The Missing Order in American Politics I grow wistful as I watch the congressional chaos while reading Kissinger’s forthcoming oral history.

I am watching Washington and thinking this: We have reached a new crisis point in Donald Trump vs. the Democrats. They are speaking of contempt citations, subpoenas, executive privilege, hearings. It’s a daily barrage. The Democrats are inching closer to impeachment, at least rhetorically, perhaps actually. We’ll see how well Speaker Nancy Pelosi can dance right up to the edge to appease some in her caucus, and not over it.

But there is such a thing as context, and the Democrats seem to be ignoring it. This is a country divided.

Almost half the country is for Mr. Trump—truly, madly, deeply. Half is against him—unequivocally, unchangeably. There is no resolving this. Or rather to the extent it can be resolved, it will be resolved at the ballot box. The presidential election is 18 months from now, on Nov. 3, 2020.

Until then, people are where they are and hold the views they hold, and don’t push them too hard.

President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

Democrats unveil charges and accusations—the president is a liar, he’s a tax dodger, an obstructor of justice. But in a way Mr. Trump’s supporters accounted for all this before they elected him. They are not shocked. They didn’t hire him to be a good man. Their politics are post-heroic. They sometimes tell reporters he’s a man of high character but mostly to drive the reporters crazy. I have never talked to a Trump supporter, and my world is thick with them, who thought he had a high personal character. On the other hand they sincerely believe he has a high political character, in that he pursues the issues he campaigned on. They hired him as an insult to the political class, as a Hail Mary pass—we’ve tried everything else, maybe this will work—and because he agreed with them on the issues.

Supporters give him high marks for not looking down on them as they believe most members of the media, who are always trying to “understand” them, do. Their attitude is: “Don’t try to understand me, like you’re the anthropologist and we’re the savages. I’m an American, what are you?” They factor the cultural animosity in. When they jeer the press during rallies at the president’s direction, they don’t really mean it. They’re having fun and talking back. They’d be happy if their kids became reporters—an affluent profession, and half of them are famous. The president doesn’t really hate the press either, he wants their love and admiration. You don’t need the admiration of people you truly disdain.

Trump supporters now are looking around and thinking: Things are looking up. The economy is gangbusters, everyone can get a job, good people are on the courts. Something good is happening with China—it’s unclear what, but at least he’s pushing back. As for illegal immigration, he at least cares about it and means to make it better, though no, it doesn’t seem improved.

To take all Congress’s time right now and devote it to attacking the president, or impeaching him, will be experienced as a vast, disheartening insult by half the country, and disheartening. It will simply damage the country and be seen as extreme and destructive. It will keep good things, such as an infrastructure bill, from happening.

As a purely political calculation it will do the Democrats no good. Nonstop scandal theater starring the theatrically indignant will only make people who hate Mr. Trump hate him a little more, and people who support Mr. Trump hate his foes a little more. It will not move any needle.

Robert Mueller, often praised in this space, didn’t resolve anything, did he? People wanted clarity, not subtlety and indirection. So yes, as a last hurrah let him speak. What did he think his report was saying and implying? What in his view would be a just outcome to the story of Mr. Trump and the Russians and 2016?

Beyond that, enough already. We have to have a greater appreciation for how split we are as a nation, and how delicate this all is. And we have to remember we’re not only split, we’re conjoined. We share this country.

We are like Chang and Eng, the 19th century Siamese Twin brothers who worked for P.T. Barnum. They could not be separated and went through their long lives together, married to different women, living in different houses—a few days a week in this one, a few in another.

It wasn’t easy for them to walk through life together, but they did. We have to, too.

Now I wish to switch subjects. Don’t you?

“How to do it” is the hardest question in life after “what to do.” It’s hard enough to make the decision. Then you have to execute. A right decision poorly executed might as well be a wrong one. This is in a way the subject of a small book called “Kissinger on Kissinger” by Winston Lord. It is composed of transcripts of Henry Kissinger’s first and only oral history, based on six interviews conducted by Mr. Lord, President Reagan’s ambassador to China, and K.T. McFarland, who served as Mr. Trump’s deputy national security adviser.

“Like all oral histories, this is a brief for my case,” Mr. Kissinger writes in the introduction. “I did not go out of my way to be self-critical.” He doesn’t. But there is a lot of how-to for diplomats—how the opening with China occurred and was made to occur, how the Soviets were handled as that breakthrough became real, what drove Nixon-era Mideast shuttle diplomacy.

I should note here that Mr. Kissinger is always called “deeply controversial” because he is, that his diplomatic efforts with and under President Nixon were often bold and creative, certainly deeply consequential, and that one of the most remarkable things about him is that he is 95 and has, for 50 years, remained a major public figure and retained his status as a major thinker. Foreign leaders treat him with the gravest respect. Mr. Lord calls this “a remarkable performance of savvy, stamina and sway.”

At his 90th-birthday party, which I attended as a friend, former secretaries of state of both parties lined up to thank him for his advice, wisdom and encouragement. I admit I cannot see his public self without thinking of the 16-year-old immigrant who worked in a shaving-brush factory in New York. The tough Italian-American men he worked with teased the German refugee and took him to Yankee Stadium to learn to be an American. There he first saw the man who years later on meeting him struck him dumb: Joe DiMaggio

But I’ve gotten away from the book.

It has many good things. In the formation of foreign policy successful international negotiations, “everything depends . . . on some conception of the future.” The bias of bureaucracy is toward dailiness: there are communiqués to answer, immediate decisions that require response. In this atmosphere a leader must develop an overall sense of where he wants to go and how to get there.

Every diplomatic effort must begin with an articulated intention. He and Nixon “spent hours together asking ‘What are we trying to do, what are we trying to achieve, what are we trying to prevent?’” The “end state” is the goal, not the process.

In a way it is a tribute to order. Oh, I miss that.

Republicans in a Nation Needing Repair Less taxes and spending won’t resolve America’s deep crisis. We need a farsighted conservatism.

I want to say something big, quickly and broadly.

This week I talked with an intelligent politician who is trying to figure out the future of the Republican Party. He said that in presidential cycles down the road, it will be a relief to get back to the old conservatism of smaller government, tax cuts and reduced spending. I told him what I say to my friends: That old conservatism was deeply pertinent to its era and philosophically right, but it is not fully in line with the crises of our time or its reigning facts. As Lincoln said, the dogmas of the past are inadequate to the present: “As the cause is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

Here is how I see it:

The federal government will not become smaller or less expensive in our lifetimes. There is no political will for it among elected officials in Washington, many of whom privately admit this. Nor is there sufficient will for it within the Republican or Democratic party, or among the majority of their voters. Even if there were such a will, both parties in Washington have trouble working together on such big things.

President Abraham Lincoln.
President Abraham Lincoln.

