America– A Lost City Upon a Hill?

January 23, 2017

The America we lost, advantage Trump

by Kevin Baker

NO, I’m not over it.

On Election Day I felt as though I had awakened in America and gone to sleep in Ecuador, or maybe Belgium. Or Thailand, or Zambia, or any other perfectly nice country that endures the usual ups and downs of history as the years pass, headed toward no particular destiny.

It’s different here, or at least it was. America was always supposed to be something, as much a vision as a physical reality, from the moment that John Winthrop, evoking Jerusalem, urged the Massachusetts Bay Colony to “be as a city upon a hill.” To be an American writer meant being able to share that sense of purpose, those expectations, and to flatter yourself that you were helping to shape it. Nobody expects anything out of Belgium.

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America– A Lost City Upon a Hill?

More than any other country, I think, America has been a constant character in the work of its writers. Not only those writers who celebrate it ecstatically, like Walt Whitman, who made his life’s work one long ode to our young nation, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Toni Morrison, or E. L. Doctorow, who have picked more critically through its past. It applies as well to those who have scourged it, and exposed the worst of its contradictions and betrayals; a Richard Wright or a Ralph Ellison, or John Reed. It remained a vivid entity even in the work of those who have left it for one reason or another, Henry James or Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway, or John Dos Passos.

Their love for it, and their disappointments, all have the same roots, which are those expectations and those dreams. Even at our lowest, we believe with Langston Hughes’s wish to “let America be America again/The land that never yet has been, and yet must be”; with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s overworked but ever more necessary claim that the moral arc of the universe may be long but that here, at least, it bends toward justice. Even its sternest critics agreed: America was going places!

I know that it may sound naïve, even childish, to think that any nation has a special destiny. It’s the kind of thing that dictators and demagogues like to tell their people. I doubt if many of the other writers I know would admit they believe in such a big, vague concept as “American exceptionalism.” But we do, most of us. It’s inescapable, considering what we are: the first republic of the modern age, a nation of immigrants, haven to so many peoples from around the world. We have, like no other country, for better and for ill, dominated the modern world through both our hard power and our soft, our weapons but also our ideas.

I can tell you all of the worst things we have done. The annihilation of the peoples who lived here before we did, and how much of America was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. The things we have done to other nations weaker than ours, the death squads and the C.I.A. schemes, and all the squalid little wars we’ve waged to grab land or save face. The exploitation and the bigotry, and the withering greed, and how we let the vastness of this continent fool us into believing that no matter how big a mistake we make, we can always start over — that we can endlessly root up and tear down, and move unmindfully through the world.

I have written about many of these things, but that was in a greater cause, too. The absolute conviction, in the end, that I, too, was caught up in the great work; that I was helping us to get to some higher place and fulfill our promise.

Geoffrey Ward, the brilliant American historian and the writer of many of Ken Burns’s documentaries, told me with a sense of wonder, a few days after the election: “I just turned 76 and had naïvely assumed that issues I thought resolved when I was a young man — voting rights, abortion, the ongoing enrichment immigration provides our country — would remain resolved.”

Nothing is settled anymore in America, and it appears that so many of the gains we have fought so hard to win over the years are about to be rolled back by our new president and the party that has so cravenly backed him, even when it knows better. Obamacare, which millions of us — myself included — depend upon, is already under assault, and Medicare may not be far behind. Who knows what established rights the cadres of far-right justices who will now fill the federal benches for a generation may strike down?

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“I have lost the America I knew”–Kevin Baker

Yet when I say that I have lost the America I knew, I’m not talking about policy, or even fundamental rights, disorienting as their loss would be. I mean a greater, almost spiritual faith that I had in my fellow citizens and their better instincts, something that served as my north star in all I wrote and all I did.

When I watched the debates and the conventions this year, my thoughts kept going back to my parents, neither of whom lived to see this election. They would have been staggered by the sheer, pounding vulgarity of it all. They were both political moderates, who voted Republican as well as Democratic, and who like most of us never paid all that much attention to politics outside the few weeks before an election. But the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump — a man who says he has never asked God for forgiveness, who refers to the Eucharist with characteristic humility (“I drink my little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and have my little cracker”), who mocks our military heroes, who lumbers about a stage proclaiming, “I alone can fix it!,” who dismissed a working man after the election with a tweet that read in part, “Spend more time working — less talking” — would have been incomprehensible to them. They would have thought themselves transported to some other time and country, maybe another dimension. As do I.

I have listened to all the blame foisted on the Clinton campaign for doing this or that wrong, or the media for not exposing Mr. Trump, or for giving him too much airtime. I don’t buy it. Hillary Clinton’s campaign wasn’t that bad, and Mr. Trump was exposed enough for any thinking adult to see exactly what he is.

