Can America Save Itself from Decline?
“If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Abraham Lincoln enunciated this profound truth when he was a young man of 28, a state legislator with stirrings of national ambition. In his Lyceum Address, he laid out his evolving understanding of the nature of American Democracy, then just 50 years old — a system of government created by our ancestors “to display before an admiring world” the “truth of a proposition,” hitherto deemed “problematical,” namely, “the capability of a people to govern themselves.” What moved Lincoln in 1838 to make his Address was the “mobocratic” spirit he saw abroad in the land — “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice,” a reference to mobs meting out “justice” to negroes, whites perceived in league with negros, and abolitionists. The implications of this mob “justice” were clear to Lincoln, thus he titled his speech “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” As President of the United States 23 years later, Lincoln immediately became embroiled in this country’s bloodiest blood-letting, the Civil War, from which he emerged victorious — and savior of those institutions.
Now, over a century-and-a-half later, while the circumstances are different, the source of peril remains as Lincoln diagnosed: ourselves. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Now, as then, there is no foreign enemy that can “step the Ocean” to quell us; only we can do that. And, from the unsettling evidence of late, America seems intent on doing precisely that: quelling ourselves and our wondrous institutions. What I am saying is: We do seem to be doing what Lincoln most feared — committing suicide — in slow motion, although during Donald Trump’s tenure, the pace accelerated.
This national suicide of ours can be mapped in three ways. Political suicide — the increasing dysfunction of political institutions; the increasing polarization of the people, one from another and from leadership, now taken to the point of enmity — which can be traced to Ronald Reagan (“Government is not the solution, government is the problem”) and Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich’s flame-throwing politics and rhetoric. Which flame-throwing Donald Trump then took to the nuclear level, both domestically — igniting his base with racist and white supremacist messaging, declaring war on the media (“fake news”) and on fact — and abroad — unilaterally abrogating treaties (Paris climate accord, Iran nuclear deal) and trashing the alliances (NATO) founded by the postwar generation that’s provided a general peace since World War II. Economic and financial suicide — which can be charted from the 2008 financial crash going forward, with Wall Street and business continuing to resist reform that would better ensure the security of Main Street. Which security Donald Trump then “ensured” with tax cuts for the wealthy and a trade war with China. Cultural and moral suicide — which may be best reflected by the wildly popular TV series “Breaking Bad,” in which a high-school chemistry teacher, learning he has terminal cancer, turns to producing meth to provide for his family “after.” Which amorality Donald Trump then took to shameful lengths — pardoning accused war criminals, cozying up to strongman rulers with horrific human rights records, “breaking bad” in unimaginable ways, e.g., declaring any election he did not win to be a fraud.
This is no way to run a democracy, to govern ourselves.
To be sure, there are bright spots in this parade. Recounting early 21st-century America only as a season of suicide masks those bright spots — the brightest perhaps being the election in 2008 of our first African-American president, Barack Obama, an event that would have moved, and stunned, the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. (A foreign friend who’d just taken American citizenship said of Obama’s election, “I have never seen my fellow Americans so happy.”)
Yet: So volatile and contentious is the atmosphere among the American people that what would seem a historical bright spot (like Obama’s election), rather than illuminate our path to a Renaissance, instead ignites fierce and lethal fires of reaction — which reactionary fires Donald Trump stoked into a raging wildfire, from his incendiary announcement to run for president to his contested departure from the White House, preceded — stunningly — by his incitement of a mob assault on the U.S. Capitol itself. That this fierce reactionary fire is fueled principally by racial hatred — America has yet to come to terms with its Original Sin, slavery — is no accident and would not surprise Lincoln, nor for that matter Obama; the white supremacist Donald Trump knows well his arsenal. Plenty other flammable elements feed that reactionary fire: growing income inequality, a jobs landscape altered dramatically by globalization, and more.
The point here is: Despite the occasional bright spot, the overall trend-line for America is downward — national decline — with the malignancy coming from within, not from without; that is, by suicide. The polarization taken to the point of enmity means we can’t even talk about it.
Add to this picture the complication — strange to call such a grave event a “complication,” but in terms of America’s trend-line, it is: The coronavirus pandemic, declared in March 2020 by the World Health Organization and continuing as I write, which has forced not only America but the entire world into lockdown. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the many internal forces at war with each other — political, cultural, ethical-moral — America has acquitted itself poorly in managing the virus. With President Trump shirking any responsibility to organize the federal response, the once-upon-a-time Can-Do Nation is unmasked (as I wrote) as Can’t-Do.
Thus our present low point. The question becomes again: Can America save itself from decline?
Again, it may be Abraham Lincoln who points the way to “the upper air” — with his characterization of Americans as “freemen.” “As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Key word — and key trap — is “free.” It has been my long-standing theory of the case, borne out (sadly) by events, that we Americans, bestowed with the precious gift of absolute freedom, have not always handled our freedom well, that too often, especially the postwar generations, have wasted it or abused it, not properly valuing its preciousness. (See again: “Breaking Bad.”) Add to this waste and abuse of freedom, there is the power factor: America has been the world’s super-power for 75 years, since vanquishing Nazism in World War II. America wields enormous power in the world — politically, economically, militarily, culturally, especially our pop culture. But can it be said that we — America and Americans — have wielded our super-power wisely, responsibly? The answer has to be No. And, given the knock-on effect for the world, as well as History’s stern judgment of how we acquit ourselves, it matters if the world’s super-power behaves unwisely, irresponsibly.
And: Who represents the very worst — the apotheosis — of an America gone amok in its abuse of freedom and power? Yes: Donald John Trump.
