Make America America Again

When I wrote recently about the coming elections, I didn’t mention “health care.” Which Democrats pitch as their main issue. (Republicans respond by lying about their record.)

Columnist David Brooks thinks Democrats are missing the boat. In the remote past (pre-2016), health care might have been a great issue for them. They continue to think in materialist, transactional terms, trying to offer voters good policy. But Democrats could never fathom why many people voted against (what Dems saw as) their economic interests. And today, more than ever, many are voting not their wallets but their values, their souls.

This election is indeed not about material issues like health care. It’s about America’s soul.

In two ways. First, Trump offers a story: that America has been screwed by foreigners, both immigrants and other nations, and by corrupt elites. He offers an appeal to cultural identity; a raw nationalism, both economic (however misguided) and ethnic. Not all Trump supporters are racists; but all racists are Trump supporters. And now, gender chauvinism is added to the stew, as Trump bangs the Kavanaugh drum.

All this, as Brooks notes, reflects how today’s core ideological divide is no longer between traditional left and right, but between open and closed societal visions. Thus, on the international stage, Trump says he rejects “the ideology of globalism.” This has profound implications; a go-it-alone policy will produce a world America will find much less comfortable to live in. China’s outlook, notably, is the opposite, in terms of global engagement.

Secondly, as Brooks puts it, Trump has “overturned the traditional moral standards for how leaders are supposed to behave. He’s challenged basic norms of honesty, decency, compassion and moral conduct. He unabashedly exploits rifts in American society.”

Many Republicans say they don’t like Trump’s behavior but like his policies. Never mind how wrong they are about much of the policy picture. What they fail to grasp is how Trump’s conduct is of the essence. Especially the war on truth. He is methodically degrading our civic society, not just morally, but really destroying its whole underpinnings. We can’t have a democracy with debate unmoored from factual reality, and refusal to accept each other’s political legitimacy. This matters more than any particular policies.

All of this is why America’s soul really is on the line. As Brooks says, Trump and the Republicans have “thrown down a cultural, moral and ideological gauntlet.”

And Democrats respond with: better health insurance?

That’s not entirely fair. Many Democrats do push back against everything Trumpism represents. But not in a coherent, focused way, that really meets and answers the Trumpist threat with an alternative big-picture story. Part of the problem, according to Brooks, is that Democrats’ moral vision is of the “social justice warrior” sort, targeting how societal structures marginalize certain segments (the poor, women, blacks, gays). But “if your basic logic is that distinct identity groups are under threat from an oppressive society, it’s very hard to then turn around and defend that society from an authoritarian attack, or to articulate any notion of what even unites that society.”

It doesn’t help that Democrats don’t speak with a single voice, but a gaggle of them, that cannot really get heard in answering the huge Trump shout-a-thon. In 2016, the news media (far from working against him as Trump claims) gave him billions in free air time to blast his message. And they’re still doing it, having failed to learn their lesson, continuing to broadcast his every rally and tweet, becoming his enabler in spreading his poison. Indeed, by presenting it as news, they even give it a patina of legitimacy.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate must focus on articulating an American cultural identity different and better than what Trump appeals to. One that re-embraces the principles, ideals, and values that made America great. A vision of this nation as an open, confident and optimistic society, where all people are accorded equal dignity. A nation strengthened by its diversity. A nation that engages in the world to make it a better place, for our own benefit as well as others. In sum, an appeal (like Abraham Lincoln’s) to the better angels of our nature.

And at their convention let them reprise proudly the song they played in 1988 — what a different country it seems! — Neil Diamond’s They’re Coming to America.

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One Response to “Make America America Again”

  1. Lee Says:

    The text has been trademarked, so it wouldn’t work, but I would have liked to see “Make America Great Again” hats in blue. Perhaps Yoda-speak “America Again Great We Make!” in blue. Well, that doesn’t work so well, but I would like to see something that expresses that the the goal is indeed worthy, but that this time we are going to enact policies that are better at getting us to it.

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