Martin Luther King Jr.; Abraham Lincoln (Credit: AP/Getty/Hulton Archive/dpetrakov)
There is a big question underlying all of American history, which has been thrown into stark relief by the current tragic or nightmarish state of our nation. It cannot be reduced to politics or ideology, in the usual sense. It cuts across divisions between Republicans and Democrats, right and left, those who love Donald Trump and those who despise him. It partly (but only partly) accounts for differences between pro-Trumpers and NeverTrumpers in the Republican Party, between the stillborn, quasi-Nazi “economic nationalist” movement of Steve Bannon and the so-called conservative mainstream.
This question also partly explains the contentious quarrel between progressives and moderates within the Democratic Party coalition, which is often said to involve relatively minor disagreements over policy. (I’m not sure that’s true, but that’s a topic for another time.) There is no doubt that the question shapes responses to the Russia scandal surrounding the Trump administration, which is variously understood as an existential threat to American democracy, a farcical display of incompetence or low-level criminality, and a liberal (and/or Deep State) plot to destroy Our Führer. I’m sorry; that was hurtful. Of course I mean our duly elected president.
The question can be simply stated, which doesn’t mean everyone understands it in the same way, still less that anyone knows the answer: Can America be saved? Can the vision of American possibility so memorably articulated on the Capitol Mall by Martin Luther King Jr. — whose birth, life and death we honor this weekend — still be redeemed or renewed as something we collectively aspire to, and strive toward?
Is the dream that King captured on that day in 1963, grasping the challenge that Abraham Lincoln flung forward to posterity at Gettysburg 100 years earlier, and the one Thomas Jefferson (shameless hypocrite that he was) set down on paper 87 years before that, still alive around us and in us? Or have we downgraded ourselves into a shithole nation, poisoned by greed, bigotry, ignorance and a profoundly unwarranted belief in our own greatness?
This fundamental question about the character of America — America now, under the extreme conditions of 2018; America in history; America in the future — also shaped the range of responses to President Trump’s repugnant “shithole” comments on Thursday. I’m not sure anyone can claim to be surprised that Trump would think such things about nonwhite nations in the developing world, or would say them out loud during what he perhaps understood as a private meeting. Furthermore, the Trumpian cult’s defense — that the president was just ventriloquizing the common man, and that people often talk this way at the “kitchen table” — is essentially correct. Many Americans would say those things, because many Americans have been conditioned to racism and ignorance and a lack of human empathy.
Those of us who do not lack empathy were understandably heartened to see so many mainstream political figures, including a handful of Republicans, express …read more