But beyond that fact is something bigger. America needs help right now and Americans know it. It has been enduring for many years a continuing cultural catastrophe—illegitimacy, the decline of faith, low family formation, child abuse and neglect, drugs, inadequate public education, etc. All this exists alongside an entertainment culture on which the poor and neglected are dependent, and which is devoted to violence, sex and nihilism. As a people we are constantly, bitterly pitted against each other, and force-fed the idea of America as an illegitimate, ugly, racist and misogynist nation. Even honest love of country isn’t allowed to hold us together anymore.

America to my mind is what Pope Francis said the church was: a field hospital after battle. We are a beautiful and great nation but a needy, torn-up one in need of repair.

All that takes place within a larger historical context. You can’t see all the world’s weapons and all its madness and not know that eventually we will face a terrible day or days when everything will depend on our ability to hold together and hold on. Maybe it will involve nuclear weapons, maybe an extended, rolling attack on the grid, maybe bioterrorism. But it will be bad; there will be deep stress and violence. The great question in those days, under that acute pressure, will be: Will we hold together? Will we suffer through and emerge, together, on the other side? Which is another way of saying: Will we continue as a nation, a people?

My belief is that whatever helps us hold together now, whatever brings us together and binds us close, is good, and must be encouraged with whatever it takes.

If these are your predicates—America in cultural catastrophe, and hard history ahead—you spend your energies on a battle not to make government significantly smaller, but to make it significantly more helpful.

That would mean a shift. Republicans should stand for a federal government whose aim and focus are directed toward conservative ends, a government focused on concerns that have to do with conserving. They should do this not furtively or through strategic inaction but as a matter of declared political intent, in a way that is driven by moral seriousness, not polls and patter about populism.

What would a large government harnessed toward conservative ends look like?

Judging by what its presidential candidates are saying on the campaign trail, the Democratic Party intends to aim its energies in a progressive direction—global climate change, free college, reparations for slavery. A conservative path would address the immediate crises Americans on the ground see all around them.

On domestic issues this would include the following:

• Whatever might help families form and grow.

• Teaching the lost boys of the working and middle classes, black and white, how to live. The infrastructure bills floating out there are good because we need better bridges, tunnels and roads, and the pride that would come from making them better. But also because they could provide a stage for a national mentorship program in which men teach boys how to do something constructive. Heck, they should go out and recruit in the poorest neighborhoods, drag teenage boys out of the house and integrate them into a world of dynamism and competence.

• Resolving the mental-health crisis. We need a vast overhaul of services so families can get the help they need. We deinstitutionalized sick people and closed the hospitals in the 1960s through ’80s. Liberals pushed it for reasons of ideology and conservatives accepted it for reasons of savings. It marked a great denying of reality: We need hospitals for the mentally ill.

• Helping immigrants become Americans. However the illegal-immigration crisis is resolved, or not, there are tens of millions already here. Who helps make them Americans? We used to have settlement houses for the great waves of immigrants who came in the early 20th century. Why not now? They need instruction on the meaning and history of America. Here it should be noted that we have some of the best immigrants in the world, who work hard and have no hostility to American religious culture. In fact, they’re part of that culture. Help Americanize them in other ways.

• Help revitalize small towns. Whatever will help, do it. We lose a lot when we lose those old shared ways and values. We can’t all live in cities and suburbs; we need diversity.

• Protect religious freedom. The threats are real and will grow. Americans may not always be breaking down the doors to go to church, but they respect religious life and don’t want to see it under siege.

Really, the point of conservatism is to conserve.

Here we degenerate into mere practical political advice for the GOP.

Americans would respect the Republican Party if it gave the impression its leaders are actually noticing America and have a farsighted sense of its real plights. If the government is going to be large, people might be inclined to see sober-minded Republicans as the best stewards of it. It is still only the GOP that can perform the fundamental mission of protecting the system that yielded all our wealth and allowed us to be generous with the world and with ourselves—free-market capitalism. Only the GOP can do this, because Republicans genuinely love economic freedom. You fight hard for what you love. Progressives do not love it. They just accept it.

Republicans will be expected to foster and encourage the economic growth that can at least make a mild dent in our deficits. When you are understood not to be hostile to all spending you have greater leeway to see it coolly, and go after waste and fraud in spending. Republicans naturally enjoy that.

When you think like this—we are in a crisis, it will get worse, we must accentuate what holds us together and helps us muddle through—it helps you prioritize. These are my priorities as a conservative.

How Trump Lost Half of Washington The old ambassadors were willing to give him a chance. He destabilized the whole town instead.

“How did things ever get so far? I don’t know. It was so unfortunate, so unnecessary.”

—Don Corleone, “The Godfather”

I keep thinking about the dynamics the past few years between the president and what used to be called official Washington. That relationship is ugly and broken, but it could have been otherwise.

Trump supporters have long held, and deeply believe, that none of the people in what they call the swamp were ever anything but unalterably opposed to him and meant, from day one, to remove him by whatever means possible.

This was true of about half of official Washington. They were predominately Democrats, though there were Republicans too, and certainly the media were against him, overwhelmingly.

But the other half of official Washington, though to varying degrees disapproving of Trump, often for reasons that were almost aesthetic, was willing to be surprised. They were open to persuasion. They didn’t say this but they thought it. They’d give him time and watch events closely.

President Donald J. Trump
President Donald J. Trump

I’m thinking of the old ambassadors, mostly men in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They’re woven into the town, solid citizens, friends of journalists, occasionally sources, and they know things. They’re mostly retired, and at lunch at clubs in town often begin sentences with “And so I told Zbig . . .” There’s a bit of lost glory with them, but they care about America, are personally invested in it, love it with an old-school love, and respect systems, knowing that creativity—in art, science and diplomacy—can only be born within a certain immediate order.

Donald Trump was not their type. But early on they were willing to give him a chance.

When he came in he was a shock to the system, almost literally. He didn’t act like a liberal or a Democrat, or a conservative or a Republican. It was not clear he thought, as opposed to felt. It was clear he was emotional—lots of resentments, wounds and complaints. As the first year went by and then the second the stories were out there, sometimes from his own aides. He doesn’t read, doesn’t like his briefings, he’s spending time tweeting and watching television. He’s picking fights with celebrities and haranguing the Boy Scout Jamboree about our rotten media. He’s firing people or they’re resigning—the chief of staff, chief strategist, then the generals. The travel ban, Charlottesville, he’s a “stable genius,” he’s shoving the prime minister of Montenegro and blowing up immigration talks.

Pretty quickly and to the entire edifice of Washington, it became clear Donald Trump was not a Jacksonian shock to the system, which is what his supporters think he was. He was a daily system overload, a one-man frying of the grid.

One by one the ambassadors shut down and turned away. Their objections were not about policy, they were about behavior. What they feared was not extreme conservatism or extreme liberalism. They didn’t fear originality or a new synthesis. They feared Madness of King George-ism. They’d come to think the president was, irredeemably, a screwball. In the nuclear age this is a dangerous thing.

Their fears about him weren’t assuaged by trusty old hands inside the White House because those hands weren’t there. They didn’t join the administration, because they didn’t want their résumés tainted or they thought wise counsel would never be heeded. Or because they’d signed a letter opposing him in 2016 and would never be forgiven.

