In a se­a­son of glo­bal gloom, with car­na­ge con­ti­nuing in Uk­rai­ne, the Co­vid epi­de­mic spi­king to uni­ma­gi­nab­le le­vels in China, ca­tast­rop­hic food shor­ta­ges emer­ging, and cli­ma­te chan­ge trig­ge­ring na­tu­ral di­sas­ters around the world, the Uni­ted Sta­tes ear­lier this Ja­nu­a­ry ma­na­ged to pro­vi­de eve­ry­o­ne with a brief in­ter­lu­de of co­mic re­lief. 

For bet­ter or wor­se, one can an­ti­ci­pa­te that Was­hing­ton will pro­du­ce more – much, much more – of the same sort of co­me­dy over the next two ye­ars.

The Speaker election fiasco

To start the ye­ar strong and to give a clear in­di­ca­ti­on of what is to come, the Re­pub­li­can Par­ty ma­na­ged to turn the ad­mi­nist­ra­ti­ve for­ma­li­ty of pic­king a new Spe­a­ker of the Hou­se of Rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves in­to a week-long spec­tac­le of high (or low?) far­ce. Ha­ving eked out on­ly a surp­ri­sing­ly nar­row vic­to­ry in last No­vem­ber’s mid­term elec­ti­ons, the Re­pub­li­can Par­ty im­me­di­a­te­ly and conc­lu­si­ve­ly eli­mi­na­ted any doubt about its ina­bi­li­ty to trans­la­te in­to const­ruc­ti­ve ac­ti­on wha­te­ver man­da­te it might think it has. 

A small hand­ful of re­la­ti­ve­ly ju­ni­or Re­pub­li­can Cong­res­s­men -- inc­lu­ding some of the loo­niest of the loo­neys, and in the Ame­ri­can Hou­se of Rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves, the com­pe­ti­ti­on for this par­ti­cu­lar dis­tinc­ti­on can be ext­ra­or­di­na­ri­ly tough -- ma­na­ged to hold their par­ty’s le­a­ders­hip, and the Hou­se as a whole, hos­ta­ge, in an imp­res­si­ve disp­lay of nar­cis­sis­tic hy­poc­ri­sy. All co­me­dies must come to an end, though, and af­ter 15 rounds of vo­ting this one did. But to en­su­re se­qu­els, the Hou­se Re­pub­li­can le­a­ders­hip brought the Spe­a­kers­hip fight to a close on­ly by ca­pi­tu­la­ting to all of the re­bels’ de­mands – inc­lu­ding a pro­ce­du­ral con­ces­si­on that en­su­res the re­bels can re­pe­at this pro­cess of hol­ding the Spe­a­kers­hip hos­ta­ge whe­ne­ver they, or ot­hers, feel the whim to do so.

For pure sur­re­a­lism, ho­we­ver, the Spe­a­ker elec­ti­on fi­as­co pa­les in com­pa­ri­son to the ex­qui­si­te­ly drawn-out tor­tu­re of re­ve­la­ti­on that a new­ly-elec­ted Re­pub­li­can Cong­res­s­man has ap­pa­rent­ly ma­nu­fac­tu­red his en­ti­re per­so­nal his­to­ry – not simp­ly anec­do­tes about how co-wor­kers and his mot­her died, but his re­li­gi­on and eth­ni­ci­ty, im­por­tant de­tails re­gar­ding his se­xu­al pre­fe­ren­ces, where he went to high school, where (or whet­her) he at­ten­ded col­le­ge, where he was emp­lo­yed, his per­so­nal fi­nan­ces and sour­ce of in­co­me, and, yes, even whet­her he has a cri­mi­nal his­to­ry. 

