Scores of writers try to help us identify hope amid these dark and bitterly divided political times.
You know the drill: Donald Trump is an anomaly, they say. The pendulum will swing. It isn’t that an alarming cohort of white Americans is cruel and racist and thus adores this president. They just feel their grievances were ignored, so by electing Trump they lashed out with the most shocking action available, short of literally exerting their cherished Second Amendment rights against the rest of us. They voted for and stand by Trump. They are desperate; and we just don’t understand.
I sometimes hold a comparably rosy view about Wisconsin’s future from a Madison point of view, thinking that: the state might swing back toward its progressive past; that fair-minded citizens are starting to get how state Republicans are corrupt and divisive; that the loss of organized labor’s political muscle to counterbalance right-wing money and organization is surmountable; and that people are realizing that the GOP’s paramount goal is the upward redistribution of wealth and power at the cost of public schools, roads and anything that benefits us all.
But more often lately, I’m wondering if people are simply not as noble as “the history books tell it, they tell it so well” — as the old Bob Dylan lyric has it — on this topic of our essential goodness.
That question occurred as I read “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham. In the book, he does his damnedest to reassure us that this era too shall pass, that throughout our history we have experienced awful leaders and situations and yet always persevered.
In Meacham’s telling, giants like Abraham Lincoln claimed “the better angels of our nature” would rescue us, as they did in his time. Meacham writes glowingly of other presidents — Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson — who took huge and admirable political risks, and that our history suggests the right leader or leaders will continue to emerge at our moments of greatest need. (Meacham richly praises Truman for confronting the evil of Wisconsin’s own Joe McCarthy.)
“Extremism, racism, nativism, and isolationism, driven by fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of economic and social stress — a period like our own,” Meacham writes. “Americans today have little trust in government; household incomes lag behind our usual middle-class expectations. The fires of fear in America have long found oxygen when broad, seemingly threatening change is afoot.”
Meacham acknowledges that our current president seems to align with a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, then adds: “History … shows us that we are frequently vulnerable to fear, bitterness, and strife. The good news is that we have come through such darkness before.”
I suppose. After all, that’s the preferred American narrative. We are essentially an exceptional country filled with wonderful people who occasionally are so desperate that they choose bad leaders and venture astray.
Another Meacham book in my library is “American Lion,” a biography of Andrew Jackson as president. In it, he acknowledges Jackson’s contradictions, describing how the seventh president professed a love of democracy and did some great things, but was prone to racism and intolerance, defended slavery and masterminded the removal of tens of thousands of Native Americans from their lands, killing many of them.
The New York Times recently published a big story about a new Alabama memorial to the nation’s history of lynching African-Americans. The writer described some of the “offenses” that provoked lynching — a pastor who married a black man to a white woman; a man, his wife and four children being lynched for his using “inappropriate” language to a white woman; a man lynched for addressing a white police officer without the title “mister.”
Such stories about the real America abound.
They are just not frequently taught in our history courses, or, at least they weren’t in my baby-boom-era classrooms. We got a heavily sanitized version of a nation unique in world history, one that never lost wars (this was before Vietnam) and evenhandedly provided the great American dream to most everyone. Our soldiers were the bravest, our leaders the most heroic, and our values, religious or otherwise, better than anyone else’s.
It is the potency of this kind of jingoistic propaganda that allows Trump to score big points with his base when he attacks athletes who exercise their civil rights before football games.
Often it seems that the first level of American history instruction is almost entirely positive, but when you go deeper you find there is, across the board, an ugly underside. For a nation whose self-image is so connected to freedom of thought and inquiry, why is that? Who decided, and when— to borrow a Jack Nicholson movie line — that we couldn’t handle the truth?
This, I think, is the essential dilemma for liberals. We see American history as gray — good and bad, not black and white — and that creates the opening for strategists on the far right to proclaim themselves the true patriots, waving the flag, hugging the troops, and always backed by the America-first gibberish of Fox News.
That doesn’t make liberals one iota less patriotic. We hugely admire the sacrifices made by those in the military. It’s just that we don’t limit our respect for those in public service to men in uniforms.
A recent special magazine report by the Southern Poverty Law Center is headlined: “America the Trumped — 10 ways the administration attacked civil rights in year one.” As I finished the piece, I flipped it aside and wondered whether people who stand by Trump would care, even if they were to read it.
But back to Meacham and his upbeat assertion that some wonderful post-Trump savior will emerge because, well, that’s always happened.
We have to hope, pray even, that he is right.
But more often now, I think about how we never were the flaw-free nation that I grew up being taught and believed for decades. We are wonderful in many ways, ugly in others, but far — very far — from perfect.
When we pretend otherwise, we get Donald Trump.
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