Making America Divided Again

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Rise above the pettiness, don’t be the pettiness

W.J. Astore

Trump’s latest press conference is worrisome for so many reasons.  He seems to live in his own reality (e.g. his administration is “a fine-tuned machine“).  He’s still obsessed with Hillary Clinton and the margin of his victory.  He seems only recently to have learned how serious the prospects of a nuclear holocaust could and would be.  He continues to defend General Michael Flynn, saying that even though Flynn undermined the Obama administration and lied to Vice President Mike Pence, his rapprochement to Russia was laudable (with Trump suggesting that, even though he hadn’t approved Flynn’s actions, he might have).  He even tasked a Black reporter to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus for him!

What to make of The Donald?  Trump seems to thrive on creating animosity, then exploiting it.  Special targets for him include the U.S. intelligence community and the media, both of which he sees as implacable enemies.  But is animosity and chaos any way to run a country or to represent a people?

I can see how calling out your perceived enemies might work in business, especially a personal one, though Trump’s bankruptcies suggest otherwise.  But Trump is no longer a free-wheeling real estate tycoon.  He’s president now, a symbol (like it or not) of America. Generating animosity and discord as a public servant is divisive, fractious, selfish, and unwise.

A united America is much stronger than a disunited America, but since Trump thrives on division, his personal style is weakening our country. You might say he’s the opposite of Abraham Lincoln, who appealed to the better angels of our nature in a noble but ultimately failed attempt to unite a disunited country. Whatever else Trump is about, it’s not better angels.

Instead of making America great again, Trump is making it divided and uncivil again.

Mister President: Please stop blaming the media, or Hillary, or the intelligence community, or judges, or anyone else for that matter.  Get on with the job of being a public servant.  America needs inspired leadership, not self-serving rhetoric.  We need a uniter, not a divider.

Rise above the pettiness, Mister President.  For the nation’s sake, don’t be the pettiness.

Above the people, beside the people, against the people

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W.J. Astore

Remember when Abraham Lincoln wrote about our government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”?  Even after 150 years, those words still resonate, but they are increasingly less true.  Today, our government places itself above the people, and when the government is not working against the interests of (most of) the people, it acts as if the people’s interests are beside the point.

We’ve entered a new historical moment in America, which is precisely the point of Tom Engelhardt’s latest essay at TomDispatch.com.  As Engelhardt notes, our electoral process is “part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.” Our foreign policy, and increasingly our domestic policy as well, is dominated by the national security state, the one leviathan in our government that is never paralyzed.  The political process itself is ever more divisive, polarized, and disconnected from the hardships faced by the working and middle classes.  Even planetary dangers such as climate change are either denied or ignored, as if denial or ignorance will keep seas and temperatures from rising.

The very disconnection of our government from painful realities explains in part the appeal of “maverick” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Yes, they are two very different men, but what they have in common is their willingness to take the side of ordinary Americans, who have seen their standard of living stagnate or drop over the last thirty years.  Trump says he wants to make America great again: the implicit message is that we pretty much suck now, that we are a nation in decline, and that the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can take action to restore America to greatness.  Sanders says he wants a future we can believe in, which is at its core much like Trump’s message.  America has serious problems, both men are saying, but greatness is still within our grasp if only we act together as a people.

Again, much separates Trump and Sanders, yet both are willing to admit the times are bad for many hardworking Americans.  What they’re saying is this: the American dream is increasingly a nightmare.  And part of the nightmare is a government that doesn’t act in the people’s interests because it’s been co-opted by special interests.  A government that can’t even do its job, such as to declare war or to advise on a Supreme Court nominee, in accordance with its Constitutional duties.

The promise and potential of our country remains.  But that promise, that potential, is being squandered by an alliance of various interests that are no longer responsive to the people.  If not dead, representative democracy in America is on life support.  Unless we can reinvigorate it, as Engelhardt notes in his article, we will continue to suffer a decline analogous to the declines of other great empires (think Rome, for example).  The difference today is the possibility of planetary-wide destruction, whether quickly from nuclear weapons or slowly from climate change.

Never was a revival in American democracy more urgently needed, not only for ourselves, but for the world.