So a lot of good people didn’t come in or weren’t allowed in. And those who did work for the president came to seem strange—fierce, emotional, half mad themselves. There were good people there—the generals were solid—but one by one they left.

Mr. Trump fulfilled every fear a Trump skeptic would have. So they stayed skeptics, or became active opponents. Strangely in a political figure, the president had no particular respect for his critics’ concerns or anxieties. He never understood they could be brought into the tent. They were all enemies; it was all black and white. Some supporters were like that too, but that was understandable: The job of supporters is to fight. He’s the leader, and leaders are forced to deal with reality. He would not lessen his critics’ fears through behavioral change. Heck, he won the election by not changing, why mess with his swing?

He thought he didn’t need the ambassadors. “Experts” are just guys who marinated in a little subset and memorized its clichés. If they were any good we’d be in better shape!

It was all this—the president’s disdain, his well-fed resentments—that not only left Washington thinking Mr. Trump was crazy. It made Washington itself a fertile field for crazy. It was in this atmosphere that the Steele dossier, with its whacked out third-rate spy fiction, became believable, that sober-minded officials reportedly wondered if they should wear wires when they met with the president.

He destabilized the entire town.

That, in my view, is a small sliver of how we got here.

And so a closing word on the Mueller report. I have thought since the beginning that appointing a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election was right and justified; that Robert Mueller was an excellent choice because of his experience and integrity. Also his age and stage. He was a patriot looking to finish a distinguished career with integrity. He hired killers, tough lawyers and investigators who were hunting the whale and intended to harpoon it. They did everything they could to get the story. What they produced is a more dreadful portrait of Mr. Trump than his supporters will know, because most Americans won’t read it.

In the end, Mr. Mueller did not bring charges. He left it to Congress.

Should the Democrats move to impeach? No, not for reasons of merit but of national interest.

Progressives will want to proceed with their usual blithe rage. But the investigation lasted almost two years. It was exhaustive and consumed daily headlines. Trump supporters, almost half the country, will feel, understandably, that its work is complete. They would experience an impeachment attempt as proof of what they always assumed: that this whole thing was a cynical attempt by the left to achieve by other means what it could not achieve at the ballot box.

They would see it as subverting democracy. And anything that damages faith in democracy at this point in our national life should be rejected. We need to build trust and faith, not lessen it.

It is 2019. We elect a president in 2020. Democrats would be wise to spend the next year showing America that their party is capable of governing, up to leadership, that its ideas are not crazy but pertinent, that it actually has a philosophy.

Seriousness and calm would be nice, and after the past few years would serve as a welcome counterpoint. There is an unarticulated wish out there to return to some past in which things were deeply imperfect and certainly divided but on some level tranquil, and not half mad.

Out of the Ashes of Notre Dame One day someone will write of how his grief, his shock, opened a door and his faith came rushing in.

A few small observations on the fire at Notre Dame:

It’s interesting where your thoughts go as you watch a disaster, live. Friends kept saying they were feeling some of what they’d felt on 9/11, and this was true of me too. No one thought it the same, but the flames and smoke evoked similar feelings of grief and loss, and a sense of portent, especially for Catholics, who saw in the destruction a metaphor for—or a judgment of—the state of their church.

Notre Dame, Paris, after the fire
The Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, after the fire

Monday evening I found myself remembering an intuition I’d had hours after the World Trade Center had fallen. TV was showing people who’d escaped the towers, covered in dust and ash, and trekking north. As I watched I thought: Some desperate person among them is escaping his life right now, planning his disappearance. He knows the scale of the disaster because he just walked out of it. He knows if he doesn’t check in for the next few days he’ll be counted among the dead. He’ll soon be at a motel in Queens, then on a plane somewhere. He will tell his story decades from now. He’ll tell us he came back once and visited the memorial on which his name is etched.

I had an intuition too as I watched Notre Dame burn. Somebody wonderful is watching at this moment and having a conversion experience. He will write of how the size of his grief, of his shock, opened a door in his head and heart and his faith came rushing in. We’ll hear about that in coming years, and maybe from more than one person. Destroyed beauty is a spiritual event.

I also thought of the great speech in Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” on all that was lost when the great library of Alexandria, Egypt, burned down. Thomasina, a young would-be scholar, says: “Can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—thousands of poems—Aristotle’s own library! . . . How can we sleep for grief?”

Septimus, her tutor, answers: “By counting our stock.” Don’t grieve, he says: “We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. . . . The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. . . . Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”

Those were Monday’s thoughts. Then, Tuesday morning, the shocking good news: The fire was out, the structure still standing, the great things still there—the radiant cross, the altar, the Pietà, the pews, the relics saved.

It felt like a miracle, didn’t it? I think it was.

I called my friend Liz Lev, the art historian and author of the magisterial “How Catholic Art Saved the Faith,” and asked her why the fire at Notre Dame was such a grave and emotional experience for so many people of varying faiths, not only Catholics seeing a cathedral burn.

Her answer was arresting. She said, essentially, that we are all of us more loyal to the idea of beauty than we mean to be or know we are.

“When the fire came, for two days it made us let our guard down,” she said. “It showed us that beauty still affects people, that they know they are custodians of it. We still need to believe in the beautiful.”

We sense the achievement and sacrifice that went to its making. “It’s not the tower in Dubai, which is clever, or even the Eiffel Tower”; it is “a spiritual home.” “There’s something in the building. You get the sense of centuries of people who worked on it who’d never live to see it done.”

The architecture is part of the story. “The Gothic is a paradox. It’s so lacey, it looks so fragile—the fire coming out of the lacey spire—and yet underneath you see this powerful, solid, domed facade.” This reverberates with the myths and stories we love: “The hero is strong and yet the hero is vulnerable, frail. This moves us.”

What does the art inside the Cathedral, the statues and paintings, mean? Ms. Lev noted that Notre Dame’s story is the structure more than the art inside it, and in this it is the antithesis of the Sistine Chapel, where it’s all about the interior art and decorations. But the cathedral is also about “the scattered world of France’s relationship with its faith.” During the French Revolution the exterior statues were beheaded, glass broken, the church defaced: “They put the Goddess of Reason in there.”

“Notre Dame is a shoe box of memories” of all the times French Catholics “have gone running from the church.” Tuesday morning Ms. Lev learned that the statue of Notre Dame de Paris had survived. “The statue is the same age of the consecration of the Cathedral. It’s not splendid, it’s nice, it’s pretty, but it stands by the altar and you always see people saying the rosary beneath it.” Sometimes, they are shooed away. “But she’s still there. That’s very beautiful.”

A great deal was made about the saving of the relics—Christ’s crown of thorns, a nail from his crucifixion, a tunic worn by St. Louis. I asked Ms. Lev about the Catholic preoccupation with the physicality of things. Why do we pay such attention to relics in general?

