A Kinder, Gentler Nation

A Kinder, Gentler Nation

When George H.W. Bush died, I watched with mixed feelings as pundits lionized him. I couldn’t help thinking about a book I’d read while W. was president: American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush, by Kevin Phillips, a former Republican strategist. It is a damning portrait of the family, spanning four generations. 

That said, when CNN and other news outlets inevitably replayed the portion of his nomination acceptance speech in which he called for “a kinder, gentler nation,” I couldn’t help feeling moved. We need that rallying cry now more than ever. 

Consider this comment that I saw on my Facebook newsfeed after news broke that soldiers and border-patrol officers had fired tear gas on migrants: “An electric fence would be a lot more effective,” he wrote. “And a lot more fun to watch!” 

That’s not some marginal anecdote. I saw many others of its kind, and I have no doubt that it reflects a widespread attitude among the radical right. For more evidence of this, take another look at a video produced by The New York Times in 2016: “Voices from Donald Trump Rallies, Uncensored.” Near the beginning of the video, a man is caught on camera yelling, “Fuck those dirty beaners.” A minute later, after Trump proclaims that Obama “divided this country so bad,” another man yells, “fuck that nigger.” As the video unfolds, more such comments abound: “Build the wall, kill ‘em all”; “Trump that bitch,” and many others. 

That Trump actively encourages this kind of behavior cannot be disputed. Who can forget, for example, Trump’s blustering remark in reference to a protestor at one of his rallies: “I’d like to punch him in the face.” 

Can you imagine either Bush ever saying such a thing? Or Reagan? 

More discouraging still are those who don’t like Trump but try to downplay his remarks and the expressions and acts of hatred that they fuel. 

“I hate that people are more upset at a president because he says mean and nasty things than they are over presidents that actually committed war crimes,” wrote one person on a Facebook thread of mine.”

The trouble with that remark is twofold. First, it sets up a false dichotomy. One can be upset about both things, and most people I know are. The moral corruption of this nation extends back to its very beginnings, and with the rise of the military-industrial complex in the latter half of the 20th century, the corruption only got worse. No phrase points more damningly to this fact than “collateral damage,” sickening euphemism that covers all manner of sins committed in our wars-for-profit. 

None of that, however, makes the domestic viciousness that Trump has unleashed any less disturbing. It is an assault on our mental and spiritual well-being and thus poses a fundamental threat to our society. 

Many right-wingers counter that the left is just as bad, pointing to the tactics of Antifa and stories of harassment of conservative politicians and commentators in restaurants and elsewhere. 

There is no equivalence here. Fighting back against Fascism and bigotry is not the same thing as advocating these things. Moreover, no Antifa “members” committed murder in Charlottesville, and there has not been a big spike in hate crimes against Neo-Fascists or conservative white Christians, as there has been against Jews, blacks, Muslims and Latinos. 

In spite of this, I do think that these factions on the left are taking the wrong approach. Reflecting on this, I’m reminded of the four basic steps in nonviolent protests, laid out by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: collection of facts, negotiation, self-purification and direct action. The discipline that King and his followers brought to the Civil Rights Movement—a discipline that allowed the movement to accomplish so much—is sorely lacking among the left today. It was evident at the Women’s March a couple of years ago, but increasingly, it seems, it is exasperation rather than discipline that characterizes the anti-Trump and anti-fascist movements. 

Accompanying that exasperation is a disturbing disregard for freedom of expression. Earlier this year, for example, some unidentified group of right-wingers put up posters on the ODU campus proclaiming, “Liberals Suck.” Many liberals promptly tore them down and urged others to do the same.

Such behavior undermines the liberal cause because it reinforces the “snowflake” stereotype. Never mind that Trump is the softest snowflake of them all. 

It also undermines the very spirit of the First Amendment. As Noam Chomsky once put it, “If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”

The overriding problem here, as I see it, is a lack of strong leadership to counter Trump’s. Yes, there were signs of hope in the results of the midterms. The overwhelming victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th District was especially encouraging. And yet she is young and untested. How far she and others like her can rise remains to be seen. 

The astonishing campaign by Bernie Sanders in the last primaries is as close as we’ve come to seeing a good leader emerge, post-Obama. In using the term “good,” I’m not talking about his policies, which I strongly favor, but about his moral compass and vision for a kinder, gentler nation. 

Alas, he may not be the right leader for our times—not because of his age, which many people cite, but because he is divisive. In recent weeks, in fact, I’ve seen dozens of expressions of outright hostility toward him from people who are largely in agreement with is positions on the issues. “Go away, Bernie,” has been a common refrain on threads about the possibility of his running again. For the life of me, I don’t understand this hostility, but it’s real and it must be reckoned with. 

No, we need someone else, perhaps even a moderate Republican, to stop the madness of the Trump effect—a phenomenon that reminds me of an exchange between presidential aide Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J. Fox) and President Andrew Shepherd in the film The American President

“People want leadership,” Rothschild tells Shepherd, “and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand. 

“Lewis,” Shepherd responds, “we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

Shepherd might as well have been talking about Trump, not to mention a good portion of his base. I’m not talking about the half of his base that represents the “basket of deplorables”—although in retrospect, Clinton’s remark was right on the money. (Again, watch that Times video, then try to tell me that they’re not deplorable.) I’m talking about the other half—well-meaning people who were so hungry for real leadership that they believed his countless lies about Mexico paying for the wall and all kinds of other nonsense. And in their desperation, they were willing to forgive his horrendous remarks about women, minorities and even war heroes and gold-star families. 

It is my fervent hope that in 2019, a real leader—a good leader—will emerge. If he or she doesn’t, the viciousness will only intensify. And I’m not sure how much more of it the nation can withstand.