By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hamphshire
In the middle of the Cold War, when Americans still had nightmares about the bomb, Russians exported actual warfare into the world, and the mass of mankind remained hungry and poor, the great philosopher Walt Kelley (who wrote about animals living in a swamp) warned us as clearly as he could. We have met the enemy, he said. And he is us.
In the end, it had nothing to do with the communists. It had nothing to do with the Chinese. It didn’t require nuclear warheads, or sneak attacks, or tank divisions in Europe. It didn’t even require much intelligence. All our enemies needed to do was wait, and we did it to ourselves.
It was us, on our own, nearly destroying everything we hold dear. It was us, on our own, nearly reelecting the worst president this country has ever seen, for another four years of social, political, and environmental devastation. It was us, on our own.
When we look in the mirror today, we can’t claim surprise. We can’t claim unfairness. We can’t blame others. We have seen this face before, plenty of times. We saw it with a smile, in the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan explained to the country that its government was its enemy, ketchup was a vegetable, and welfare mothers drove Cadillacs.
We saw it in the 1960’s, when the Goldwater wing first hijacked the Republican party, in a convention that featured the exact same level of physical rage, emotional vitriol, and intellectual vapidity that we saw on television this past summer. We saw it in the 1950’s, when Republicans and Democrats alike fell under the spell of Senator McCarthy, Tailgunner Joe, who came to power telling blatant lies about Communists in the government. We saw it in the 1940’s, when Lindbergh first came up with that cynical phrase, “America First.”
We would like to believe that we were all heroes during the war. But plenty of Americans would have gladly stayed out of that fight. Plenty of Americans paraded around with swastikas. We like to forget that.
Don’t kid yourself. It was love with Donald Trump. He was the man on the horse, the white knight. He was magic, because love is supposed to be magic. The hard work of actual love, be it in personal life or in public life, be it in a marriage or a legislature, be it in a family or a workplace– that hard work is grinding, non-glamorous, and perpetually one step away from failure. It is noble and it is rewarding; it is the stuff of adulthood, the stuff of faith, and the stuff of real beauty. But it doesn’t come cheap. And people like it when things come cheap. Donald Trump came cheap, and seventy million Americans liked him quite a bit.
Our national landscape used to be filled with institutions that themselves were filled with hardworking souls who understood the day-to-day realities of life. Our Congress was such an institution. Our courts constituted another one. Our churches; our schools, our military. The list goes on and on. None of these things were magical. Many were somewhat dull. They functioned, more or less, and they allowed us all to live with each other.
We did not appreciate them. In fact, many of us attacked them; not just for how poorly they often worked, but for why they even existed. Because they weren’t perfect, and love wants perfection.
They all seem broken now. We are surrounded by their pieces, and it hurts.
Donald Trump was a real American. He sang the song of himself. Instant happiness was the be-all and end-all of his life. He hated old ideas that got in his way. He had no respect for authority. He despised the idea of being responsible for others. He despised the idea of being responsible for himself. He privileged emotion over reason, he privileged sensation over experience, he privileged the wild highs of the moment over the drudgery of the long haul. He was a true child of the sixties, and don’t forget it.
Because what did it take to reach him, but decades of self-expression, decades of deprecating whatever came before, decades of seizing the moral high ground, against the establishment, against the old man, against anyone who didn’t look exactly the same way we looked, and feel what we felt, and want we wanted. His presidency was an exercise in magical thinking. It was love, and it was ugly.
I am very glad it’s over. We have so much work to do now. But we’ve managed before, which is nice to remember.
Michael Davidow is a lawyer in Nashua. He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project. His most recent one is The Book of Order. They are available on Amazon.
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