“The Christian faith is rooted in the physical world. It is incarnational.” God took bodily form. “Christian art is Christian art because Jesus became a baby who could be held, and passed from person to person—‘You hold him now.’ His passion is a wet, messy, brutal affair on his body—he bled, he sweated. . . . We are creatures of flesh. He became flesh so we could become even more beautiful, even more like unto God.”

The Sistine Chapel could never have been produced in any other culture, she said. “Only Christians can do it because only Christians celebrate the body, the bodily resurrection.”

But why do we honor the relics of saints—a hand, a heart, a knuckle? Why do parents keep a lock of a child’s hair? she asked. “The saints were here. They are not ectoplasms. Their souls are in Heaven but they were here.”

Finally, people sense Notre Dame is most powerful and central in its moments of suffering. “The Greek word for church is ecclesia—people gathered together. On the night of the fire it was gathering people together,” literally, around the church and around the world. “Notre Dame is most potent gathering them in suffering.”

This reminded me of something someone said on social media after the spire fell: Maybe the old church burst into flames so we would look at it and really see what it is.

We did.

Happy Easter. Happy Passover.

If Biden Runs, They’ll Tear Him Up The old Democratic Party was warm, like him. The new one rising is colder, less human and divisive.

Don’t do it, Joe.

Don’t run for president. It won’t work, you won’t get the nomination, your loss will cause pain and not only for you.

And your defeat will be worse than sudden, it will be poignant.

Right now operatives for the other candidates are trying to scare you out of jumping in. We all know that what you intended as warmth is now received as a boundary violation. You addressed this in a video that was crisp and friendly: You never meant to cause discomfort, you intend to change your ways.

But it’s not going away. It will linger, and more will come.

Democratic operatives do not fear you will win the nomination—they think you’re too old, your time has passed, you’re not where the energy of the base is, or the money. But they do not want you taking up oxygen the next six to 10 months as you sink in the polls. And they don’t want you swooping in to claim the middle lane. Others already have a stake there, or mean to.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden

In the past you were never really slimed and reviled by your party; you were mostly teased and patronized. But if you get in the race this time, it will be different. They will show none of the old respect for you, your vice presidency or your past fealty to the cause. And you are in the habit of receiving respect. Soon the topic will turn, in depth, to Anita Hill, the Clinton crime bill, your friendliness to big business. You have opposed partial-birth abortion. Also, the old plagiarism video will come back and be dissected. It was more than 30 years ago, and for a lot of reporters and voters it will be a riveting story, and brand new.

You backed the Iraq war. That question will be resurrected, as opposed to redebated. It is always fair to redebate it—to be asked, “Why did your generation of Democratic politicians back that war. Looking back what did you misunderstand?” But it will only be resurrected, and thrown in your face.

You will be judged to be old-school, and insufficiently doctrinaire. The current Democratic Party is different from the one you entered in the late 1960s, not only in policies but in mood, tone, style. Today’s rising young Democrats see no honor in accommodation, little virtue in collegiality.

In the old party of classic 20th-century Democratic liberalism, they wanted everyone to rise. Those who suffered impediments—minorities, women, working people trying to unionize—would be given a boost. There’s plenty to go around, America’s a rich country, let the government get in and help.

The direction, or at least the aspiration, was upward, for everybody.

The mood of the rising quadrants of the new party is more pinched—more abstractedly aggrieved, more theoretical. Less human. Now there’s a mood not of Everyone Can Rise but of Some Must Be Taken Down. White people in general, and white males in particular, are guilty of intractable privilege. It’s bitter, resentful, divisive.

And it is at odds with the spirit in which your political categories were formed. Actually, your politics always struck me as being like the World War II movies Americans of a certain age grew up on. The American soldiers are in the foxhole in Bataan, and there’s the working-class guy from Brooklyn, the tall Ivy League guy, the baker’s apprentice from Ohio. They’re all together and equal, like the country they represent. When the war’s over they’ll probably stay friends and the Brooklyn guy will be in the union and the Ivy League fancy-pants will be in management, but they’ll quickly forge the new contract and shake on the deal because back when it counted we were all in it together.

That is not the 2019 Democratic Party! This party would note, correctly, that there was little racial diversity in the foxhole, and would elaborate that its false unity was built on intersectional oppressions that render its utility as a unifying metaphor null.

The party’s young theorists are impatient with such gooey patriotic sentiment. America is not good guys in a foxhole to them, it’s crabs in a barrel with the one who gets to the top getting yanked down to the bottom—deservedly.

Your very strength—that you enjoy talking to both sides, that deep in your heart you see no one as deplorable—will be your weakness. You aren’t enough of a warrior. You’re sweet, you’re weak, you’re half-daffy. You’re meh.

At this point you’re not out of step, you’re out of place.

The press too will have certain biases, and not only because they’re 30 and 40 years younger than you and would like to see their careers associated with the rise of someone their age. Their bias is also toward drama, as you well know—toward pathos, and the end of something. They love that almost as much as the beginning of something. They can’t wait to write their Lion in Winter stories. “The Long Goodbye.” “The Last Campaign.” “Biden faltered for just a moment when a white-haired woman put her hand to his face and said, ‘I remember you from ’88, Joe. We all do, and we love you.”

And that is apart from those young reporters who consider themselves culture cops, and who enjoy beating people like you with the nightstick of their wokeness.

Why will it be painful to witness all this? Because it will mark the fall of a political figure who was normal. Who knew there was a left over here and a right over there and a big middle. Who went with the flow of cultural leftism but understood the other side’s reservations and signaled that in some way he had some sympathy for them. Who knew politics wasn’t always about absolutes.

This in contrast to the up-and-coming manipulators for whom it is second nature to feign warmth and outreach, but whose every hug is backed by the sharp and crooked finger of accusation. Their engine is resentment, their fuel is unearned self-esteem, their secret is lust for power.

You probably think they’re just girls who need a hug.

But their place is not your place.

It would be one thing if you wanted to enter the race to persuade the party on the merits of more-centrist approaches and working with the other side. But is that your intention? You’ve been apologizing for calling Mike Pence decent, and groveling over your “white man’s culture.” If you go with that flow, it will wash you away.

It is hard for the political personality to say no—to more fame, more power, more love. To the history books. It is hard for a man who’s always seen a president when he looked in the mirror to admit he’s an almost-president. It’s hard to get out of the habit of importance.

But you’ll never be unimportant. You’ll be Joe Biden, a liberal lion of the U.S. Senate at the turn of century. A man with a heart, unhated in an age of hate.

That’s not nothing, that’s a lot.

So don’t do it. Wisdom here dictates an Irish goodbye—a quiet departure, out the back door with a wave and a tip of the hat to whoever might be watching.

The Two Americas Have Grown Much Fiercer The U.S. was divided 46 years ago. But no one saw it as a fight to the death.

