BOSTON – As a (very) young man back in the 1960s and early-1970s, I saw our country torn apart by conflict over our costly involvement in the Vietnam War.
That bitterness still lingers in some quarters, but the issue was resolved - faced with the evidence of body bags and battlefield defeats, a majority of Americans clamored for withdrawal, and a Republican president complied.
Half a century later, we are again a house divided. And while the ouster of Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker may look like an intra-party struggle, it reflects the broader deterioration of our social and political fabric.
Keep in mind, this was not some kind of conservative revolt against a leader who turned out to be a RINO (Republican In Name Only).
McCarthy had impeccable right-wing credentials, and twisted himself into a pretzel trying to appease and coddle the hard-liners who did him in today. And it wasn't about personality - Matt Goetz, the GOP congressman who led the Capitol's second insurrection in the past three years, is one of the most disliked figures in the Republican caucus.
Conservatives always complain that Donald Trump gets blamed for everything. So why not credit him for a major role in this debacle?
What Goetz and company did Tuesday was pure Trumpism in action - self-serving nihilism, in line with his admonition that Congress should have gone ahead and let the government shut down last weekend.
"UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN" Trump yelled on his social-media site, repeating his lie about the nation being "destroyed by the Radical Left Marxists, Fascists and Thugs - THE DEMOCRATS," and falsely claiming that McCarthy had "GIVEN THE DEMOCRATS EVERYTHING."
A divided political culture can't function when rhetoric that hot is believed by millions, and invites similarly incendiary rebuttals.
Tuesday's events demonstrate how the center - not necessarily "centrists" but the core belief that effective government runs on compromise, conciliation and occasional consensus - is not holding, and hasn't for some time.
We'll find out Wednesday when the markets open how an economy that craves stability likes what happened.
We'll find out in six weeks when the continuing funding resolution runs out whether the center can reassert itself on existential issues like funding for Ukraine.
And in November of next year, we'll learn if a majority of voters are ready to endorse this new reality or pull the plunger on it.
"A house divided against itself cannot stand," Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln warned his fellow Republicans in 1858.
He was talking about a country split between slave and free states, but his prediction rings frighteningly true today: "I do not expect the house to fall - but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."
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