At this point, the on­ly things known for cer­tain about him are that he has in­deed been se­a­ted in the Hou­se of Rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves, that he vo­ted in fa­vor of Hou­se Spe­a­ker Ke­vin McCart­hy, and that Spe­a­ker McCart­hy finds not­hing surp­ri­sing or ob­jec­ti­o­nab­le in the “em­bel­lish­ments” of the rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ve’s re­su­me. How much se­ni­or Re­pub­li­can Par­ty le­a­ders knew about the comp­le­te­ly fab­ri­ca­ted life his­to­ry of its can­di­da­te prior to the elec­ti­on and chose to keep sec­ret from the vo­ting pub­lic re­mains to be dis­co­ve­red (and em­bel­lis­hed?). For jour­na­lists and co­me­di­ans, this is a gift that will cer­tain­ly keep on gi­ving.

Material for late-night shows

In a dar­ker vein and with dee­per and lon­ger time ho­ri­zons, the va­ri­ous le­gal quick-sands that are slow­ly swal­lo­wing for­mer Pre­si­dent Do­nald Trump and his net­work of clo­sest as­so­ci­a­tes pro­mi­se to pro­vi­de lo­ads of nas­ty-spi­ri­ted and so­me­ti­mes nas­ty-min­ded en­ter­tain­ment. A dif­fe­rent pre­si­den­ti­al can­di­da­te, Ross Pe­rot, on­ce fa­mous­ly desc­ri­bed the suc­king sound in Ame­ri­can po­li­tics as being the sound of Ame­ri­can jobs being suc­ked in­to Me­xi­co. The suc­king sound that will for the next se­ve­ral ye­ars be the backg­round to the car­ni­val mu­sic of Ame­ri­can po­li­tics will be that of the for­mer pre­si­dent being slow­ly suc­ked in­to the qu­ag­mi­res of his per­so­nal and bu­si­ness life. 

News­cas­ters and blog­gers are gu­a­ran­teed a con­ti­nuo­us sup­p­ly of the ima­ges, and sounds, of an ang­ri­ly strug­g­ling, inc­re­a­sing­ly des­pe­ra­te but ul­ti­ma­te­ly doo­med, he­a­vi­ly ca­pi­ta­li­zed, pat­ho­lo­gi­cal twee­ter with which to ti­til­la­te and amu­se the Ame­ri­can pub­lic on any ot­her­wi­se-slow news days. That the for­mer pre­si­dent can find ways to con­ti­nue to make this sad spec­tac­le hu­mo­rous is a fi­nal tes­ti­mo­ny to his ama­zing po­li­ti­cal ta­lents.

To be clear, the fact that the Re­pub­li­can Par­ty is pro­vi­ding the lion’s share of the ma­te­ri­al for late-night hosts these days is not to be ta­ken as an in­di­ca­tor that the De­moc­ra­tic Par­ty is less ca­pab­le of pro­vi­ding this kind of en­ter­tain­ment. In fair­ness, it is simp­ly that the De­moc­ra­tic Par­ty does not pos­sess, at this exact mo­ment, qui­te the same le­vel of co­me­dic ta­lent, nor -- gi­ven that the best wri­ters of lu­na­cy, like Q-Anon, cur­rent­ly seem to ca­ter more to the right than to the left – does it have the same qu­a­li­ty of off-the-shelf (off-the-wall?) ma­te­ri­al with which to work. Any of this, though, could chan­ge at a mo­ment’s no­ti­ce.

At least it is comedy 

Does the co­mic-ope­ra na­tu­re of Ame­ri­can po­li­tics mat­ter? Ar­gu­ab­ly, both “no” and “yes,” but most­ly “no.”

There was, af­ter all, ne­ver any hope that any sig­ni­fi­cant, new Ame­ri­can po­li­cies would emer­ge in the next two ye­ars. The di­vi­ded na­tu­re of Ame­ri­can po­li­tics – a De­moc­rat in the White Hou­se; De­moc­rats cont­rol­ling the Se­na­te, but wit­hout the su­per­ma­jo­ri­ty nee­ded to pass most le­gis­la­ti­on gi­ven Se­na­te ru­les; Re­pub­li­cans run­ning the Hou­se of Rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves, at le­ast af­ter a fas­hi­on; and a con­ser­va­ti­ve ma­jo­ri­ty in the Sup­re­me Court re­a­dy to strike down any “prog­res­si­ve” le­gis­la­ti­on – en­su­red de­ad­lock. The co­mic epi­so­des we are wit­nes­sing are me­re­ly icing on a grid­lock-cake firm­ly set in conc­re­te.

