Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.

With 1984 Approaching, What Must We Do?

Not so long ago, I was more frightened by Ted Cruz than by Donald Trump.  I saw Trump as completely erratic and without strong beliefs in anything but himself, whereas I knew the threat of Cruz’ reactionary vision.  After Trump was elected, I worried that the real Republican strategy was to help Trump be elected, then to impeach him and install Mike Pence in his place.  Pence seemed like another version of Cruz but more in keeping with the Tea Party and the current Congress, which would make him more dangerous. Together they would tear down civil rights, health care, climate advances, and so many other hard-fought progressive victories.  But Pence is also preferable to Trump.

There is a good chance that Trump is rapidly moving this country towards authoritarian government.  Lest you think I’m being hysterical, that there are too Constitutional and cultural restraints on this kind of move, wouldn’t you wager that, under Trump, authoritarian governance has 10% potential?  If so, we need to prepare ourselves.

Almost all modern images of an authoritarian future begin with 1984, which is now the best selling book at Amazon.com.  At core, Orwell’s vision targets information control (through “Newspeak”) leading to mind control (through “Thought Police”).  Big Brother speaks and the population must believe him—or else.  In a parody of Nazi and Communist propaganda, 1984 tells us that “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” In other words, you can invent any version of the truth and impose it on an intimidated populous.  Trump means to intimidate us.

Trump’s talking head, Kellyanne Conway, offers a contemporary application of this logic by framing lies as “alternative facts.”  Trump’s investigation of voter fraud, which would lead to voter suppression might represent a concrete intervention by the ‘thought police.’  And he’s pushing the investigation in the face of virtually everyone, including the most right wing Republicans, like Jason Chaffetz.  Trump, the bully, will try to push past all opposition.

Trump’s binge of executive orders, without the consultation of Congress, or attorneys to check their legalities, or the cooperation of the people who would be charged with implementing them—without any effort to build consensus—speaks eloquently to his disregard for democratic process.  The use of a private security  service may auger the development of a personal militia.  So, too, the threat to bring federal troops to Chicago.  Bringing the Voice of America onto American soil may enable direct propaganda. I could go on but I think we can agree that the seeds of tyranny are being sown and the need for a massive response from all those who believe in democracy is urgent.

What, then, is to be done.  An opposition movement is already emerging, led by Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution,” by the organizers of the Women’s Marches, by MoveOn.org, by the ACLU, and by People for the American Way.  There are news organizations, like Politico, Think Progress, Slate, The New York Times, and the Washington Post that are gearing up for the opposition.

Almost everyone agrees that the long game requires organizing at the local and state level.  There is no other way to reverse the impact of gerrymandered districts on equal rights and protections under the law.

We need to organize to build a sense of solidarity, strength, and forward motion—and to gain confidence through numbers.  We need to turn ourselves on the way we did during the twin fights for civil rights and the end to the Vietnam War. Just marching together with so many thousands this last weekend furthered the sense that we are a movement.  Opposition to Trump and right-wing Republicans may unite progressive forces far more powerfully than the fight for specific issues like equal educational opportunity and climate repair.

We need to build rapidly and intentionally—before Trump’s authoritarian potential is entrenched. To do so, we need to know ahead of time, how and when to act, and we need to act in the most leveraged ways.  Here are a few suggestions.

First, we need to draw some clear lines in the sand so that we won’t have to figure out how to respond each time Trump transgresses democratic process and principles.  Crossing those lines will indicate that Trump has gone too far, and we must act.

Second, we must oppose every transgression. I read today that the Democratic Party is contemplating a “scorched earth” approach, which means opposing almost everything that Trump proposes.  It means refusing to normalize him.  It means giving up the folly of trying to negotiate with him—or with the Congress.  It means every bit the same kind of cross-the-board opposition as we saw from Senator McConnell and the Tea Party.  We need to act in this way for its own sake and in order to buy time for the Progressive opposition to gain strength.

Third, we need to utilize every possible way to oppose conflicts of interest that are already rife in the Trump administration.  His world-wide holdings make the United States incredibly vulnerable.  How much money and how many troops will we have to dedicate to protect them.  We need to have Trump in court every day, every day.

Fourth, we need to speak truth to power.  We need to say what we see.  We need to deny the Trump-Bannon-Conway lies and disable the disinformation machine that they have been building.  Bannon tells us to “shut up.” We have powerful communication tools.  We must speak up.

Fifth, we need to paint the picture of Trump as Big Brother.  He has survived all of the other portraits—sexist, narcissist, liar—you name it.  But not Big Brother, which should frighten both left and right.  Neither want their rights of free speech and free action abridged as much as he intends.  Or maybe, in order to challenge his narcissism, Trump should be portrayed as Little Brother.

The most important strategic aim is to keep Trump off balance. Any serious challenge to his fragile ego (his TV ratings or finger length) throws him.  We saw that when Hillary Clinton defeated him in debates and beat him in the poplar vote.  We see that now when he is confronted with the far greater size of the Women’s March.  He and his Inauguration organizers were “losers.”  Trump can’t stand to be a loser.  When he is threatened in this way, he lashes out, he blusters and blunders.  He makes mistakes.  He will make mistakes that lead even Republicans to call for impeachment.

