because House Democrats refused to stop investigating him.
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This new law seems like a turning point, but in which direction? Does it portend a future of occasional bipartisan cooperation and agreements that move the country forward? Or is it the last gasp of an era that started eroding in 2009, when leading Republicans vowed to block President Barack Obama’s agenda and make him a one-term president? Will our growth slow, and our aspirations shrink, because Republicans can’t bear to lose – or see the other side win?
Biden emphasized the positive, that Democrats and Republicans have moved past bickering and proven that “we can do this. We can deliver real results for real people.”
Let’s believe in each other, he said, and in our possibilities going forward. I hope he’s right – but my own conclusion is more gloomy. If it’s this dangerous to support infrastructure, there’s no safe common ground in politics. At least right now.
Jill Lawrence is a columnist for USA TODAY and author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock.” Follow her on Twitter: @JillDLawrence