Tuesday, July 4, 2017
The Fourth of July: Year One of the Trump Era
Patriotism is a wonderful feeling. Love of country, your native land. Your home and all that comes with it: baseball, mom, apple pie and Chevrolet, or Ford, if you prefer.
The story of its birth, of brave men resisting tyranny, marshaling high ideals and lofty words to defeat a king. The flag, bold stripes of red and white, its original circle of 13 of stars representing "a new constellation," now a mighty grid of 50, one for each of our scattered, proud and distinctive states.
Sure, that pride would have to be tempered with sadness. To love America doesn't require that you think her perfect. Conquering the continent came at the price of slaughtering the native inhabitants. The original sin of slavery, written into our Constitution, leading to a fratricidal Civil War. More Americans died fighting the Civil War—about half a million—than died in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, combined.
But those sorrows were safely confined to the past, and what country did not have worse? Looking around the world, at the legacy of madness burdening other nations, of repression and poverty and horror, we had to feel pretty good about ourselves. We may have troubles, but we sure aren't them.
Now look at us.
How are patriotic Americans supposed to place their hands over their hearts and say the pledge with the country in its present state? Having elected a fraud, a bully and a liar, bent on systematically tearing down our Democratic traditions—respect for the electoral process, the courts, the press. Our nation as an in-gathering of immigrants? A place where science is respected, where women and minorities, gays and lesbians, enjoy equal protection under the law?
The first 4th of July under the Trump presidency. A buffoon king propped up by his court of cringing underlings, flattering toadies, traitors, psychopaths and henchmen. The first of four, or eight, depending on how things go. And we really have no idea how that will unfold. Are we in the lull before the true calamity starts? Is it spring 1914? August 1939? Where all the elements of disaster are in place, waiting for the spark to touch it off. Half the nation is already in lingering shock that we could have elected someone so unfit. Will the other half quickly learn the cost of their folly, when some irreparable harm is done? Will they never learn, and race off toward calamity with an enthusiastic whoop?
Has that harm already happened? Are we on the other side of the mirror now, bouncing down the proverbial slippery slope, watching mileposts of the unimaginable, boundaries of the unacceptable, flash past as we tumble into our new world? Will we look back on Trump with nostalgia as we squirm under the boot of a true tyrant?
Some days I worry that we are over-dramatizing the situation. We have sunk to some truly low states, endured truly mediocre presidents. Warren G. Harding. Richard M. Nixon. And even the okay presidents have committed extraordinary blunders. Lyndon B. Johnson is generally viewed as a competent president, who battled poverty and passed the Voters Rights Act, though his reputation was tarnished by Vietnam. Some 57,000 Americans died in that war; so that's a bit more than "tarnish." Trump hasn't caused anywhere near that kind of damage. Yet.
Sometimes it seems we are under-reacting. One shock piles upon another and before any given misstep can be reacted to we are on to another. Reeling, half the country in a narcoleptic stupor, mumbling how they wish he's stop Tweeting, as if it were the expression of the president's thoughts that is the problem, and not the thoughts themselves—infantile, combative, petty, mean, stupid, preening.
It's odd to take comfort in America's lapses. Interning its Japanese citizens. Institutionalizing racism. Enthroning one religion over another. But remembering those helps balance the shock of the present moment. We made mistakes, we recovered. We are a great country—still, despite our electoral calamity—not because we've never erred, never blundered, never betrayed our values. But because we always manage to right ourselves when we do. The march of freedom carried on.
At least up to now. Anyone who feels our democratic liberty is guaranteed isn't paying attention. With a conscienceless buffoon swinging a pick axe daily, if not hourly, at our institutions, nothing is certain. The battle is going on right now, today, this minute. Anyone who ever wished they could have been there at the nation's birth, a cobbler in Lexington, a baker in Concord, so he could have heard the call, set down his hammer, his bowl, taken up his flintlock and rose to the defense of our aborning country, has to be a little grateful to be alive at this moment, this 4th, when the country needs every sound head and every stout heart it can muster. Every man and woman who believes in the United States of America at its best, not at its worst. This is the gravest sort of crisis—one self-imposed, by the cowardice of our leaders, the selfishness of our electorate, the loss of faith in ourselves and in each other. People have never needed an America more, and America has never needed her people more. This 4th of July, it might be hard to feel good about what our country is now. But we certainly can celebrate what it once was, and what it might yet be again.