For fours years we have been stuck in a bilious, amoral national haze driven by a leader disinterested in leadership and offended by the idea of service. Opposition and resistance were the watchwords on the Left from the day of his election. On the Right, the reality has finally sunk in for an ever-increasing chorus in the closing days of his time in power that supporting a President who has proven to be both disinterested in governing and unable to be corralled by better public servants (John Kelly et. al.) has reintroduced political violence to American politics. The response to this clarity cannot be to ignore the mean, violent, recent past in naive (or cynical) calls for unity that deny the nation’s need for accountability. We, as a nation, must look squarely at where we have arrived and to look forward for a new path that provides us justice for the crimes against community and humanity that we’ve allowed to parade as leadership and leaves behind the petty conflicts that ignore what Americans need from leadership and have turned us away from civic life.
Let us be clear: there is no rebuild. “Rebuilding”, “return”, and “again” narratives all suggest that we have ever had the nation that we want. The America we have had up to now has never been true to the best vision and highest ideals of the idea of America. We need to make America. Period. No modifier.
Millions of Americans greeted the rise of President Trump that arrived as the culmination of a four-decade-long process of expanding inequality of both opportunity and outcomes and a creeping futurelessness amongst communities that had been the working-class foundation of post-World War II emergence of the American middle class. Many of these Americans who watched the first four years of the Trump Administration unfold with the volume turned down (or off) wanted four more years of the policies that the Trump Administration delivered. More wealth for the wealthy. More comforting but dishonest truisms about a future more like our fictional past. More judges for the minority conservative ideologues who leverage the anti-democratic features of our republic to maintain their minority power. For most of these Americans, President Trump was an aberration to be ignored, to be minimized, to handwave away, to dismiss. He was a president whose behavior wasn’t the point: it was a distraction to ignore and the consequences of which were to be minimized. “Of course I don’t want my children to act like him, they never would.” But if America follows Trump’s example, America will not survive.
Many of those millions who had supported and voted for President Trump have been left unmoored and untethered by the last week’s events. Unintentionally and unknowingly, they were made accomplices to an insurrection they never intended to join.
But if the futurelessness, the fear of a transforming nation and world leaving them behind is the source of the underlying anxiety that led them toward President Trump in the first place (and very much away from both the corporate, elite worldview offered by the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party and the self-righteous smugness of the coastal, urban Left), the ascendence of a liberal wave that seemingly demands their exclusion is outright terrifying. There is no justification for violence, no possible validation for the desperate embrace of white supremacy. AND there is real fear, uncertainty, and a sense of being not only left behind but outright excluded from the future deeply held by a huge swath of America. If America is about inclusion, then we must include. Not the desperate, dangerous ideology — there can be no room for oppression, no unity with people uninterested in community. Space and opportunity for the people afraid for their future must be part of the plan and the worldview. We must take care to exclude the ideology without excluding people willing to embrace a new path.
If there is no rebuild, what are we building? What do we mean by America? What does a nation of safety, freedom, justice, and compassion look like? How do we measure success? What do we make possible? How do we take care of each other? These are the questions we must, as a nation, answer with clarity and conviction if we are to ensure we bring the whole country with us. And we cannot take our moral stances as givens. The Left cannot continue to fall prey to the sense that all of our answers are obvious. To the futureless, our posture is smug and our “well obviously” arguments are elitist, tone-deaf, and exclusionary. There is an objective difference between “protest” and “insurrection.” But the difference between criminality and civil disobedience is subjective, based on our moral worldview. Consistent, positive moral declaration and demonstration is just as fundamental to reclaiming moral collapse as accurate, credible information is to combatting misinformation.
We need a story of America, a path forward that does not make room for rioters and insurrectionists, that doesn’t integrate ideologies of oppression, but moves us out of the pendulum swing, gets us beyond the tit-for-tat, the constant demand for retribution, the unproductive desire to impose. We are not free. We must create freedom by ensuring safety for all Americans — physical, spiritual, economic — through systems that make us free: ethics reform, democracy reform, new housing and food systems, investing directly in all Americans. America is not just. We must create justice by claiming moral ground, expressing moral leadership and applying it regularly and consistently, expelling (not excusing) faithless actors, and investing in public and community health. If America is an idea that stands for a nation equal, just, and free, then this is what it means to make America. First, we declare what we want America to mean rather than being driven toward seemingly inevitable conflict by our mean, broken past. Then, we create that future, the America we need by allowing that vision to guide our present.
Addressing the underlying dis-ease of our civic life demands that we address the dysfunction of the media systems we rely on for our public sphere. The stresses on politics and society extend far beyond he boundaries of media, but how we communicate is fundamental to our capacity to tell these stories and to be in community with each other. I explore more on modern media and our civic life in my book For ALL the People coming Feb 23, 2021.