OPINION — As Richard Nixon speechwriter William Safire tells it, another campaign aide first noticed the sign during a whistle-stop train tour of the rural Midwest in the waning days of the 1968 campaign. The hand-lettered message held aloft during a stop in tiny Deshler, Ohio, spoke to the cleavages of a bitter political year defined by assassination, rioting and Vietnam.
Nixon made the sign the centerpiece of his victory speech the morning after his election. As the president-elect said earnestly, “A teenager held up a sign, ‘Bring Us Together.’ And that will be the great objective of this administration at the outset, to bring the American people together.”
OK, it did not work out that way. But as the Rolling Stones’ refrain that rings out at every Donald Trump rally puts it, “You can’t always get what you want.”
A surprising thing happened, though, after Nixon resigned in 1974, one step ahead of the impeachment posse. Jerry Ford’s presidency (defined by his unpopular, but laudable, Nixon pardon) ushered in two decades that, for the most part, shimmer in memory as a time of national civility.
There were sharp political differences during this period over the size of government, taxes and the Cold War. But aside from scorched-earth Supreme Court confirmation battles over Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, there was significantly less of the venom and vitriol that define contemporary politics.
If there was a benchmark that ushered in the contemporary era of “Tear Us Apart,” it was the triumph of Newt Gingrich in the 1994 midterm elections. While Gingrich as speaker notably cooperated with Bill Clinton in working toward a balanced budget and on foreign policy, he also carried with him the conviction that politics was a blood sport, in which the goal was to permanently cripple your ideological rivals.
The point is not to review in detail the sorry political history of the last quarter century. Especially since a few phrases like the Starr Report, “Mission Accomplished,” and Merrick Garland bring it all back. But it is a reminder that the descent into the gutter didn’t begin with Trump and probably won’t end with his presidency.
It is worth pondering, though, what the reaction might be if a retro-minded teenager held up a sign reading “Bring Us Together” at a rally for a 2020 presidential candidate.
If it occurred at a Trump rally, the sign-holder would probably be booed and roughly escorted out of the arena for even hinting that the president is divisive or that civility is possible with “human scum” and “enemies of the state.”
If Bernie Sanders saw such a sign, he would probably loudly bellow that unity is impossible as long as the rich are atop a “rigged system.” Elizabeth Warren would take a softer approach, explaining, “I have a plan for that,” even though little about her detailed economic policies would enhance a sense of shared investment in American democracy.
Joe Biden, in contrast, would smile brightly when he saw the sign and say, “No kidding. That’s exactly why I’m running.” Then the former vice president would launch into a rambling story about a segregationist senator who was kind to him after he arrived in Washington in 1973, grieving over the death of his wife and child.
In all seriousness, it would be glorious to return to an era when the sense of collective participation in a democracy was the norm in Washington rather than dress-up behavior reserved for solemn occasions like the funeral of Elijah Cummings.
All of this brings us to impeachment.
Those like me who believe, based on the compelling public evidence so far, that a Senate trial of Trump is justified have to also weigh another factor. And that is what such a titanic event would do to the already badly frayed strands of American democracy.
The White House and Fox News will bellow that this is an illegitimate inquiry designed to overturn the 2016 election — even though it would be Mike Pence, and not Hillary Clinton, who would, in theory, succeed Trump.
One way to counter those inevitable charges is for the House Democrats to be sticklers for proper procedure. Nancy Pelosi did the right — if badly belated — thing Monday afternoon by announcing that the House would vote on a formal impeachment inquiry.
But the larger question is to consider the consequences if congressional Democrats did nothing in the face of Trump shaking down the president of Ukraine for dirt on Hunter Biden.
In that case, all future administrations would be free to utilize what might be called the Mick Mulvaney precedent. It was Mulvaney who said, in one of the most ham-handed remarks coming from the Trump White House, “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. Get over it.”
Every future president — including Democratic ones — could also utilize the William Barr defense to stifle threatening congressional inquiries. Trump’s use of an extreme version of executive privilege would set the model for the legal strategy to try to turn Congress into a rubber stamp legislature with the independence of the Russian Duma.
Impeachment, especially if the Senate verdict is a mostly party-line affair, will be a wrenching moment that will further divide America into warring factions that would make the Hatfields and the McCoys seem like blood brothers. But the only worse outcome would be for Congress to avert its eyes from Trump’s impeachable behavior.
In the end, my enduring hope is taken from the greatest soundtrack to a Hollywood disaster movie. In the 1973 shipwreck saga, “The Poseidon Adventure,” Maureen McGovern sang, “There’s got to be a morning after.”
As I contemplate our political system after Trump’s willful destruction of democratic norms, I certainly hope so.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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