Sometimes you write about the most obvious thing in the world because it is the most important thing. Reaction to the outcome of Robert Mueller’s investigation shows Americans again how divided we are. If you are more or less of the left, you experienced the probe as a search for truth that would restore the previous world of politics. Instead the traitor got away with it and you feel destabilized, deflated. If you are of the Trumpian right, it was from the beginning an attempted coup, the establishment using everything it had to remove a force it could not defeat at the polls. You are energized, elated.

Now both sides will settle down, with the left as forthcoming in its defeat as the right is forbearing in its victory. I just wanted to show you my fantasy life. The Trump forces will strike with a great pent-up anger, and the left will never let go.

Police separating anti-Trump and pro-Trump supporters
Police separating anti-Trump and pro-Trump supporters

Both sides will be intensely human. And inhuman. Because the past few years the character of our political divisions has changed, and this must be noted again. People are proud of their bitterness now. Old America used to accept our splits as part of the price of being us—numerous, varied, ornery. Current America, with its moderating institutions (churches) going down and its dividing institutions (the internet) rising, sees our polarization not as something to be healed but a reason for being, something to get up for. There’s a finality to it, a war-to-the-death quality.

It is, actually, shocking, and I say this as a person always generally unshocked by American political division, because I came of age in it. When I was a kid we came together as a nation when John F. Kennedy died and manned rockets went up, but after that it was pretty much turmoil—Vietnam, demonstrations, Watergate. You were on one side or the other. The terms left and right started replacing the boring old Democratic and Republican.

I will never forget seeing, on the cover of Time magazine, in October 1972, an essay by Lance Morrow that was ostensibly about the last days of the race between Richard Nixon and George McGovern but really about something bigger. I was in college, and it struck me hard. It was called “The Two Americas,” and was elegantly written and prescient. The candidates were so unlike each other that they seemed to represent different “instincts” about America. “They suggested almost two different countries, two different cultures, two different Americas,” Mr. Morrow wrote. “The McGovern campaign marches to the rhythms of the long, Wagnerian ’60s”—racial upheaval, the war, feminism, the sexual revolution. McGovernites had a more romantic conception of what leadership could be, should be.

In Nixon’s America, on the other hand, there was “the sense of ‘system.’ The free enterprise system, the law and order system, even the ‘family unit’ system.” They were protective of it, grateful to it. And the antonym to their idea of system wasn’t utopia, it was chaos. “They are apprehensive of the disorders that the late ’60s adumbrated to them, the turmoils that they suspect a McGovern accession might bring.” They wanted evolution, not revolution.

While Nixon supporters tended to be more “comfortable,” McGovern backers had their own kind of detachment. Harvard sociologist David Riesman was quoted on part of McGovern’s constituency, professional elites: “They have very little sense of that other day-by-day America.”

Mr. Morrow noted a dynamic still with us, only more so. On both sides, “voters repeat their candidate’s themes and even rhetoric with a precision that is sometimes eerie.” He concluded with the observation that within the two Americas he saw “one common denominator,” the sophistication of the people, their earnest desire, left, right and center, to find and support the best thing for America.

It was written with a respect and warmth toward the American people that is not so common now.

The notion of a country divided reinforced what I thought at the time I’d been seeing. The facts and feel of the divisions change, but division isn’t bad, it’s inevitable and human.

In my lifetime I have seen two things that have helped us reorder ourselves as a nation into some rough if temporary unity. Tragedy, such as 9/11, is one. Sheer political popularity is another. Ronald Reagan had two authentic landslides, the second time, in 1984, winning 49 states. Today’s America doesn’t yield outcomes like that. But there was something we did then that could never happen now.

Writing is never pleasurable, at least for anyone sane, but the most pleasurable and satisfying speeches I worked on with Reagan were those in which you get to bring your love for the other side. A Rose Garden speech praising the excellence of Scoop Jackson or JFK, a speech never given on the excellence of Eleanor Roosevelt. We quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman more than Dwight Eisenhower. The boss had been a Democrat. He’d stumped for Truman in ’48 with Truman. Reagan was not sentimental about our divisions—he knew exactly why he was not a Democrat anymore—but he took every chance he could to reach across the lines and hold on.

But that kind of popularity is probably not possible in this environment. That’s for many reasons, and one is that policy demands have become maximalist. It’s not enough that contraceptives be covered in the government-mandated plan; the nuns must conform. It’s not enough you be sensitive to the effect of your words and language; you must be punished for saying or thinking the wrong thing. It’s not enough that gay marriage is legal; you must be forced to bake the cake. It won’t do that attention be paid to scientific arguments on the environment; America must upend itself with green new deals or be judged not to care about children.

Nothing can be moderate or incremental, everything must be sweeping and definitive. It is all so maximalist, and bullying.

In that environment people start to think that giving an inch is giving a yard. And so they won’t budge.

You don’t even get credit for being extreme in your views but mild in your manner, in the way that people called Barry Goldwater both extreme and mild. Now you must be extreme in your manner or it doesn’t count, you’re not one of us.

It is just such an air of extremeness on the field now, and it reflects a larger sense of societal alienation. We have the fierce teamism of the lonely, who find fellowship in their online fighting group and will say anything for its approval. There are the angry who find relief in politics because they can funnel their rage there, into that external thing, instead of examining closer and more uncomfortable causes. There are the people who cannot consider God and religion and have to put that energy somewhere.

America isn’t making fewer of the lonely, angry and unaffiliated, it’s making more every day.

So I am worried, which is the point of this piece. The war between Trump and not-Trump will continue, will not be resolved, will get meaner. One side will win and one side will lose and the nation will go on, changed.

Is it self-indulgent to note that this grieves me? I suppose it is. But it grieves me.

Congress’s Mean Girls Are Trump’s Offspring Omar and Ocasio-Cortez equate roughness with authenticity. So does the man they despise.

We’re in a time of absorbed but subtle and not fully noticed shifts. Old-time liberals and conservatives seem to understand each other more deeply, more generously than they did in the past: In some new way they see the other’s basic political decency. On the other hand the parties they’ve been aligned with offer constant confusion and surprise.

Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar
Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar

I am not talking about ideology but something else, some kind of judgment. I look at Beto O’Rourke and see a handsome, glistening creature who is obviously eccentric and probably shallow. He once wrote a short story about murdering children. Ben Terris of the Washington Post had a striking piece this week in which he reports Mr. O’Rourke ate dirt for its “regenerative powers” after losing to Ted Cruz, has pranked his wife with “Psycho”-style scenes in the shower, and once placed his child’s feces in a bowl and told his wife it was an avocado. (Neither would confirm the stories but Mr. O’Rourke told Mr. Terris it sounded like him.)

And yet he raised a hearty $6 million in the 24 hours after his announcement for the presidency, and draws adoring crowds.

As the grandfather said at the end of “Moonstruck,” “I’m confused.”

In comparison no one seems to be talking about Elizabeth Warren. What I see there, for all the Pocahontas and DNA gaffes, is earnestness and seriousness of purpose. She was a progressive before progressivism was cool. She is absorbed by policy. She is an undervalued stock.

A basic fact of this presidential cycle: When Donald Trump walked through the door, he burst off the jambs and made the opening bigger and more jagged, forever. Now almost anyone can walk through.

