If there’s one good thing that’s come out of Trump’s kleptocratic and kakistocratic reign is that it’s forced many of us liberals to think about notions to which we hadn’t given much serious thought, such as “citizen” and “patriot” and “progress” (as well as learning obscure Greek-based adjectives describing political systems). Like most liberals, I’ve held a lazy Whiggish trust that the long arc of history not only bends toward justice but also upward in progress (echoes of New York State’s motto, “Excelsior”).
Of course, this thinking goes, despite the country’s original sin of slavery and its history of white supremacist nativist intolerance, the American experiment of granting more and more people democratic liberty will succeed, although they will have to pay a steep blood sacrifice to become a fellow citizen. That’s just how we do it in these parts.
Trump’s reign sticks a much-needed sword into the heart of this sentiment and thus liberates us from the false comfort of words like American experiment, American exceptionalism, “land of the free and home of the brave.” This April, as we review the fifty years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., we may want to believe that King represents the best of who we can be, but it’s more helpful to know that Trump (the phenomenon, not the person) displays the character of our country.
And what is that character? (I am going to wildly generalize here.) Americans don’t mind being ruled by oligarchs, whether they be elected to office or run enormous corporations, as long as, at the end of the day, they aren’t fleeced completely (the recent tax bill is a good example of this). Americans, in fact, find civic engagement too much work, or, to put it another way, most Americans feel that kvetching continuously without undertaking any repairs and then voting (maybe) once or twice a year is what civic engagement is all about.
The only thing Americans don’t like more than poor people is helping poor people, but since the true American despicables can’t just be allowed to die on the streets of a supposed Christian nation, Americans will find the most niggardly way to provide assistance, extracting maximum humiliation for minimal sustenance.
America’s reputation for engineering ingenuity and inventiveness is undeserved these days since it can’t keep its own house in order—bridges fall down, trains crash. And it can’t do this because Americans won’t tax themselves (including corporations) to make the repairs, though they don’t seem to mind having trillions of their tax dollars spent on killing people in non-American countries for decades at a time. Americans will revolt against taxes to fund their schools but not against militarism.
Americans love the misguided heroism of the individualist ethic, not only believing against physics that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps but also enjoying the old anti-communist canard that collective action to solve a problem is despotism. Just look at how Senator Elizabeth Warren was vilified for stating the obvious truth that no one succeeds completely by his or her own efforts.
Americans don’t like those who aren’t Americans but want to be Americans. The high levels of cruelty in today’s immigration policies don’t seem to bother too many people, just as they are not bothered by the facts about the benefits immigration brings to the country. With righteousness in their voices they will declare that those who have broken the law by coming here must be expelled, though those same people don’t seem to mind the law-breaking of their favorite politicians or corporate overlords. Law-and-order screeds are best delivered against those who have no power to fight back.
Americans are by and large an insular people, leery of “change” and second languages, and ignorant of the lives not only in the next country over but even in the next town over. Americans may have a cherished view of themselves as pioneers and explorers, but even if that’s only a little bit true, the journey is never undertaken for self-instruction but usually for conquest, to efface rather than meet face-to-face.
Recognizing all this, and more, is a good thing for liberals, believe it or not. We don’t have to keep up the fiction that fighting the excesses of the churl will make us “better citizens” and our country a “better country”—we don’t have to play the role of disappointed redeemers trying to get people to deploy the better angels of their natures. We can admit that those angels are fictional characters, that Americans are a fraught mix of the good and the retrograde, and that American politics is something like being a lion tamer, directing the beast rather than dominating it with the hope that more good than carnage will be the result (and knowing there always will be carnage, and that the good will never be enough).
We can defetishize democracy and the American experiment, and we don’t have to flatter citizens’ vanity by telling that they are better and smarter than they really are, or that their consent to being governed is really necessary to their being governed. Instead, we can respect them enough to say that we understand that they don’t particularly like having to be citizens and that we’ll try to keep our expectations of them reasonable: vote at least once a year in some election and try to get the news from more than one source. That’s it. And if you want to put in a little more time and effort on, say, a politician’s campaign, even better, but we won’t be disappointed if you don’t.
And while we’re getting them to be good-enough citizens, we can hopefully get in a little Socratic education about what is real and what isn’t, without expecting to make any real headway against their settled opinions and grievances.
Let us be more Stoic than evangelical about our democracy, let us be more disappointed than boosterish, so that we can keep a sense of proportion along with a sense of humor. (Trump is, if nothing else, always good for a few laughs.) And let’s not oversell what we think America is or what it can do. It would be great if the country could just provide a decent standard of living for all its citizens. The world’s policeman, leader of the world order—nice, but secondary to reducing infant mortality and mothers dying from pregnancy and buffering us from the brigands of the marketplace.
This more pragmatic attitude, though, is just a starting point. For me, anyone naming himself or herself a liberal in our day and age should commit to a fifty-year program of building a power-base from local town councils up to the Presidency, doing what the Republicans started doing in 1964 after the Goldwater debacle. The point is to seize power, not to share it with opponents, to become as the Republicans have become, only with a better socio-economic agenda, funnier jokes and a moratorium on conspiracy theories.
In the meantime, though, the country and its leaders won’t provide a decent standard of living because the bulk of citizens think that Bernie Sanders is leftist and won’t demand better behavior from their rightists in power. The citizenry, instead, has chosen to vote in clowns for entertainment, hunker in for protection (guns are optional), and nurture the Alex-Jonesian, white-male-fear-of-being-emasculated fever dream of the deep state in league with social justice warriors and LGBTQ snowflakes crushing the American conservative yeomanry in its politically correct vice-grip and fostering a new world order led by postmodern deconstructive French philosophes puttering around in limousines drinking latt√©s as they discuss how to impose a cultural Marxism (a l√° Jordan Peterson) on any survivors of their purge.
It’s a bumpy ride by any measure. Cinch the seat-belt and