May 14, 2023
I vividly remember when Obama’s 2008 election victory was declared, and TV showed a middle aged Black Chicago woman jumping up and down shouting, “God bless America! God bless America!”
I didn’t vote for Obama (nor believe in God), but I understood that woman and it still gives me goosebumps. I saw there what is indeed America’s great virtue, inspiring my love. Not a perfect nation, but one striving to rise above human frailties, toward the soaring aspirations of its founding charter.
But more recent years have been rife with contra-indications. When Joe Biden declared his candidacy in 2020, he called it a battle for America’s soul, and I knew exactly what he was saying. It was for me a clarion call. Now he’s repeated it for 2024.
Columnist David Brooks has written that this truly does define what the 2024 election is about. Saying Biden is using the word “soul” not in a religious sense but a secular one: referring to a moral essence, possessed by people and nations. Lived through emotions that make us admire good deeds and despise nasty ones. With most people yearning to lead good lives; and if “they feel their lives have no moral purpose, they experience sickness of the soul.”
But Trump and Trumpism, says Brooks, embody an ethos “that deadens the soul under the reign of the ego.” Representing “a kind of nihilism that you might call amoral realism.” Where dogs eat dogs and might makes right. Where “cruelty, dishonesty, vainglory and arrogance are valorized.” Where “other people are not possessors of souls,” but “objects to be utilized.”
Here Brooks references Biden’s emphasizing the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. “One puts the dignity of individual souls at the center,” the other “operate[s] by the logic of dominance and submission.” Of course Trump fawned over dictators, openly dreaming of emulating them.
Brooks quotes Franklin Roosevelt that the presidency “is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” But during Trump’s term, says Brooks, “we had to endure a steady downpour of lies, transgressions and demoralizing behavior. We were all corroded by it.” And a return to that would mean “a social and moral disintegration.”
I, still harboring libertarian conservative DNA, am no Biden enthusiast. Critical of much that he’s done, and wishing he’d stood aside. Yet Brooks has it right: “Say what you will about Biden, but he has generally put human dignity at the center of his political vision. He treats people with charity and respect.” Totally Trump’s antithesis.
And this is the choice we face in 2024. Not “Democrat versus Republican or liberal versus conservative,” so much as “between an essentially moral vision and an essentially amoral one, a contest between decency and its opposite.” Between, literally, sanity and its opposite.
And yet most Americans are — otherwise — good and rational people. It’s confounding that so many could so bloody-mindedly vote for so grotesquely vile a creature as Trump. Blind to that reality. This was the bottom falling out of America’s civic culture. A betrayal, a repudiation, of that Chicago woman’s “God Bless America!” Lacerating my own soul.
A book I’m reading, a “history of emotion,” discusses “taste,” not so much about food as the broader aesthetic sense, imbued with a moral aspect. I’m not big on material things, but my love of country feels like a matter of aesthetics, for its virtues and worthiness.
And Trumpism violates that aesthetic sensibility, my pain like seeing a precious object smashed. Indeed, the book pointedly cites January 6 as eliciting, for many, just that kind of moral/aesthetic revulsion. CNN’s disgraceful May 10 Trump “town hall” — where he called January 6 “a beautiful day,” and the crowd cheered — smeared America with excrement.
A redemption of sorts came with Biden’s election, and with hope and charity I was able to forgive my country’s lapse. But that redemption was far from complete. The sickness of soul still spreads its poison through the land. Scarcely even dampened by that January 6 travesty; so-called “Christians” still strongly back Trump, and a jury verdict deeming him a sex offender won’t matter either. Republicans renominating him looms as an act of utter moral depravity. Polls show him running neck-and-neck with Biden.
While he and his deranged cult shriek that it’s Biden and Democrats “destroying America.”
I could forgive once but not a second time. God save America.