On the ot­her hand, the ear­ly in­di­ca­ti­ons are that the dys­func­ti­on in the Hou­se will not on­ly rein­su­re that not­hing new hap­pens but al­so mean that rou­ti­ne, on­going mat­ters do not get hand­led in a ti­me­ly fas­hi­on. Pas­sing ap­p­rop­ri­a­ti­ons bil­ls – the le­gis­la­ti­on that al­lows mo­ney to be spent – is more li­ke­ly than not to prove to be im­pos­sib­le, and Cong­ress will, not unu­su­al­ly, need to re­sort to “con­ti­nuing re­so­lu­ti­ons” which al­low agen­cies tem­po­ra­ri­ly to con­ti­nue to spend at prior-ye­ar le­vels. More im­me­di­a­te­ly, Cong­ress now al­so fa­ces the rite of rai­sing the go­vern­ment’s “debt cei­ling,” an ac­ti­on ne­ces­sa­ry if the go­vern­ment is going to bor­row more mo­ney to pay in­te­rest on exis­ting debts. Fai­lu­re to do so may re­sult in the spec­tac­le of anot­her go­vern­ment “shut-down.”

But none of this is new ter­ri­to­ry for the U.S. go­vern­ment. There are ways to mud­d­le through. Per­haps more sig­ni­fi­cant­ly, at pre­sent the co­mic the­a­ter seems to be li­mi­ted to the le­gis­la­ti­ve branch. Whet­her one thinks the exe­cu­ti­ve branch’s po­li­cies are or are not wise, there is still a re­la­ti­ve­ly high deg­ree of mo­no­to­nous ab­sen­ce-of-hu­mor in what the exe­cu­ti­ve branch is doing and how it is doing it.

Cri­tics of Ame­ri­can fo­reign po­li­cy, Ame­ri­can do­mes­tic po­li­cy, and the Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal sys­tem in ge­ne­ral may comp­lain that what we are wit­nes­sing on the Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal stage is to be dep­lo­red, and that this is no way for a great po­wer to be­ha­ve. Per­haps. But would one pre­fer a great po­wer that ope­ra­ted and be­ha­ved like China or Rus­sia? 

Ad­mit­ted­ly, Ame­ri­can-style li­be­ral de­moc­ra­cy may unin­ten­ti­o­nal­ly de­ge­ne­ra­te from se­ri­ous the­a­ter to bad­ly-writ­ten co­me­dy, but at le­ast it is co­me­dy rat­her than tra­ge­dy. As with many grade-school pro­duc­ti­ons, one may feel an overw­hel­ming ur­ge to eit­her weep or laugh, but at le­ast laug­hing is an op­ti­on.


Ed­ward Rho­des is a pro­fes­sor of Go­vern­ment and In­ter­na­ti­o­nal Af­fairs at Ge­or­ge Ma­son Uni­ver­si­ty. Rho­des is best known for his re­se­arch in­to the phi­lo­sop­hi­cal and cul­tu­ral roots of Ame­ri­can fo­reign and na­ti­o­nal se­cu­ri­ty po­li­cy. Rho­des ser­ved for six ye­ars on the U.S. State De­part­ment’s Ad­vi­so­ry Com­mit­tee on His­to­ri­cal Dip­lo­ma­tic Do­cu­men­ta­ti­on, the Cong­res­si­o­nal­ly man­da­ted, non­par­ti­san body that re­views and cer­ti­fies the of­fi­ci­al, pub­lis­hed ac­count of Ame­ri­can fo­reign po­li­cy for comp­le­te­ness and ac­cu­ra­cy.