The US is teetering on the edge, but could be redeemed by virtues
TWO new books remind me of a line from an old comic strip (Pogo) from my youth: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
While Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” reveals little about the president that we did not already know (or suspect), the account documents what Trump’s behavior in office has already shown us: his boasting, bullying nature designed to distract from his fragile, narcissistic ego, his astonishing ignorance, his ongoing vulgarity, and his cold insensitivity to the concerns and feelings of others.
Little surprise that Trump’s White House is internally riven with chaos and crudeness: Personal rivalries abound among family members, advisers, and a coterie of sycophants who are obsessed with their own self-importance and advancement and exhibit little interest in, or understanding of, the Republic’s institutions and the actual needs of the country. In short, they mirror the president’s view of how the world works: What’s in it for me?
Wolff reminds us that Trump is, in many respects, a creation of the media he so routinely denounces, as it is the media — in all its manifestations — that fashioned the very culture of celebrity through which he gained notoriety. Trump and the media are entangled in an odd symbiotic relationship in which he desperately hungers for its attention and approval even while it criticizes his behavior and policies that it is compelled to cover.
In “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use a broader, more historical context, and assess Trump’s presidency using these four key indicators:
1. Rejection of political rules of the game.
2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.
3. Toleration or encouragement of violence.
4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
While they declare that any one of these should be cause for serious concern, they note that, in just his first year in office, Trump had transgressed them all. Furthermore, his incessant creation of controversy is itself a tactic long embraced by some politicians for it serves to keep citizens divided and off-balance.
While I concur that Trump and his congressional enablers represent a new level of political ugliness — and are a very serious threat to the basic norms of this country — the truth is that it is his very crudeness that has served to expose deep social and cultural fault lines that have long been growing. Indeed, he is but the inevitable outcome of a multi-decade coarsening of the substance and the tenor of US civic life.
Without doubt, the political elite bears much responsibility for this dismal state of affairs. For decades now, legislators at the federal and state level have embraced policies favoring the wealthy and allied corporate interests over and against the wishes and needs of the vast majority of US citizens. Even while sufficient funds seem to be always available for the military and its ongoing overseas entanglements, successive tax cuts for the rich have steadily absorbed remaining revenues for other programs.
Erosion of responsibility
As a consequence, we are experiencing a much-diminished public realm: crumbling infrastructure, a job market in which the costs of living outpace minimal wage increases, and eroding health and welfare programs.
They have been able to pull this off by repeatedly stirring up resentment and anger through the exploitation of racial anxieties and the cultural tensions inherent in issues involving sexuality and gender.
But it is also clear that “we” — the citizens of this country — have played a major role in corrupting our republic, as well. While “corruption” does involve such things as elected officials accepting bribes in exchange for steering public dollars towards the giver, its meaning is broader — and more insidious — than that. In short, it is the seeking of seeming self-betterment despite the cost to one’s character or its impact on others. This kind of corruption drives out honor and renders ethics meaningless. Leaders alone cannot create this condition; it requires the cooperation of the people, too.
Unfortunately, our sense of shared history and knowledge of our civic institutions — and of our consequent responsibilities and commitments to each other — have been overwhelmed by the unfettered greed of unchecked capitalism.
We have apparently forgotten that citizenship requires the recognition and honoring of others’ rights as well as one’s own. By embracing the nonsense of extreme libertarianism — which preaches the comfortable doctrine of individual rights as against others’ responsibilities — we have turned away from careful listening to one another and, instead, now exchange vapid political slogans. By withdrawing into self-sorted associations with persons whose beliefs align with our own, we have diluted the civic “glue” that functioning societies need: citizens with varied interests and backgrounds choosing to work — and socially interact — with each other.
Our politics has in turn become a kind of blood sport, a real-time “reality show” in which citizens jeer at participants they dislike while celebrating the victories of those they favor.
Even our day-to-day language has become more vulgar and insulting which, together with the rise of electronic media, has fostered and enabled these divisions, giving birth to an entirely new form of tribalism: Cowardly trolls who, with the anonymity the Internet allows, hurl vicious insults and personal criticisms in attempts to silence those with whom they disagree or, even worse, whom they feel are vulnerable.
In all these ways, Trump and his political enablers mirror a significant number of the American people.
If we are to survive this downward spiral, we will need to recover what the Founders of the United States called “civic virtue.”
While this concept likely strikes contemporary citizens as strange and unfamiliar, for the Founders it represented a vigorous, all-encompassing, and constant commitment by all citizens to always be mindful of, and to work for, the larger good of the whole community even while engaged in personal projects. It demanded the willingness to curb one’s self-interest for the realization of the common good.
But not only is this not asked of any citizen — elected or not — these days, it is not even expected. The rich get richer and the rest struggle. Taxes are cut to benefit the wealthy while the safety net is frayed and the commons destroyed. We seem to give no thought to the consequences to the lives we are condemning our children to, let alone the damage being done to the world community.
My suffering country needs to undergo a transformation, one that requires a conversion back to practicing that civic virtue held in such esteem by the Founding generation.
Are we capable of it?
Greg cusack is a retired US statesman from Iowa. He now lives in Oregon.