In Willa Cather’s novel “My Antonia,” there are two kind Russian farmers named Peter and Pavel who have settled on the Nebraska prairie.
On his deathbed, Pavel tells the story of how they came to emigrate there.
Many years before, back in Russia, the two young men had been the groomsmen at a friends’ wedding. The party went on well after midnight and eventually a caravan of seven sledges carried the families through the snow, back to where they were staying. As they rode, faint streaks of shadow – hundreds of them – could be seen dashing through the trees along the trail. Suddenly, the howling of wolves erupted from all directions.
The horses took off and the wolves attacked. The rear sledge hit a clump and overturned. The shrieks were horrific as the wolves pounced on their human prey. Another sledge tipped and then another, and the swarms of wolves descended on the families.
Pavel and Peter were in the lead sledge, carrying the bride and groom. They were careening at top speed, but one of their horses was now near death with exhaustion. Pavel turned to the groom. They would have to lighten their load. He pointed to the bride. The groom refused to let her be tossed over. Pavel fought with him and tried to rip her away. In the scuffle he threw them both out and to the wolves.
Peter and Pavel survived – but lived in infamy. They were the monsters who had thrown a bride to the wolves. They were forced to flee to the New World.
The story reminds us how thin the crust of civilization really is. It reminds us of what otherwise good people are capable at moments of severe stress and crisis, when fear is up and when conflict – red in tooth and claw – takes control.
It’s an especially good story to tell as we enter 2019, because this looks to be the year of the wolves – the year when savage and previously unimaginable things might happen.
It will be a year of divided government and unprecedented partisan conflict. It will be a year in which Donald Trump is isolated and unrestrained as never before. And it will be in this atmosphere that indictments will fall, provoking not just a political crisis but a constitutional one.
There are now over a dozen investigations into Trump’s various scandals. If we lived in a healthy society, the ensuing indictments would be handled in a serious way – somber congressional hearings, dispassionate court proceedings. Everybody would step back and be sobered by the fact that our very system of law is at stake.
But we don’t live in a healthy society and we don’t have a healthy president.
Trump doesn’t recognize, understand or respect institutional authority. He only understands personal power. He sees every conflict as a personal conflict in which he destroys or gets destroyed.
When the indictments come down, Trump won’t play by the rules. He’ll seek to delegitimize those rules. He’ll seek to delegitimize our legal institutions. He’ll personalize every indictment, slander every prosecutor. He’ll seek to destroy the edifice of law in order to save himself.
We know the language he’ll use. It will be the anti-establishment, anti-institutional language that has been coursing through the left and right for the past few decades: The establishment is corrupt, the game is rigged, the elites are out to get you.
At that point congressional leaders will face the defining choice of their careers: Where does their ultimate loyalty lie, to the Constitution or to their party?
If their loyalty is to the Constitution, they will step back and figure out, in a bipartisan way, how to hold the sort of hearings that Congress held during the Watergate scandal – hearings that inspired trust in the system. They will step back and find men and women of integrity – the modern versions of Archibald Cox, Elliot Richardson and Judge John Sirica – who would work to restore decency amid the moral rot.
On the other hand, if they put party above nation, they will see this crisis as just another episode in our long-running political circus. They’ll fall back in partisan lines. They’ll hurl abuse. Their primary concern will be: How can this help me in 2020?
If that happens, then the roughly 40 percent of Americans who support Trump will see serious evidence that he committed felonies, but they won’t care! They’ll conclude that this is not about law or integrity. It’s just a political show trial. They’ll see there is no higher authority that all Americans are accountable to. It’s just power and popularity straight through.
If that happens, we’ll have to face the fact that our Constitution and system of law were not strong enough to withstand the partisan furies that now define our politics. We’ll have to face the fact that America has become another fragile state – a kakistocracy, where laws are passed and broken without consequence, where good people lay low and where wolves are left free to prey on the weak.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018.