With President Trump, American Democracy Faces Its Greatest Test
We are in a situation that would have been unimaginable a year ago. We have inaugurated a president whose mental life is a thing of television ratings, beauty pageants and egoistical make-believe, who threatens and gloats and holds grudges and wants everyone to know it, whose impulses are alarming and alarmingly incoherent. He lacks the kind of knowledge of history and civic life and decent manners most adults have acquired by paying at least glancing attention.
It is not unreasonable to suppose that he learned his low opinion of the FBI from Law and Order’s Detective Tutuola. Everyone was so sure he could not win that he no doubt attracted the kind of protest voter who would otherwise have written in Donald Duck.
The fact must be faced, of course, that a sizable minority of the electorate did vote for him, and a quirk of the system gave him the office. More fundamentally, there is an agenda of privatization of public assets and the weakening of the social safety net at work, only accidentally linked with Trump, that has divided and distorted American politics for years, and which Trump will advance simply by distracting attention from it. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted.
We have a chance to find out how real and deep American democracy is. We have to live out the ethos of free speech, press and assembly, of equal opportunity and equality before the law. The ethos that has been articulated in the best of American history has to be realized in what we say and do.
We have to be far more committed to social reform than we were when the government supported reform. For example, we know that incarceration as it has been practiced for decades is a vast offense against justice. We have to stop being passive in the face of what we know. If this is a living democracy, then there should be a public conscience able to trouble us deeply for injury done to those who might seem least like us, whom it has been convenient to forget.
For those of us who teach or write or study, truth is an issue, or ought to be. I am aware that scholarship is not only vulnerable to interpretive fads but actively receptive to them, and that in using the word “truth” I might seem naive. I am not naive.
I am aware that the notion that there is “only interpretation” has spread far and wide, and legitimized appeals to suspicion and resentment that feel no obligation to answer to reality. It is bizarre to confuse the profound difficulties that can arise in the attempt to determine truth for there being no truth. I encounter people who interpret the first amendment as meaning they have the right to believe what they prefer to believe, which therefore has full standing as truth. This is not a basis for rational discussion. We have to resist the great temptation to embrace our own preferences over what we might learn from a disciplined objectivity.
We have to stop accepting certain terms as descriptive rather than tendentious, populism first of all. In recent history this has been an anti-tax movement. Progressive taxation redistributes wealth, not primarily from rich to poor but from private to public.
Those who lament the sad state of their towns and counties elect politicians who run on the promise that they will starve them of resources. Urban areas, being liberal, tax and spend, as their critics say, and also prosper – which inspires resentment rather than emulation.
This supposed populism actually accelerates the polarization of wealth, crucially by undermining public education and making public universities unaffordable. We have to have a conversation about all this, not by answering resentment with resentment, and not by accommodation with policies that are simply, demonstrably, bad.
We the living, in Lincoln’s phrase, we the generations that happen to be sharing this moment with Donald Trump, are suddenly and with no special qualifications called on to take a decisive role in American history, and world history. The values we hold have to be vividly alive in a time when we cannot count on government to protect them for us.
If we are faithful to these values, we will not be anyone’s enemy. We will not be another source of division. If we are loyal to justice and equality in our own lives and at our own cost, other generations will inherit through us an America to be loved and enjoyed, and, of course, to be criticized and reformed.