A second fact is that the Democratic Party been tugged dramatically to the left. But there is another dynamic this presidential campaign, and I will use Bernie Sanders to make the point.

I always thought that if he’d gotten his party’s nomination in 2016 he would have beaten Donald Trump. America was going left, he had been in Congress 25 years compared with Trump’s zero political experience, he was a new face and yet an old one, and not thought corrupt.

Mr. Sanders had something else, an unseen asset. In 2016 voters who wanted major change, who wanted greater economic equality or more-expansive programs, knew that if they hired Bernie Sanders he’d come in and push things in the direction they desired.

They also knew Republicans in Congress would push back. And because of that pushback nothing insane would happen. Things would tilt left but a Sanders administration would likely not be extreme because it would not be allowed to be.

Now that’s changed. Republicans lost the House and hold the Senate only closely, their power to push back is diminished. Voters know this. If a hard-line lefty were chosen as the nominee next year, extreme things would seem quite possible. Which will give a lot of voters pause.

The new lefties are a minority in the House but have become the face of the party, its brand. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is more famous than candidates for president. The left has the energy, the excitement, the media pull.

Readers know how I feel about the current political atmosphere. I decry the air of accusation on social media and in our broader political life, and the spirit of the struggle sessions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Last weekend there was the video of a pregnant Chelsea Clinton being accosted by an New York University student who screamed at her and waved her finger in her face. It reminded me of a struggle session, but the student herself, in her certitude, self-righteousness and chic, also reminded me of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her friends in Congress.

In less than three months in office they have established a new mood, an approach to national politics that is combative, angry, polarizing. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota surely meant to oppose U.S. policy toward Israel but somehow couldn’t quite manage to do it without being obviously anti-Semitic—“Israel has hypnotized the world,” “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” It caused an uproar, she apologized, but it seems never to have occurred to her that you can’t talk about your fellow Americans that way. Or that she is a public figure and has to actually model admirable behavior.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is quick—quicker—to aggression. Her default position, behind the smiles and hugs and warmth and dancing, is the pointed, accusatory finger. From just the past two weeks: The New Deal was “an extremely economically racist policy,” Ronald Reagan “pitted white working-class Americans against brown and black working Americans in order to just screw over all working-class Americans,” so he too was racist. Pretty much everyone on the political scene was racist until Ms. Ocasio-Cortez arrived.

I am not talking about mere comportment, and none of this is a misfortune of temperament. It is a strategy and it is working. Polarization yields prominence. They equate peacefulness with complacency. Politico’s Tim Alberta spoke with Ms. Omar this week. “I am certainly not looking to be comfortable, and I don’t want everyone necessarily to feel comfortable around me,” she said. “I think really the most exciting things happen when people are extremely uncomfortable.”

I’m sure she’ll do what she can to keep things exciting.

As for the imitators of the new style, they are making category errors. Courtesy, for instance, is not cowardice. It is not shrinking from real truths or their bracing expression. Courtesy is simply an act of public or private respect that comes from self-discipline, and self-discipline is not boring and antique, it’s a heroic little item that helps civilization to continue.

There is always a great temptation among the young in politics, and especially of the left, to see common respect as an admission of insincerity in opposing injustice. If you were sincere you’d be passionate—fierce and rude. They see courtesy as acceding to bourgeois political norms, when they are certain the bourgeoise established those norms so they’d never be called out and forced to admit their culpability.

They believe that to be enraged is to demonstrate seriousness. It is to show that you understand the urgency of the moment, even if others don’t. To behave in a way that shows respect for the humanity of others is to concede too much. After all, if they were truly human they’d be just as enraged as you are.

You must be crude to show the authenticity of your contempt for injustice. A gentle word is a useless word. But in reality you can’t have justice without mercy, it doesn’t work.

I think we all know where this started, the political brutishness, the ignoring of traditions and norms. Donald Trump is both origin and rationale.

The mean girls of Congress have learned at his knee. They have taken their tactics from him. They claim to be his reluctant imitators but I think they admire his ferocity. They have a taste for it, and a talent.

They are good at being the thing they supposedly despise. They are not the antidote to the current brutality but an iteration of it.

They are his natural children.

Kids, Don’t Become Success Robots Tennessee Tech is an amazing school, and nobody breaks the law to get admitted.

A few thoughts on the college admissions scandal in which wealthy and accomplished parents allegedly lied, cheated and bribed to get their kids admitted to elite universities.

I bet your reaction was like mine: An electric sense of “I didn’t know that was going on!” followed by an immediate “Of course that was going on!” Because there’s a lot of crazy money in dizzy hands, and there’s a lot of status involved in where your kids go to school.

It must be stressed that this is a scandal not of kids but of adults, fully functioning and wildly successful ones who knew what they were doing.

Success RobotsHere is something I think is part of the story. In the past decade or so I’ve observed a particular parenting style growing prevalent among the upper middle class and wealthy. It is intense. They love their kids and want the best for them, they want to be responsible, but there’s a degree to which one wonders if they don’t also see them as narcissistic extensions of themselves. They are hyper-attentive, providing meticulous academic grooming—private schools, private tutors and coaches, private classes in Chinese language and cello. They don’t want their children fat—that isn’t healthy, by which they mean attractive. They communicate the civilized opinions of the best people and signal it would be best to hew to them.

They aim their children at the best colleges, which are, to them, basically brands. The colleges too market themselves that way—“Well, we are Harvard.” Get in there and you’re branded too.

I believe a lot of parents do all this not only so their children will do well but so they will look good.

They are status monkeys creating success robots.

Which in one way is odd. Their family has already arrived! But there is something sick about America that no matter how much success you have it’s not enough, you must have more. And everyone must know you have it.

An apparently laudable goal becomes an extreme competition.

If their child succeeds they were successful parents. If they were successful parents their status is enhanced in a serious way: Everyone respects successful parents! There is no one who doesn’t! Magazine profiles of celebrities stress close families, happy children.

If Billy gets into Yale his parents won the race. If he does not, well, maybe they were average parents, or maybe not so good. Or maybe Billy isn’t that bright. (“Neither is his father,” the neighbors whisper.)

The kids pick up through cues the family ethos: The purpose of an education is to look good. When—this is old-fashioned, but let’s say it anyway—the purpose of an education is to enrich a mind, to help the young discover great thought, to teach history and science, to spur a sense of purpose and vocation.

An irony is that success robots, once wound up and pushed forward, often struggle. The president of an elite college told me recently the most surprising thing about recent classes is the number of students who ask for and need psychological services. They seem, said the president, unusually dependent on their parents.

A traditional reason for going away to college is to get away from your parents, to function and flourish on your own. But that’s hard when you’ve been so closely guided, so aimed toward achievement, even as its ultimate meaning was never quite explained to you.

