And here we are, marking the passing of one era into another. I want to be optimistic, but I can’t. I can see how some people are, because for them, this was the last chance. They’ve been watching their jobs and communities withering away, and they blame regulation and government and outsiders. For them, this seems like a hopeful moment, when maybe something will change and the days will return when all you needed to get a good job was a high school degree and determination.
Those days will not return. It wasn’t government that took them, nor regulation, nor outsiders: the world has just changed, and it changed as a direct consequence of those days. America, as much as any nation, has insisted on a global role, and yet being an economic “leader” in the world doesn’t mean good jobs anymore—it means cheap jobs, and money concentrated in the hands of the powerful, and the rest of us are just grist.
Trump can’t fix this world any more than Obama could. Obama said “yes we can,” but his best wasn’t good enough. Trump says a bunch of vague things about how he will, and people believe him. They believe him because they want to. As a consequence of that deep and understandable yearning, an entire section of the country is embracing a great fiction. Here is the fiction:
America was great, but is no longer; it can be again, if only we get rid of the government in the way, rebuild the economy for working folk, protect ourselves against those who disagree, and stick it to the whiny liberals who want to stop us from using our natural resources.
It is a deep fiction, because it says what might be. Embracing that fiction and its latest avatar is an act of desperation. Embracing that fiction means ignoring the complicated long feedbacks that are the driving force in American capitalism. It means ignoring the pollution of our land and air and water that is remaking our climate, globally, before our eyes (if we dare to look). It means ignoring the people we hurt to get there.
Embracing this fiction means the hard work of reconciling evidence and expectation, of facing our problems and fixing them, will simply not get done. Instead, we run recklessly and shortsighted toward a mirage in the desert.
But the desert is there. The problems are real. What can we do when the poorly-considered solutions do not work, as they inevitably will not? My normal answer would be, show that they do not and offer alternatives.
Yet we have another problem: inherent in this fiction, this collective national denial of our real problems, is a willingness to ignore any evidence that contradicts it. Truth will NOT out—narrative always wins. If there is any lesson here, it is that a teller of comforting tall tales will always have an audience.
In the face of that, simply showing how policies fail will not work; their proponents simply defy the evidence. Offering alternatives is no good when politicians will lie about them with abandon. And fixing our problems is impossible if our leaders have no allegiance to truth.
For me, the idea that critical thinking could become a partisan divide is the most terrifying implication of our current politics. We cannot, as a nation or as a planet, afford to have an ongoing war pitting truth and justice against the American way. Yet today, that is where we are.
Truth, in the science of climate change, the benefits of health care, the evidence of hate crimes, and even the recorded words of weeks past, no longer has a sacred place in our discourse. The man who would be our king waves truth away with a gesture. It is cowardly, but who is his court will dare say so?
Justice, in the equal rights of our fellow Americans, in the freedom and liberty of our daughters and sisters and mothers and friends and fellows, in the welcoming stanzas on Ellis Island, in the very assurances of our constitution, is now restrained. It is to be apportioned, as it so often has been, based on power and not citizenship. The bad old days, when America was great for only a few, are returning, and woe to any who point out what a misery it was for so many others.
What of the American way? I like to think the American way is hard work, freedom and individual liberty, equal rights under the law, and liberty and justice for all.
These days, I think the American way is contention, denial, haughtiness, lies, and self-righteousness.
America, you are backsliding. The man who says he will lift you up? It’s his boot that will keep you down.
Image Credit: Stacey Bramhall