April 14, 2024

The American character has ever been one of positive spirit, optimism, self-confidence. Thus conventional wisdom in politics was that positivity always beats negativism. Exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s sunny persona defeating dour rivals. How distant that picture now seems.

Departure from it might be understandable were there some profound national trauma pushing us onto a radical, disruptive path. Something like, say, the Great Depression. Yet even that did not upset our civic applecart. While it did spur some fringe movements, our basic political culture stood resilient. Testament to the goodness of what America had built.

A democracy where election outcomes are respected and accepted by all sides, with peaceful transfers of power, in a spirit of goodwill. Such civility characterizing all our political processes. Agreeing to disagree, often coming together in pragmatic compromise, actually tackling problems, generally respecting opponents. Intolerant of misconduct, vulgarity and falsehood. All in all making our public culture something genuinely noble. Francis Fukuyama has written how such democracy serves our deep need for “thymos,” having one’s human dignity respected. This has been America’s great achievement.

Rejecting that longstanding salutary ethos, traducing this nation’s most essential character, makes today’s Republican politics tragically baffling. It might, again, be explicable were there some severe system shock. But there’s nothing remotely like that.

Nothing like the Great Depression. Or, for that matter, the Civil War, which we also actually got past with remarkably little discombobulation of our political culture. The pandemic was traumatic, but Trumpism preceded that, and normality returned pretty fast. Now the economy boasts strong growth, rising wages, record low unemployment, stocks up and inflation coming down.

And yet what is a national crisis today is so many voters being so pissed-off and disaffected by who-knows-what that they want to burn the house down. Though they don’t see it that way themselves, instead imagining they’re “patriots” somehow saving the country. From a Biden administration that actually merely embodies the kind of politics-as-usual that prevailed for generations. They’d elect instead a sociopath who literally tried to overthrow the government.

And while there’s a feeling our politics is broken, requiring drastic medicine, they empower the very people most responsible for the breakage. And while despite the good economy some are struggling, they’ll be hurt more than helped by Republican policies.

Sure, there are grievances and cultural divisions. Whites who feel a loss of caste position, traditionalists unsettled by acceptance of divergent lifestyles, fear of immigrants, resentments against educated elites, etc. But there have always been such societal discords, yet they didn’t shred our civic culture or provoke such nihilistic political pathology. A sizable Republican contingent now even justifies political violence.

A key aspect is divorcement from reality, embracing a bizarro mockery of it. Like rejecting the reality of January 6, and the 2020 election’s legitimacy. Trump said it was stolen, based on nothing whatsoever, just because his damaged psyche could not accept losing. Any fool could see that. Yet Republicans refuse to.

My Lawn Sign

Why doesn’t their hateful, destructive behavior make them unelectable? For many voters the whole political picture is just a fuzzy blur, they can’t discern true signal from noise, and not even January 6 provides clarity. Meantime Trump’s pantomime of “strength” is psychologically bedazzling as against notional Democrat “weakness.” When it’s actually derangement versus sanity, depravity versus decency.

Too many take for granted our democracy, without much understanding of it, or its vulnerability to what’s afoot. Some see Trump as more symptom than cause, just exploiting passions already extant. Maybe. But such a perfect storm of badness can do immense damage. He already has.

So we’re sleepwalking off a cliff, poised to witlessly throw away America’s quintessential goodness, making this a much darker country. Indeed, Trump loves dictators and will put us on the dark side globally. A world whose Putins are untrammeled won’t be good for us. “America First” will be ashes in our mouths.

This nation is still full of wonderful people. How can we be sucked into such evil?