Trump was the poster-child (I use the term “child” advisedly) of “I want what I want — and I want it NOW!” Assembled in one man-child were all the worst traits of a very bad child on his very worst day, exercising his “freedom” not by building up but “freely” tearing down — wild, impulsive, vengeful, nasty, not very smart though claiming to be smartest, crude, amoral, and so, so, so angry. Bottomlessly angry; Trump was the Marianas Trench of Anger. And that such a man-child so comprehensively bad should be invested with the most powerful office of the most powerful nation on earth…. Such man-child must become the bully. Which Trump instantly morphed into, literally shoving aside other world leaders at an early summit conference to take the center spot for the group photo, and going on to do much worse, as cited earlier, trashing allies and alliances, including betraying allies on the battlefield (the Kurds). How often, as Trump heedlessly wreaked havoc in the world, did I think of Shakespeare’s words, which Brutus said of Julius Caesar: “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power.”
But: America did not just get unlucky with this President. No, Trump came out of the American character — the darker side, where freedom and power are exercised primitively, without thought of others, without conscience. He was the pre-eminent Ugly American, the epithet given the overbearing American already identified in the early post-World War II years. That nearly half of the electorate in 2020 voted to re-elect this person-of-no-qualities is stunning. Thus it is ill-advised to refer to Trump in the past tense; he, and Trumpism, will continue to threaten American Democracy and bollix the massive repair job we must mount to undo the ruination he wreaked, the trauma he inflicted.
Going forward — where Americans always want to go — we can go forward only if we front (a favorite verb of American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson) all the ruination and understand the Why of it, not just “move on” or “put it behind us” without unpacking it, as we Americans are wont to do. In a way, simply reverse-engineering Trump’s qualities (or lack thereof) will take us a goodly way. Emphasizing responsibility, versus Trump’s irresponsibility, which itself comes out of our postwar culture’s anything-goes ethos. Emphasizing reason, versus Trump’s un-reason and seeming insanity, which itself comes from our postwar culture’s everything-is-relative-there-is-no-truth ethos. Emphasizing organization, versus Trump’s utter lack of it, which itself comes out of our postwar culture go-with-your-gut ethos. Only with these sober qualities, and others, can we repair our governmental institutions, the economy, the public commons, also quell the pandemic.
Along with this massive repair job is a repair job of another kind: the Grand Reckoning on racism and sexism that also — no accounting for History’s timing — crests in this moment and demands, finally, resolution. (The capital letters signify the momentousness.) The killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, asphyxiated by a white police officer, whose agonizing death echoed around the world and whose banner is carried forward by the #Black Lives Matter movement; and the violent sexual assault of women, as testified by myriads of women, often against men of stature, whose hideousness also echoed around the world and whose banner is carried forward by the #MeToo movement: In these two struggles — moral in nature, bearing on the rightness and wrongness of things — lie the ultimate tests of the American character. As Lincoln said as President, commemorating the dead at Gettysburg, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this” — that we quell these scourges long afflicting the nation and, doing so, free up vast, vast new sources of energy, redounding to America’s benefit.
There is also the challenge of restoring ourselves in the world, after Trump’s trashing our allies, working his sword-arm as Commander-in-Chief of the world’s mightiest military, crowing about the size of his nuclear button. Trump surrendered our most precious mantle, Leader of the Free World, and something equally precious: our reputation. To get both back, America needs to show itself, once again, trustworthy. Humility and even an apology are in order. And we must tutor ourselves how to handle our immense power. As I titled a commentary long ago, “Distinguishing Between Can and Should: What a Great Power Should Be Able to Do.” Can we deliver? It’s cheering to see the world welcome the ascension of Joe Biden to the White House.
All this repair work — with ourselves, with the world — will take a kind of American not dominant for generations: a mature American, grown-up, serious and sober. This more mature American — this Beautiful American — has come into view again during this deadly pandemic: Suffering confers, as poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “a formal feeling.” And earlier, a conscientious America stepped forth, protesting the Iraq war and torture. Combined, this America bodes well for maturity. This maturity requires a willingness to front matters of moral weight — racism, sexism, tutoring ourselves in handling power. America has been “breaking bad” for decades; again, to reverse-engineer Donald Trump, can we “break good”? Even to utter such intention, in the ethos of recent decades, is to invite jeers. Lest one think serious and sober mean grim: Let yuk-yuk give way to the earned smile and wit. In maturity lies…Renaissance.
The stakes could not be higher — saving American Democracy, reversing America’s decline. Throughout History, great powers rise and fall — Greece, Rome, Egypt, Persia, Spain, France, Great Britain. Once decline is in train, great powers, historically, have not risen again. Must this be America’s fate? Americans tend not to believe in fate: Even suffering Donald Trump and the pandemic, we are not fatalists, not yet. (Of course, Fate may have other plans for us.) It may be our pragmatism that saves us: “Well, that didn’t work, let’s try this” — “that” being the disruption of Donald Trump, “this” being maturity: the responsible use of freedom, seriousness of purpose, rededication to democracy, i.e., self-governance. This requires understanding that Trump is not just disruptive, he is anti-democratic: He still yearns to be King of America, and nearly half the electorate still backs him in his anti-democratic aim. America is the world’s oldest democracy; we need to show this beautiful ideal has muscle, staying power. Ours is not a nationalistic quest; it is saving an ideal. If we solve for the problem of our democracy, we also solve for our decline.
The work before us is immense. We quake at the prospect of the mountain before us, but we also quiver in excitement and anticipation of the climb. As the characters in Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot” say: “I can’t go on this way.” “That’s what you think.” We go on.
The above is the end-essay, with slight adaptation, of Volume II of my forthcoming collection of commentary, “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality,” comprising commentary since 2015.