It has been painful and difficult to watch the inauguration of the 45th President. Having written that sentence, the most critical aspect of it is not that I believe we are less safe, not that I believe he is wholly unqualified to be commander-in-chief, not that I believe he suffers from a serious personality disorder which puts our nation in peril, it is something else that arches over all of it. It it this: A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand. And Trump is at the apex although hardly the cause.
Abraham Lincoln’s words echo, the most remembered lines of which are:
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
DIVIDE, CONQUER and DECIMATE
I think most Americans underestimate the division, the deep fissures, even in the face of acknowledging them, in the social and political climate, tainted by our individual definition of “rightness.” We have become unable to talk with one another, to listen, truly listen to one another since long before Barack Obama was sworn in as the first “black” President in America. While having worsened since then, when I think back over the decades – yes, decades – I trace pivots of this ferocious alienating divisiveness to Bush V Gore, to Nixon’s Watergate, to the Vietnam War, and the social revolution of the 60’s/70’s, even to Kennedy’s assassination.
When Trump won the electoral college vote in 2016, my son called and asked me “is this how you felt when Nixon won?” I told him no; this is how I felt when President Kennedy was assassinated.” There is a spirit in America that certainly rises from the ashes, and I believe in that potential now. I also believe something has died in America, although terminally ill for decades previously, that has led to the republic’s current fragile state. From Teddy Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and most recently, Barack Obama, there have been lesser or greater tensions between constituencies. Yet, the climate of today seems to have reached fever pitch.
I believe in all cases, the presidents listed above had integrous intentions of preserving, their personal interests aside, the health of the nation. One can debate that perception. Even Nixon, while clearly a paranoid personality, sought to strengthen the country internationally, although I wasn’t so convinced of that when I was 25 and in the moment. When challenged politically at home, he obviously sought to destroy his enemies. Yet, the very institutions he tried to thwart were robust enough, the politicians he sought to decimate courageous enough that they more than rallied to the country’s defense, if not initially, certainly ultimately. The republic was of greater value than the man. The Presidency was of greater value than the person holding the job.
FAST AND LOOSE WITH THE TRUTH
In a way, since the demonstrations just yesterday, I have felt our democracy may not be dead. That perception still holds, tenuous though it may be. However, with Trump’s flagrant paranoia and inability to tolerate any version of reality other than his own, we are indeed in uncharted territory. The Madness of King George comes to mind. Push-back in our society is essential. Not fighting, but pushing back. To engage in a “war” with the albeit damaged media, or any other institution, is folly. Trump is the king of half-truths, it has been part of his rise to power based largely on manipulation and deep-seated anger that he all-too-well knows how to tap. However, unless the nation as a whole wants to believe his version of truth and only his, I have not given up hope that cooler heads will prevail, although when and in what fashion remains totally unknown. Hopefully, not too much damage will be done before then in the process.
In the end, it is up to all of us. Having a dialogue with those willing to do so is essential. That dialogue is unlikely to be conducted with Trump. It will be with those supporters of Trump, citizens all, who are unwilling to subjugate their view of reality to his view. If individuals in Trump’s inner circle are only sycophants, are unwilling (or unable) to press him into modulation, it will likely be several layers away that will play that critical role. If partisan purveyors of reality insist on “winning” at every turn, if bitterness and vitriol claim the day (on either side,) we are all doomed. I pray that does not happen. I pray the slavery of Trump’s distorted “alternative facts” – his insistence on ginning up a war with individuals, constituencies and institutions does not prevail. I surely accept he is the President. I do not, however, accept him as an autocrat, hell-bent on only his definitions, hell-bent on ‘attack and decimate’ tactics leveled against any and all that disagree with his version of reality.
PATRIOTIC IS NOT A PASSIVE VERB
I was reminded of Teddy Roosevelt recently, in which the Rough Rider posited the following:
Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.
Either we stand for integrous principles, or we don’t. On this I rest. On this the country must rely. In the end, it just might be that President Trump has done us a favor, his behavior so sanctimonious, so paranoid, self-indulgent and sad, that even the complacent among us are moved to actively participate to the degree that we are able.