As the USS Bonhomme Richard, an 844-foot-long, 40,000-ton amphibious assault warship, lay smoldering alongside a pier at Naval Station San Diego, the scene could be a striking metaphor for America today: a great ship in extremis.
It is obvious that America is in grave trouble riven by a pandemic, an economic implosion, massive protests that extend beyond race and social injustice and a presidential election. This metaphorical fire in America is a political inferno.
Republicans and Democrats will blame the other for starting this conflagration. Yet the causes run far deeper than much of the superficiality of today's blame game. If there were a starting point for this fire, it was probably the Vietnam War and the beginning of public disillusionment with government. Before the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964, about 3/4 of the American public trusted its government. That figure is now reversed.
The combustible material to fuel that fire, ironically, is the Constitution. Based on checks and balances, to function effectively, at least one of three conditions is needed. First, one party can control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue with veto-proof majorities in Congress. Second, a crisis such as the Depression or World War II can rally the nation and provide a unified response in a government divided between the two parties. Third, sufficient civility and compromise can bridge the partisan divides.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has tragically demonstrated, crisis no longer seems to heal these divisions. And civility and compromise have long disappeared.
In assessing culpability in today's highly pernicious environment, many, especially on the Democratic side and a growing number of Republicans, will blame President Donald Trump for starting too many political fires. The litany of critiques extends from a perceived abnegation of international leadership, rejection of treaties and agreements -- the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- and starting an unnecessary tariff war with China to seemingly downplaying or dismissing the coronavirus pandemic and blaming domestic protests over alleged police brutality on "left-wing fascists"
Institutionally, aside from a handful of senators who occasionally challenge the president, why has the Republican Party allowed itself to become the TOP -- Trump's Own Party -- failing to constrain some of the more outrageous actions and tweets emanating from the White House? Certainly, some responsibility must apply to the party as it did when Watergate consumed the Richard Nixon presidency.
The president's defenders obviously reject these assertions as brazen attempts to reverse the election of 2016 and make Trump a one-term chief executive. Republicans can argue that, while Trump's style is problematic, his policies are sound from the economy to appointing conservative judges. Further, the lurch of the Democratic Party to the (far) left is unacceptable. Ultra-progressive policies for Green New Deals, raising taxes and defunding the police are dangerous and not only for Republicans. And, should the Democrats win both the presidency and the two houses of Congress, where are the checks and balances in government?
Tragically, in a nation as profoundly divided as at any time in its history since the Civil War, virtually every issue has become partisan and inflamed. It is irrational why debate exists over the wearing of masks to limit the virus infection. Yet the president's guidance is ambivalent and several (Republican) governors have ordered reversing mayors' directives to wear masks.
Whether or not Mary Trump's tell-all book about her uncle's unfitness for most anything is accurate, a significant number of Americans will believe it is. The controversy and questions over allegations that Russia and its military intelligence arm, the GRU, conspired to kill Americans in Afghanistan are "hanging chads" that could affect the outcome of the election. And the debate over when, if and how to open schools is a ticking political time bomb.
Meanwhile, the Trump team will question the mental capacity of Joe Biden and his foot-in-mouth problems. All presidential elections rely on opposition research and negative campaigning from "Swift boating" to outright lies about the other candidate. All this brings more oxygen to the political fires.
According to polls, a majority of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the pandemic. But will a Biden presidency not only be better? If elected, can the former vice president fight the flames of dissension and division that are raging as the fire did in that mighty warship?
In America, the pandemic continues. The economy is still in deep trouble. And politically, America is in disarray. But, as with Bonhomme Richard, who is accountable? And who will put the fires out? November may or may not answer these questions.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age."