I woke up the other morning and, for the first time in my 70 years, I worried about my country. I was a healthy, virile, potential cannon-fodder college student during the Vietnam years who watched Walter Cronkite every night, but I wasn’t worried then. I knew that America was strong, a City on the Hill saving the world from evil communism, all other countries in our shadow.
Back then, I was a right-winger on a small, very liberal campus. I had read all the sacred texts of the fringe with Ayn Rand as my lodestar. In my late 30s, when I finally stopped drinking, my perceptions began to change, and I drifted to the left, where I continue to set sail.
To my mind, modern “conservatism” has bastardized what for centuries was a glorious intellectual tradition. I see William F. Buckley and Charles Krauthammer as modern carriers of that flame.
Today, “conservatism so-called” has morphed into Trumpism and become a sleezy, corrupt, anti-intellectual, power-mad, take-no-prisoners and win-at-any-cost political scrum. Many GOP members are Ayn Rand fans, which means they tend to view society as a kind of machine with success (read money) as the grease with we mere mortals gumming up the works. Rand’s philosophy is mere abstraction, an Olympian vision of ice-cold souls, a head game with no heart.
I started drifting away from the right after working some factory jobs and confronting challenges of living on my own, realizing that those abstractions had no relevance at all to me or my co-workers’ real, down and dirty lives. People have problems, catastrophes happen. Almost everyone needs help at some point, and I came to support the generous giving of it. I began reading, thinking and feeling in a better place.
The difference in perspective is stark. Compare the general Republican reaction to those migrant mothers and babies, escaping violence in their home countries and being torn from each other on our border with the outcry by liberals and others around the country. Some Republicans have pushed back against Trump, but most on the right see them as being rendered just punishment for having the audacity to plead for asylum. The rest of us see the personal hurt being inflicted and ask, Is this who we really are?
I understand a little how Trump supporters think and feel. Anger fueled by being sidelined by globalization and watching the country change from white to different colors, furious at losing status. They seem to dream of a Golden Age where northern European stock ran the show and women, children and people of color knew their places. That scenario never existed. And the dream of liberals for the Kennedys of Camelot and the sky-blue promises that were lost never truly existed, either.
The differences seem plain — liberals and Democrats often get sidetracked on internecine squabbles, whereas its clear the trump Republicans have gone off the rails. Can we all shift our perspectives? I don’t know, but I hope so. We certainly need to be talking, not screaming, at each other.
I’ve listened to the Politico recordings of wailing children at the border, and I am angry to tears. Since Trump assumed office, I’ve watched him dismantle our country’s alliances and destroy our credibility in international relationships. I’ve heard him essentially claim the musty mantle of the Divine Right of Kings, this in a country that rebelled against a king to gain independence. I’ve watched his sycophant Pruitt overthrow critical protections for clean air, water and soil while denying the consensus science of climate change. I’ve watched Sessions claim the very Biblical authority that justified slavery to tear toddlers and young children away from their mothers. And yet again I listened to their sobs, and I wept. I also felt disgust.
Perhaps the rumor is true, after all: Putin wants to break America and the Western alliance, and his puppet Trump seems to be doing just that.
I’ve watched all of this and more in disbelief as Trump’s approval ratings slowly rise, and I’ve asked myself, Just what the hell is going on here?
Aren’t we better than this?
Actually, we aren’t, and haven’t been.
This country was founded on white supremacy. We ripped slave children from their mothers, sold children and parents to other owners. We fought the Civil War over slavery, yet the South created the Lost Cause to fudge the facts about its foundational, evil system, while the northern states enforced Black Codes to prevent ex-slave migration. We also tore Native American children away from their cultures, prevented them from speaking their ancestral tongues while forcing the tribes to adopt a European concept of dominion over, not existing in harmony with, the natural world.
I’m angry at what’s happening to these parents and children, but I remember I paid scant attention to news reports of our errant drones killing wedding parties in Afghanistan or destroying children’s hospitals in Syria. History is my favorite read, especially American history and the Jim Crow era, and I’ve noticed but not protested the killings of unarmed black men by police.
Racism is still rampant, and latent fascist tendencies that usually lay dormant are now in full flower, watered by the narcissism and soullessness of this administration. Trump calls any inconvenient stories “fake news,” immigrants as “infesting our country,” Bob Mueller’s investigation “a witch hunt,” all of it propaganda to protect himself and warp the public’s understanding of, and agreement about what facts are — a critical requirement for a healthy democracy.
Here’s what Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (pg. 363): “… The fundamental reason for the superiority of totalitarian propaganda over the propaganda of other parties and movements is that its content, for the members of the movement at any rate, is no longer an objective issue about which people might have opinions but has become as real and untouchable an element in their lives as the rules of arithmetic.”
So, what do we do now?
I know I am speaking to the choir, but we all need to sing louder and more passionately for social justice, civility and diversity. I strongly urge everyone who picked this paper up to read Kathryn Fentress’s article in this issue of Whatcom Watch about changing perspectives.
Remember that “Our faults, dear Brutus, lie not in our stars, but in ourselves …”
Read Jon Meacham’s book, “The Soul of America,” to understand how this country has pulled out of bad times before.
And we all need to nurture faith in the essential goodness of almost everyone.