Ask your friends and colleagues about the state of our nation, and invariably they will refer to a mess of negative events. Ours is an era of disruption in which society appears to be unraveling. Millions feel cut off from traditions that once served them, believing that government has worked against them and the media doesn’t understand them.
Not since the Vietnam War has societal division been so apparent. It’s as though we have stopped thinking. An improving economy and a soaring stock market have not narrowed the split of Americans into two political nations, one supporting the president and the other, a larger portion, disapproving of his divisive language and handling of events.
The best known temperamental outbursts during the past year have been the daily tweets of President Trump. It’s revealing that the recent cover of a highly respected magazine, “The Economist,” features the president in a baby carriage. On the floor around the babe are building blocks and toy rockets. The article inside celebrates a growing economy, with its climbing stock market and modest blue-collar wage growth, yet the tone is wary. This “deeply flawed man,” we read, has only “modest and mixed” legislative accomplishments; his proposed withdrawal from the Paris climate accord is “foolish.” Overall, Trump rates as a “poor president” thus far and “may cause America great damage.”
With a job approval rating hovering at 35 to 38 percent of the American electorate, a mid-January Gallup poll reports that global approval of President Trump is lower still. At 30 percent, he has fallen to the level of China’s leaders – China, with its terrible record on human rights and freedom of the press. One disappointment is that the president chooses to adversely engage America’s steadfast friends, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while cozying up to authoritarian leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Robin Wright, a foreign affairs analyst who has reported from six continents, finds that President Trump’s erratic behavior and views – most recently his slurs about non-white peoples – has “demolished his ability to be taken seriously on the global stage.” Racist talk that dismisses entire countries as s-holes/houses is certain to drive potential friends away.
Nicholas Kristof, veteran political commentator and twice a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, fears that this “top story around the world” may remain a permanent attitude about America. Both analysts raise alarms about what this means for the U.S. in terms of world influence, economic relations, cooperation in climate pacts and support in crises that lie ahead.
We need a president who pulls the country together. We do not have that now. However, President Trump does not stand alone as the cause of our present crisis. For upwards of three decades, preparatory work has been done by the likes of the Koch Brothers, who have warped democracy by showering political partisans with cash, and by right-wing radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin who have led an onslaught against liberal democracy, contributing to a loss of focus on what constitutes the national, as opposed to partisan, interest.
What is to be done? We would do well to recast an insight from John Donne’s famous poem, “For whom the bell tolls”: “No nation is an island, entire of itself; every nation is a piece of the globe.” It’s in our national interest to demonstrate solidarity with those who fight ancient enemies such as poverty, injustice, racism, and today, the mounting scientific evidence of the impact humans are having on Earth’s climate. In a global world, what affects one nation affects all.
Part of what it means to learn is to make allowances for the fact that humans are not fully rational creatures, but rather a bundle of emotions, dreams, prejudices and unconscious processes. Internalizing that reality can help us to understand that the “waywardness” we so readily detect in others is not always intentionally combative.
In addition, there are concrete steps state legislatures and the U.S. Congress could take to lessen our partisan divide. One is to eliminate the gerrymandering of partisan congressional districts that often results in a scandalous mismatch between the popular vote and the number of congressional districts each party wins. The second is to reform campaign financing so that a tiny donor class of billionaires and special interests cannot guarantee that elected officials are more responsive to them than to their constituents.
Those alone are not enough to heal our divisions, but they would contribute significantly to lessening them.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or Aim Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.