It’s worth asking if we have front row seats to a profound moment in history—the unravelling of the United States of America. The improbable election of Donald J. Trump, his distressing actions and behavior in office, and his sustained support among large swaths of the country would seem to suggest just that.
Our president is an unstable narcissist, pathologically needy, and gleefully dishonest. His racist attitudes are scarcely hidden, his geopolitical understanding nil. He wantonly backs away from carefully crafted international agreements with other countries, ensuring that any future diplomatic engagements with us will be justifiably seen as empty and transitory. President Trump sows chaos, division and rancor the way a farmer plants fields with soybeans, corn and alfalfa.
As for governance, the President’s operating model is a wrecking ball. Each blow bangs away at the edifices of law, journalistic free speech, civil and environmental protections, and informal but necessary customs and norms needed to conduct the country’s business.
Even so, Trump is not the problem. He’s the symptom of long decline in our perceived sense of a shared national identity and purpose. Trump’s destructive acts and impulses are cheered as necessary to “shake up Washington.” Demolition is mistaken for revolution.
Our capacity for frank yet respectful disagreement is melting away faster than a water ice in July. We’ve arrived at the point when John McCain is treated to catcalls of “Hang him!” at a GOP convention, for the “crime” of offering a critique of the President at his Liberty Medal Award in Philadelphia.
We find to our horror that with a wink and a nod from Trump, unresolved issues of race, religion, and class have re-erupted into freshly festering wounds. Who would have imagined a short year ago that Neo-Nazis would be parading in Charlottesville, that nooses would be hanging outside the National Museum of African-American History in Washington?
What we’re experiencing is the culmination of decades of debasement in our political discourse. Since the 1990s, Congress has incrementally ceased to be a functioning body. What little it gets done bears no relationship to the actual needs or desires of its constituents. The last “big” thing it accomplished, the ACA, is under full blown assault from both the President and the Republican Congress.
And most troubling of all, we can no longer agree on what a “fact” is. Social media has opened a Pandora’s Box of competing realities, a smorgasbord of delusional, often paranoid notions that could be easily debunked if verifiable reality had real currency. Our Declaration of Independence begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Not so much, really.
So is this it then, the beginning of the end for the American experiment? Will future historians point to this moment and say, “Yup, that’s when the wheels really came off the bus!”
Maybe. Maybe not. There are hopeful signs that this traumatic era has reawakened a new commitment to citizenship. For many, it’s broken through the apathy, cynicism and complacency that’s resulted in the dismal voting numbers recorded year after year. There’s a renewed sense that every election matters. The off-year contests for judgeships, state legislative seats, school boards, and other seemingly minor offices matter deeply. In important ways, they’re every bit as important as Presidential elections.
So if you’re unhappy with the current state of affairs, get busy, get informed, get involved, get in touch with others on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or even face-to-face conversations (remember those?). Your first opportunity to vote for the America you cherish is just days away.
Or you can stay home, settle into your front row seat with some popcorn and a soda, and watch the show.