OPINION — Americans like to imagine themselves as Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane in “High Noon,” facing impossible odds, struggling, yet managing to stand up, even if it means standing alone and risking it all. We are all rugged individuals, we think, rushing in while cowards run for cover.
As we’ve seen in the reactions to the impeachment inquiry launched by the House into the actions of President Donald Trump, that high self-regard is just another American myth disproved by historical reality.
When it counts, are there a courageous few? Of course. And just as surely there are many so eager to cling to power and the powerful that they fight one another over the chance to demean and destroy anyone and anything standing in their way, including the Constitution and the American people they swore an oath to serve.
As in the 1952 film, the real-life setup could not be simpler. Unlike the nearly 500-page Mueller report, the Ukraine phone call is easy to understand. It reads, according to the edited transcript released by the White House, like a shakedown, a favor for a favor, information on a political rival with needed military aid hanging in the balance.
In a perfect movie move, a whistleblower (protected by federal statute) sets the plot in motion. Come to think of it, real life does mirror “High Noon” for a while, though the patriotic official has a few more defenders than Kane ever did. Alas, his or her name will probably still be revealed.
The movie’s marshal, eager to retire to start a new life with a young bride, is at first tempted to shrug off his duty. Are there parallels with the House Republicans choosing to sit out their 2020 races, perhaps to step aside until the smoke clears and it’s safe to venture back out into the political arena, picking up the pieces of a GOP not sure of what it believes in unless it’s Donald Trump?
Kane resists, decides to stay, with no support not even from his Quaker wife — spoiler alert — at first, anyway.
One by one, Kane searches the town for allies to join in his fight against the bad guy he once put in jail returning for revenge with crew in tow. In real life, Trump hanger-on and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is as striking as one of the outlaws, played by Lee Van Cleef, but unfortunately the former New York mayor reads more ridiculous than sinister.
Some in Kane’s town hide, others make excuses, with some even taking the side of the criminals, saying they’re not so bad and are rather roguishly charming, so why not go along? Any viewer tuning into the various news shows can see echoes of that today: Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan screaming false talking points at CNN’s Jake Tapper; House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy being read on “60 Minutes” an excerpt of the transcript of Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and calling it false; Giuliani contradicting himself and turning in performances he himself would find fishy when he was a prosecutor.
Need more? How about white evangelicals rewriting the commandments to back a president who has broken most of them? All this while he transforms political disagreement into treason, in heated rhetoric that risks incitement — one of those pastors, Robert Jeffress, provided incendiary, tweet-ready “Civil War” language. Or Thom Tillis, the North Carolina Republican senator who backtracked from his very public declaration of independence from the president as a tough reelection race loomed? Or South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, currently at war with the Graham of 1999, who was all in for impeachment of a Democratic president?
Actually, in reviewing the then and now, Democratic and Republican lawmakers could all be credibly accused of viewing impeachment through a partisan lens.
House Democratic leaders ask Republican colleagues to follow the law and listen before making up their minds, as Kane implored his deputy to not necessarily lead the way but at least offer backup. But no, the deputy wanted a promise of Kane’s endorsement for a promotion, something of value in return, a quid pro quo, you might say.
In a bit of “meta” backstory, the making of “High Noon” featured its own drama within the drama, unfolding against the backdrop of the Hollywood blacklist. The film itself was considered an allegory, a criticism of the herd mentality and hysteria of the time, when politicians, pundits and those with power in every industry called out and cast out the pariahs, which included the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, a former communist who refused to name names and suffered for it.
While John Wayne and others piled on, with Wayne crowing about his part in ostracizing Foreman, Gary Cooper, a conservative, nevertheless expressed disapproval of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s tactics.
America has not yet reached that “Have you no sense of decency?” moment, the critical mass when the tide of public opinion turned, and turned against the leaders of the pack — Joe McCarthy and his special counsel, the odious and eventually disbarred Roy Cohn, who seemed to enjoy destroying people and at whose knee Trump learned his scorched-earth machinations to defend against the indefensible.
As public opinion polls shift and the language in Trump’s tweets grows ever more apocalyptic, it may get harder and harder for his acolytes to defend his actions. Sen. Chuck Grassley has defended the whistleblower and his anonymity, while not condemning the president by name. “Uninformed speculation wielded by politicians or media commentators as a partisan weapon is counterproductive and doesn’t serve the country,” the Iowa Republican said.
That’s something, if not exactly a lone stand in the middle of the street.
“High Noon” was pretty nuanced, acknowledging human nature and our instinct for self-preservation that keeps most people in line. Cooper’s Will Kane risked his life; members of the Republican Party risk a life in politics.
Americans went into this transactional presidency with open eyes. Trump’s philosophy can, after all, be summarized in the title of his book “The Art of the Deal,” which he had plenty of help to write. It’s no surprise that he is accused of making deals on the phone with foreign leaders to benefit not the country’s national security but himself.
But who knew that so many Americans would not be the rugged individuals, eager to stand up for right and wrong? And that they would instead be the townspeople cautiously poking their heads out to see if it’s safe?
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, aknd is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.