I’ll tell you where I saw success robots. I go to schools a lot, have taught at universities and seen a ton of great kids and professors who’ve really sacrificed themselves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I expected a lot of questions about politics, history and literature. But that is not what the students were really interested in. What they were interested in—it was almost my first question, and it never abated—was networking. They wanted to know how you network. At first I was surprised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends instead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mistake to see people as commodities, as things you can use! Concentrate on the work!” They’d get impatient. They knew there was a secret to getting ahead, that it was networking, and that I was cruelly withholding successful strategies.

In time I concluded they’d been trained to be shallow, encouraged to see others as commodities. They didn’t think great work would be rewarded, they thought great connections were. And it was what they’d implicitly been promised by the school: Get in here and you can network with the cream of the crop, you’ll rise to the top with them.

Here is a school that is an antidote to that. Three years ago I went to a smallish school that enrolls mostly students who are the first in their families to go to college. It was Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. A lot of the kids are local, a racial and ethnic mix, immigrants and children of immigrants. They were so mature—gracious, welcoming, quick with smart questions on presidents and policy. At a reception I complimented a young woman on her pretty cocktail dress. She smiled and said, “I got it from the clothes closet.” I shook my head. The Clothes Closet, she explained, is where students go to get something to wear to a job interview or an event like this one. People contribute what they’ve got, the students can always put something nice together. In time they contribute clothes too.

Cheryl Montgomery, the college’s director of development, laughed when I called her about it this week and told me that the closet, which had literally been a closet, is now in an office renovated to function as one. “We’ve got everything,” she said. “Men’s suits, women’s professional suits and dresses, ties, belts, shoes. We don’t want a student to worry, ‘Am I dressed appropriately?’” Interviews are hard enough. A lot of students don’t have anyone in their lives to help them. “Last Friday a gentleman who’s a quite spiffy dresser came to see me, a very successful businessman, and he donated four sport coats, a trove of men’s dress slacks and very nice button-down shirts, all in style.” When a cash donation comes in, it goes toward clothes for the unusually large and the unusually small.

I came away from Tennessee Tech thinking what I always think when I see such schools: We’re going to be OK.

And now, because you’d be lost without it, my advice to students still considering college in the year 2019. Avoid elite universities if you can; they’re too often indoctrination mills anyway. Aim at smaller, second-tier colleges, places of low-key harmony, religiously affiliated when possible—and get a real education. Every school has a library. Every library has books. That’s what you need.

You’ll be with a better class of people—harder-working, less cynical, more earnest. First-generation college students who are excited to be there and committed to study. Immigrants who feel grateful to be there. Home-schooled kids with self-possession and dignity, who see the dignity in others.

Do not network. Make friends. Learn about the lives of others.

Get Ready for the Struggle Session In America, and even more so on Twitter, there’s a whiff of China’s Cultural Revolution in the air.

The Chinese Cultural Revolution was a bitter thing, a catastrophe comparable in its societal effects, and similar in its historical feel, to the terrors of Stalin and the French Revolution. No one knows how many died; historians say up to two million. But what I find myself thinking of these days is the ritual humiliations, the “struggle sessions.”

In the mid-1960s Mao Zedong, suspicious of those around him, wary of the moves of erstwhile Soviet allies, damaged by a disastrous famine his policies had caused, surveyed the scene and decided it was time for a little mayhem. The problem wasn’t his disastrous ideology, it was, he wrote, “feudal forces full of hatred towards socialism . . . stirring up trouble, sabotaging socialist productive forces.” The party had been “infiltrated” by pragmatists and revisionists. He wrote—it is the epigraph of Frank Dikötter’s “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976”—“Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? That is the main question of the revolution.”

Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in China, 1966.
Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in China, 1966.

He would find and purge his foes, the usual suspects: intellectuals and other class enemies, capitalist roaders, those who clung to old religions or traditions. In “Mao’s Last Revolution,” Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals tell of a Ministry of Higher Education official brought up on charges of enjoying a “bourgeois lifestyle.” He’d been seen playing mah-jongg.

Mao unleashed university and high school students to weed out enemies and hold them to account. The students became the paramilitary Red Guards. They were instructed by the party to “clear away the evil habits of the old society” and extinguish what came to be known as “the four olds”—old ideas and customs, old habits and culture. “Sweep Away All Monsters and Demons,” the state newspaper instructed them.

With a vengeance they did.

In the struggle sessions the accused, often teachers suspected of lacking proletarian feeling, were paraded through streets and campuses, sometimes stadiums. It was important always to have a jeering crowd; it was important that the electric feeling that comes with the possibility of murder be present. Dunce caps, sometimes wastebaskets, were placed on the victims’ heads, and placards stipulating their crimes hung from their necks. The victims were accused, berated, assaulted. Many falsely confessed in the vain hope of mercy.

Were any “guilty”? It hardly mattered. Fear and terror were the point. A destroyed society is more easily dominated.

The Chinese Catholic Margaret Chu, a medical-lab assistant, was dragged into the office of her labor camp in 1968 and made to answer invented charges. “Their real motive was once and again to force me to admit all my alleged crimes,” she wrote decades later. “ ‘I did not commit any crimes,’ I asserted.” She was accused again, roughed up. She denied her guilt again. “Immediately two people jumped on me and cut off half my hair.”

She was tortured, left in handcuffs for 100 days, and imprisoned for years. While being tortured she sometimes prayed for death so her suffering would stop.

The Cultural Revolution lasted roughly a dozen years and died with Mao in September 1976. In time a party congress denounced it as what it was: ruinous.

So I ask you to entertain an idea that has been on my mind. I don’t want to be overdramatic, but the spirit of the struggle session has returned and is here, in part because of the internet, in part because of the extremity of our politics, in part because more people are lonely. “Contention is better than loneliness,” as my people, the Irish, say, and they would know.

The air is full of accusation and humiliation. We have seen this spirit most famously on the campuses, where students protest harshly, sometimes violently, views they wish to suppress. Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.

The spirit of the struggle session is all over Twitter . On literary Twitter social-justice warriors get advance copies of new books and denounce them for deviationism—as insensitive, racist, appropriative, anti-LGBTQ. Books on the eve of publication have been pulled, sometimes withdrawn by authors who apologize profusely. Everyone’s scared. And the tormentors are not satisfied by an apology. They’re excited by it and prowl for more prey.

A few weeks ago a young woman on Twitter thought aloud: “What if public libraries were open late every night and we could engage in public life there instead of having to choose between drinking at the bar and domestic isolation.” This might get people off their screens and help them feel “included and nourished.”

A nice idea. Maybe some local official would pick it up. Instead there was a small onslaught of negative reaction. “Libraries are already significantly underfunded and they struggle to make do with what they’ve got.” “Before you suggest this understand that librarians are maxed out—our facilities are understaffed, we’re underpaid.” The idea would only work in “mainly affluent urban & suburban communities with already well-funded libraries whose wealth insulates them.” A woman soon to marry a librarian warned of “what this would do to the lives of the people who work there.”

