Given the cacophony of destruction all around — of democratic norms, of ignoble policy, of polarization grown ever more vicious, all driven by our Disrupter-in-Chief, Donald Trump — Americans could be forgiven for fearing that all is lost for the ship of state and we are going down, fast.
Compounding this fear is the knowledge that our destruction is self-inflicted, not forced by external actors or factors. Unforced, Trump surrendered our mantle of Leader of the Free World, trashed our reputation as trusted ally. Domestically, he stokes racism and xenophobia, lies incessantly while attacking the media for reporting his lies. And Republicans, once God-fearing, continue to salute this amoral leader.
Moreover, American society itself is in churn, convulsing in resistance and protest. No wonder Americans report record levels of anxiety, depression, loss of sleep. Polls show rising numbers feel America is on the wrong track — way off. And commentators tell us we can expect this churn for years to come. It is, one can hear it all around, mourning in America.
But: There are mighty counter-forces now in play, combatting the heart-breaking destruction. And what should compound our hopefulness is this: the knowledge that these counter-forces are self-driven, not forced by external actors or factors; they emanate from our institutions and American society, beset as both are. Granted, given the tilt of the ship of state, one must squint to see these counter-forces at work, but once one does, one sees how America is trying hard to get right with itself.
For instance, the House impeachment inquiry, the main event at present, seeks to restore the norms of the presidency. Like many, I was leery of the impeachment option, fearing that with a Republican-controlled Senate never convicting, Trump would claim exoneration. But the testimony of dedicated diplomats and national security officials, all corroborating the whistleblower’s allegations of Trump’s quid pro quo with Ukraine, and Democrats now opening the inquiry to the public, all reassure. Our institutions are holding. Sunlight on all the incriminating evidence is all to the good.
At the grassroots: If democracy is based on the demos, the people, democracy’s base (as distinguished from Trump’s base), is hard at work. Record numbers of candidates, including record numbers of women, are running for office at all levels, including for the presidency. Voter turnout in the 2018 midterms was an all-time high for a nonpresidential election. People are “woke”: We know our democracy is in trouble and we are doing our part to fix it.
Which goes to the churn in American society: the resistance and the protesting. While the anti-Trump resistance movement per se is less visible (but accounts in big part for all the electoral activity), its appeal — to resist Trump in all his pathology — still applies and accounts for much of the protest.
For one: If not for the admitted sexual predator now in the White House, would the MeToo movement have come into being? At long last, women’s allegations of sexual assault and trauma are finally being heard, and their weight and horror are forcing a reckoning of the power relations between the sexes. This is all to the good.
Likewise, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken on new weight as Trump’s race-baiting has shoved America’s abiding sin, racism, center-stage. And with outright racism now made safe, the white supremacist movement has emerged from the fringes to make its case that white lives matter more. These two forces have had America wrapped around the axle of History since our inception. Now, might we have a reckoning?
On another front, March for Our Lives, powered into being by young people sick of massacres in their schools, is addressing another besetting problem: gun violence. Young people are also the motive force behind the new urgency on climate change. As stakeholders to the future, the young know their very existence is imperiled.
All this churn may seem, on a down day, very like across-the-board breakdown. But parsed for the immensity and durability of the problems they address — sexism and sexual violence, racism and racial violence, gun violence, climate violence — these movements, in declaring these kinds of violence wrong, not right, and not to be abided anymore, can be seen as regenerative. They constitute, in a word, reckoning.
Reckoning: To speak of reckoning, as it is generally understood, is to speak of a moral sorting-out — of the rightness or wrongness of a thing — and its resolution.
The thing is, moral considerations have been derided if not jeered for decades. The post-World War II generation, the boomers, prized tolerance, not being “judge-y.” But tolerating all, while determinedly not judging moral merit, led to an anything-goes culture, which culture got turbo-charged in the 1990s when America won the Cold War: As winners we could do anything, and we did, plumbing the depths of human behavior, reinforced in pop culture and even high culture by critics who lauded the “bent,” “twisted,” and “transgressive.” (Those of us arguing that, as victors, we had a responsibility to handle our power and gift of total freedom, well, responsibly were sidelined.) Thus it should not surprise us that, after decades of “Breaking Bad” decadence, we got a “Breaking Bad” president.
But, our “Breaking Bad” president has left half the country nauseated. All around I hear people lamenting Trump’s actions as “so not right” and “so wrong” — which is quintessential moral language. Out of our suffering, again suffering we brought on ourselves, we are groping for the moral compass we laid aside long ago. America, to save itself, might be said to be backing into a moral consciousness once again.
However we recover that compass, working it again will be to the good — again, if we handle it judiciously. Understanding the moral counter-forces at work should put a new lens on the chaos. Other factors bode well: a sturdy economy, a media at the top of its game, a national character that, so far, resists fatalism. But if we are to recover, if we are to mature as a culture and turn these Dark Ages into a Renaissance, a moral consciousness is needed. In this hinge moment for America, we need our compass.
In the weeks after Trump’s election in 2016, a dear friend said, presciently: “I think Donald Trump may be just the stinker to get John Q. Public off his sofa.” O.K., we’re off the sofa. Now, how do we work this compass?