One of my favorite quotes includes the lines “I awoke this morning to find that it was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.” I think that sums up a part of my thinking, but certainly not all.
A nuclear reckoning, war with China, or anything else quite so violently apocalyptic is imminent, or even underway, as far too many of us think. I live in one of those bubbles, the sum of which make up America now. Many of the people I talk to, in person and here online, seem to believe, truly believe, the world is coming to something of an end. These are by and large educated, once-rational people, some of whom have been voices of reason in the past. They are not that way now.
We are however falling, some important threads of our nation being teased apart, and our best days are behind us. But this did not start on November 8, 2016, or January 20, 2017, though historians will note those dates as significant milestones (same as September 11, 2001.) But not because of Donald Trump. Because his name just happened to be attached to what has been growing inside us since the end of WWII.
The Russians did not elect Trump. They may or may not have tried to get involved in the election, but we did this to ourselves. As the historian you have probably not read but should read Morris Berman predicted years ago, we are eating each other.
We are consumed most of all by our fears. Fear of what the Soviets, and maybe the Chinese, would do after WWII. We created a nuclear arsenal measured in how many multiples of times it could destroy the world. We dragged our country through disasters like Vietnam, that murdered so many and cracked apart our nation. Our fear of race, our war on drugs, and then of course our fear of a world beyond our control after 9/11. Another quote that seems to fit is “The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”
The fears were encouraged at every opportunity by those who profited from them, either by rawly making money, or by acquiring power and control, or in most cases, both. We are unconcerned — it’s normal — that politicians routinely leave office wealthy despite modest salaries. We have so much, and share so little. We enthusiastically abandoned so many of the good things about America, such as our Bill of Rights. America’s pre-WWII Constitutional Era was grossly imperfect. Yet for its obvious failings, there was a sense of the possibility of progress; halting, awkward, unfinished, but, well, for lack of a better word and to use a word that has become a symbol of modern irony, hope.
Of course none of that was close to perfect, but it was good and it is gone in some arenas and going away in most of the rest. We’ll still be allowed to rant on Twitter, a modern day bread and circus, but the real stuff of standing up and speaking back to government will happen only with handfuls of whistleblowers who will sacrifice their lives and freedom to say what they need to say.
I thought we had a chance at change in 2008 but instead was proven to be a dupe. I thought he might turn it all around, in those first weeks he could have asked the rivers to flow backwards and they just might have. He could have grounded the drones, torn up the Patriot Act, held truth commissions to bring into the light our tortures, re-emancipated America in ways not unlike Lincoln did in the 1860s. Slam shut the gates of Guantanamo, close the secret prisons that even today still ooze pus in Afghanistan, stop the militarization of Africa, bring the troops home, all of it, just have done it. What a change, what a path forward, what a rebirth for an America who had lost her way so perilously. One man could have made a difference and when he did not even try, he helped solidify in America a sense of cynicism and powerlessness that empowers evil people further. If there was no Obama there would be no Trump.
A new generation, and me again, thought there was another chance with Bernie Sanders. We were stupid. He was a distraction, and showed his true colors throwing away everything he said previously to support a candidate of the same old old school we’ve been voting for since WWII.
Trump is at best/worst a symbol of all this. How powerful people play us against each other and exploit our differences. How fear (currently fear of Trump filtered through fear of Putin) can be used to manipulate us. How the ideas of democracy can be so easily tossed aside so that our most progressive thinkers are convinced elections are illegitimate, and anything from silly name calling to demands for something akin to a coup are justified when the enemy is as perceived evil as Trump. Echoing the famous lines from Vietnam, it is in their minds necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it.
I’ve written here before open letters to my daughters, talking about the world they are maturing into. This is in that spirit. Somebody, maybe them, is one day going to stop and wonder how they got to where they ended up, an oligarchy that profits from mouthing the nice words of our Founders while ignoring them. Maybe they will find this essay, dated for convenience only, January 20, 2017.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.