After being batted about, the young woman apologized: “I made insensitive tweets abt public libraries & the individuals that staff them. I apologize for those tweets. I have much to learn abt the difficult challenges public librarians face, the services they provide, & how much they strive to meet the needs of communities they serve.”

She abased herself for having had a pretty idea. But that is dangerous when thought-cops are out there, eager to perceive insufficient class loyalty.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand understood the mood of things when she self-abased all over television after she announced for president. Once a Blue Dog Democrat, now a progressive, she nervously expressed remorse at her past deviationism. Her previous conservative stands, she said, were “callous.” “They certainly weren’t empathetic.” “I did not think about suffering in other people’s lives.” She was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of past stands. “I was not caring about others. . . . I was wrong.”

At least no one cut her hair. Maybe that will be in the 2024 cycle.

Joe Biden understands the moment. He quickly apologized last week after calling Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy.” Progressive Cynthia Nixon denounced Mr. Pence as “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader and asked Mr. Biden to “consider how this falls on the ears of our community.” “You’re right, Cynthia,” he quickly responded.

All the Democratic candidates have apologized for something. Elizabeth Warren is abjectly sorry she took a DNA test.

Leaders of great liberal newspapers are in constant fear because so many of their readers—and writers—are more doctrinaire in their views, and angry. The struggle session is in the internal chatroom.

There’s a feeling in the air, isn’t there? We’re all noticing pieces of the story here and there, in this incident and that. But maybe it has an overall meaning. And maybe that meaning isn’t good.

I don’t know if we’re a crueler, more aggressive country than in the past. We’re certainly a louder one, and more anonymous in our cruelties.

And none of it portends good.

Am I wrong? If so, comment below. We can have a struggle session.

Michael Cohen Makes History There’s no precedent for such an attack on the essential nature of an American president.

Michael Cohen is, famously, a lowlife and screwball who’s made his living as an enforcer, liar and thug. He is going to prison essentially for these things. He has taken to implying his turning on Donald Trump is linked to an inner moral conversion, which may be true but is conveniently timed: He has nothing to lose and some form of leniency to gain.

But I found his testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee credible overall, and I suspect most everyone in America did, because no one, friend of the president or foe, love him or hate him, thinks Mr. Trump has a high personal character or an especially admirable back story. And that was Mr. Cohen’s subject.

Democrats say the purpose of the hearing was to get at the truth, Republicans say it was to disrupt the Trump presidency, and both are correct. But history, which is a real and actual thing, was also at the table, and this is what history was told by a man who was for 10 years the president’s personal lawyer and confidante, an intimate who was present at the creation:

Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in Washington, D.C., Feb. 27.

Mr. Cohen implied the president’s Russian policies are not and never have been on the up-and-up: “Mr. Trump knew of and directed the Trump-Moscow negotiations throughout the campaign, and lied about it. He lied because he never expected to win the election. He also lied about it because he stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars on the Moscow real-estate project.” Mr. Cohen said he came to see the president’s true character: “Since taking office he has become the worst version of himself. . . . Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great. He had no desire or intention to lead this nation—only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr. Trump would often say, the campaign is going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history.’ He never expected to win the primary. He never expected to win the general election. The campaign—for him—was always a marketing opportunity.”

None of these charges were new, precisely. They have been made in books, investigations and interviews both on and off the record. What is amazing though is that such a rebuke—such an attack on the essential nature of a president, and by an intimate—has no equal in our history. I don’t think, as we talk about Mr. Cohen’s testimony, we fully appreciate this. John Dean said there was a cancer growing in the presidency. He didn’t say Richard Nixon was the cancer. He didn’t say the president was wicked and a fraud.

This is bigger than we think, and history won’t miss the import of this testimony.

Were the hearings step one in an ultimate impeachment attempt? We’ll see. The 7½ hours came across like the artillery bombardment before the charge. Older Democrats will counsel that the way forward is to spend the next year weakening the president—2020 is coming, a move to impeach will cause grave national trouble. Will they prevail?

Everyone focuses on the always-upcoming Mueller report, but the action seems to be in Manhattan. When Mr. Cohen was asked if there were any illegal acts regarding Donald Trump that hadn’t come up in the hearings, he said yes. “Those are a part of the investigation that’s currently being looked at by the Southern District of New York,” meaning the U.S. attorney there. What did the president or one of his agents communicate to Mr. Cohen the last time they had contact? “This topic is actually something that’s being investigated right now by the Southern District of New York.”

The Southern District of New York sure sounds busy. They’ve granted immunity to the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and they’re not limited by a specific mandate. They can look into any crime that took place within their jurisdiction. They took down the Mafia using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Performance by the new committee members was uneven. When the professionally fiery Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) made a speech implying that Republican member Mark Meadows was racist, Chairman Elijah Cummings defused the situation and Ms. Tlaib retreated, suggesting she was sorry she was misunderstood, by which she seemed to mean she was sorry she’d been comprehended. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, under criticism back home for her role in dooming the Amazon jobs deal, shrewdly played against type, eschewing a showy speech and instead asking carefully targeted questions.

Mr. Cohen didn’t always seem to be telling the whole truth. At least in one instance he appears to have misremembered or been untruthful. That is when he claimed he hadn’t wanted a job in the White House. Reporters who were there remember it differently. Dana Bash: “All of us, by people in and around the process, real time [were told] he very much wanted a job in the White House.”

Mr. Cohen insisted he had been offered a job, in White House counsel Don McGahn’s office, and rejected it. But that was the tell: Such jobs traditionally go to bright young people with impeccable credentials and good social skills. The president’s 50-year-old personal lawyer and fixer would have wanted a bigger role and title. If he felt dissed by such an offer it’s because he was.

I want to return to the subject of the president’s character. I texted this week with a great Trump supporter in Georgia, with whom I’d talked often during the 2016 campaign. “We do not care what Trump did before he became our president,” she said. “He has kept his promises to us.”

She was saying essentially that he has a high political character.

She does not trust those who’ve been around the president, calling them “liars, leakers and backstabbers.” I asked why he would have appointed bad men and women as aides. “He hired bad people in error,” she said. “They were bad actors, disloyal people. He was betrayed by them.”

She feels Mr. Trump has come through, from the courts to the economy. And when he got to Washington he didn’t go native—he still hates all the right people. She has also become protective of him. She sees him clobbered every day in every way throughout media. It has made him not only a sympathetic figure but an endearing one.

We close with Mr. Cummings, in his 23rd year in the House. He put a fair-minded face on the hearing. His closing remarks were powerful and humane, and seemed targeted not only at Mr. Cohen but perhaps at the newer members of Congress.

We are here to improve our democracy, he said.

To Mr. Cohen: “If I hear you correctly, it sounds like you’re crying out for a new normal—for us getting back to normal. Sounds to me like you want to make sure our democracy stays intact.”

Then, more broadly: “The one meeting I had with the president, I said, ‘The greatest gift we can give to our children is making sure we give them a democracy that is better than the one we came upon.’” He hoped all of us can get “the democracy we want,” and pass it on to our children, “so they can do better than we did.”