Surprised by History

This piece was published in the newspaper on August 8, 2020.


History sometimes brings surprises.

The biggest surprise I’ve had on the upside was the sudden end of the Cold War and then collapse of the Soviet Union. The two biggest surprises have been more recent, and both on the downside.

The second biggest of those was that the United States would ever have a President like Donald Trump. His criminality, corruption, and betrayal of the nation go far beyond anything ever seen before in our history. (And as one who has studied, taught, and written about American history, I have no real uncertainty about that statement.)

(Re criminality: Nixon committed several serious violations of the law, but the Nixonian crimes of Watergate are nowhere near as systematic and comprehensive as Trump’s lawlessness.

(We’ve had corrupt administrations before – as under Grant and Harding – but never so much brazen greed-driven corruption in the President himself.

(With regard to betraying the nation, there’s now proof that Richard Nixon, to bolster his chances for being elected President in 1968, committed a treasonous act: secretly sabotaging the American effort to negotiate an end to the Vietnam war.

(But no sitting President ever served an American adversary as Trump has served Putin — including in the Ukraine scandal — nor sacrificed the lives of thousands of Americans to serve his personal interests as Trump has done with this pandemic.)

But as unthinkable as it is that such a man — utterly the opposite of what Americans have always wanted in their President – has been wielding the powers of the Presidency, what previous generations of Americans would have regarded as still more unthinkable is that more than a third of Americans continue to approve of the extraordinary display of all this wrong-doing they’ve witnessed for more than three years.

I keep asking, “What does this shocking ‘approval’ mean?” Consider three possibilities:

1) Perhaps it reflects that many Americans believe in a significantly false picture of all that’s been happening.

It’s clear that many people get their picture of the world almost wholly from watching Fix News (and listening to Rush Limbaugh, etc.). Buying the idea that the best news organizations in the world are purveyors of “Fake News,” they shut out every other source of information. As research has shown repeatedly, that right-wing bubble exemplifies quite thoroughly what Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Achieving a better American future will require investigating how such an astonishing thing could happen: i.e. how a political subculture, ruled by propagandistic lies, could be developed in the midst of a free society where – unlike in totalitarian dictatorships – everyone has access to abundant information, and the truth is not a hidden secret.

(Hint: a failure by Liberal America is key here.)

2) Perhaps many people do see Trump’s actions clearly, but lack an understanding of what they signify: i.e. how they relate to America’s foundations, on which the well-being of generations of Americans has rested.

Doubtless, we Americans should do a much better job teaching “civics” to our young, helping them to understand all the positive possibilities our constitutional government creates, and all the historic nightmares it has saved us from (cruel and unusual punishment, kangaroo courts, compulsory self -incrimination on the rack).

But this can hardly be the heart of the matter: for the same people — who might not know how sacred and vital the concept of “the rule of law” is to what’s best about the America we’ve inherited — also don’t seem upset about Trump’s violations of simple human decency. One needn’t understand the principles underlying decent government to disapproving of ripping babies cruelly from their parents.

3) But the possibility that frightens me most is that a major share of the American people don’t want the democratic, free society that our founders bequeathed us, but hanker instead for some sort of dictatorship — so long as it’s a dictatorship that caters to them, and so long as the people the dictator oppresses and hurts are the people they hate.

Evidence suggests that belief in democracy has lately eroded in America. And there are reasons to suspect that many Trump supporters are attracted to him for the same reason Trump seems attracted to authoritarian thugs like Putin.

It is likely not coincidence that this declining commitment to democratic values has occurred after a generation of political paralysis resulting from some major political actors using the political arena for political warfare rather than — as our founders hoped — as an instrument for moving the nation forward.

If voters will end their support for those who insist on conflict, rather than seeking good ways to cooperate, we can end the political paralysis, serve the common good, and restore support for democracy.


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