Impeachment must be our short term goal.  It will not lead immediately to the realization of progressive goals but it will buy time.  And it will fire up a united Progressive movement.  That seems to me the best we can aim for right now.

Taking a Moment to Reflect

While almost everyone I know is gnashing their teeth, looking for something to break, or searching for something constructive to do, the Trump victory has left me strangely contemplative, almost calm.

Like so many others, I have terrible forebodings about the upcoming presidency.  It requires little to imagine the start of mass immigrant deportations and gross violations of civil rights for Muslims, journalists, and all of us who object to Trump’s ascendance.  He will further empower and enrich the crassest of the wealthy class and, simultaneously, he will profoundly disappoint those who put their faith in him.  He will accelerate the degradation of our planet and the degradation of our culture, legitimizing bigotry of all kinds.  He is already installing neo-fascists, like Stephen Bannon, within the heart of our government.  And the Bannon appointment probably foreshadows alliances with right wing governments in Austria, Hungary, Russia, France, and many other nations.  Is this the time when democracy is dumped into the trash heap of history?  The possibility is all too real, all too immediate.

Maybe, as thoughtful policy analysts like Steven Kinzer suggest, Trump will also have some positive effects, chief among them diminishing the chances of nuclear confrontation with Russia and backing off of the idea that we are responsible for world economic, social, and political order.  Hillary Clinton, after all, is but a warmed over cold warrior, and it’s time that we rid ourselves of bankrupt foreign policies, based on American exceptionalism.  It may be that Trump’s victory awakens our youth.  The world, with its massive demographic, political, and climate shifts demands a response of comparable dimensions.

There are lots of fine people telling us to resist and organize now.  Take this moment as a blessing in disguise.  Carpe diem.  It is only when the world is disrupted, in disequilibrium, that you can change it.  Isn’t that the message of all modern change theorists, from Prigogine in physics to Stephen Jay Gould in evolutionary biology to Eleanor Duckworth in education.  How else can we respond the vast demographic shifts brought on by migrations, droughts, genocides—and the shadow of the twentieth century when Hitler and Stalin, alone, murdered tens of millions of people.  We are a world that’s ready for a change—but change for the good is only one possibility.

All of this volcanic activity seems, in the short run, to have had a paradoxical effect on me.  It seems to have released me from the external chaos and turned me deep into myself.  The campaign’s outcomes are too raw, too painful to contemplate head on.  If I read the news at all, it’s to hurry through, to almost turn my head so I don’t see.  Having withdrawn from the news and from the anxious build-up to the November vote, I find myself calm, even relaxed. I am pretty sure that this is momentary but that does not make it less true.

It’s like entering a personal monastery, taking vows to remain until I find a new place for myself, a new way to see the world and my relation to it.  Even though part of me thinks this is bad, amoral at least, I am going to remain in my monastery until I’m ready to emerge.

To the extent that I am paying attention to world events, it is as an almost disinterested observer.  It doesn’t feel like we know enough to spring into action.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing about the marches, the calls to resist and organize.  They have fed me all my life.  But I need to see what the Trump people are doing.  I need to get oriented. There will be time and reason and urgency enough to organize over the next several months, years, and decades.  The rush to action may be soothing—do something, anything to avoid feeling like a passive victim—but I don’t think it will have much of an impact right now.

It would not surprise me, for example, if Donald Trump is impeached within the next few years.  He criminal activities are unbounded.  His impulsiveness is likely to frighten even the most rabid Republicans.  We could be at war within a year.  If he is impeached, then Pence will be president, the type of outcome the Republican Right has wanted all along.  Short of impeachment, he may simply find himself in power struggles within his supposed party—he’s not a Republican, after all—struggles that will try his patience, leading him back to the businesses that he’s not supposed to attend to during the presidency.  Or, in the face of political and journalistic opposition, he may fully show his fascist colors, trying to dismantle democratic institutions and traditions.

In the meantime, I am more aware than ever that the upcoming fight is not primarily my fight.  It is not the fight for my generation.  It is the younger generations that will have to step forward.  They will have to lead.  This moment signals the passing of the guard.  We can—we must—support their leadership but support will be our primary role.  We will have to adjust to our loss of position, our loss of face, our many failures.

But I digress.  All along I have intended to say that I have retreated in order to gather myself.  And I wonder what the retreat will mean.  I wonder if it is time to pay more attention to questions of the soul.  These last few days, my pace has slowed.  I pay attention to the people who are close, to the food that I eat and the air that I breath. I have substituted philosophical texts for the political columns that kept my heart rate up.

Is this a failure of nerve?  A cop out?  Will I abandon my monastery before I am clear what to do?  Maybe.  But it feels good.  The rest has helped.   And, in the meantime, what can I do to stop the tide of history.  Why shouldn’t I take comfort in the next generations taking their rightful place in the defense of civilization.