Image result for I alone can fix it Trump

That Self-Confidence comes from Business Success

From assorted commentators I have heard that it is unfair or condescending to say that all Trump voters were racists, or sexists, or that they hated foreigners. All right. But if they were not, they were willing to accept an awful lot of racism and sexism and xenophobia in the deal they made with their champion, and demanded precious few particulars in return. Lately Mr. Trump has endorsed the comparison of his personal populist movement with Andrew Jackson’s, and it is true that there was much that was racist and ignorant at the heart of Jacksonian democracy. For their love, the followers of Old Hickory demanded the destruction of Native American civilization in the South, and the furthering of slavery westward. This cruel bargain won Jackson voters land, and thus the vote. What have those who embraced “Mr. I Alone Can Fix It” obtained, save for the vague, grandiose promise, renewed in his inaugural, that they will soon “start winning again, winning like never before”? Or — worse — Mr. Trump’s vow to end “political correctness” and make this, at least rhetorically, the same white man’s America it was in Jackson’s time?

I know that Mr. Trump was elected, in part, because too many people were still hurting in this economy, from the terrible disruptions of their lives and their communities over the last 25 years. I have been poor and desperate myself, and I know what that feels like. In their giddy rush to globalization and the paper economy, too many liberal — and conservative — leaders have made the same mistake that they made in Vietnam, when they tried to palm that misbegotten conflict off on the poor and the working class. They have forgotten — again — that this great nation will endure and will prosper only if we all prosper together.

Yet that is no excuse for what we did last November.

Throughout our history, Americans have encountered economic shocks much worse than anything we know today, and with many fewer resources at their disposal. American working people have agency, they are plenty educated, and in past crises they rejected the extremism that other nations turned to. Even in the Great Depression they did not succumb to the ideologies of Fascism and Communism sweeping the world. When the system seemed broken in the past, when the elites and the major parties seemed irretrievably corrupt and deaf to their appeals, their response was to build true democratic movements from the ground up, and to push them on to victory even if that took decades.

The populists after the Civil War, faced with the collapse into peonage of American farmers — then about half the population — built nationwide lecture and correspondence networks, and eventually won the reforms they needed, even though it took them more than 60 years. The first wave of feminists fought for more than 70 years to win their biggest demand; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were dead by the time women got the vote. African-Americans battled ceaselessly, in every way they could, against their enslavement and Jim Crow, training their own lawyers to take their cases to the Supreme Court. The struggles for labor rights, gay rights, Hispanic rights, civil liberties, religious toleration, women’s control over their own bodies — all these battles and more took decades to win. They are the glory of our civilization.

Today’s passive, unhappy Americans sat on their couches and chose a strutting TV clown to save us.

What they have done is a desecration, a foolish and vindictive act of vandalism, by which they betrayed all the best and most valiant labors of our ancestors. We don’t want to accept this, because we cannot accept that the people, at least in the long run of things, can be wrong in our American democracy. But they can be wrong, just like any people, anywhere. And until we do accept this abject failure of both our system and ourselves, there is no hope for our redemption.

A couple of days after the election I watched on CNN as red-faced Russian apparatchiks in Moscow toasted one another on their great success. “Hurrah!” I thought. “No more American exceptionalism! We have joined up with the drunken idiot of history!” Once Russians, too, and especially Russian writers, were certain that there was a special destiny for the Russian soul. But a century of disastrous choices and their consequences seems to have disillusioned them. They have so much to teach us.


10 thoughts on “America– A Lost City Upon a Hill?

  1. Kevin Baker has spoken my heart. He has captured the source of the urgency and outright dread many of us feel: the bottom line in this election is that a huge number of Americans made such a disastrous choice of their own free will, such that the blame for the “carnage” will lie at the feet of the American public. And we haven’t reckoned with the implications of that.

    Baker takes note of America’s image of itself, nurtured and sustained over the past two and a half centuries, has always been one of moving forward toward better things on the horizon, towards a “perfection” of our union. America was always supposed to be something, as much a vision as a physical reality, from the moment that John Winthrop urged the Massachusetts Bay Colony to “be as a city upon a hill.”

    This vision of America as a “constant work in progress” imbued our nation’s self-image and to a great extent governed its behavior, even though the history that was being slowly created was checkered and marred with dark detours, mistakes and conceits. We were taught that these acts and events were regrettable, but a byproduct of our country’s evolution, and the recovery from them soon became a national mythology, reflected in the odes of some of our most inspired citizens.

    The phrase “American exceptionalism” has taken on a different cloak than it used to wear. Now it means an arrogance of power, a nationalistic worldview that disregards the outside world in favor of American concerns. The “exceptionalism” Baker is talking about is the idea that there is a moral arc that America could perfect its Union, that better days lay ahead, and that the spirit of the American people would overcome any adversity. That belief was shattered on November 8, 2016 with the election of Trump.

    The vulgarity and baseness of Trump, quite possibly the worst human being we could have elected as President, is overshadowed only by the shallowness, disinterest and patent disregard by those American citizens who voted for him. Baker acknowledges that economic stagnation provided a breeding ground for the emotional response to Trump. But even that is no excuse for Americans selecting someone so thoroughly revolting and incompetent to wield the levers of power he now holds. Put simply, someone this bad should never have gotten close to being elected, if America and Americans are what we’ve been taught to believe.

    Trump should never have happened in a country with the values we profess. This sudden sense of shock and impending loss, more than anything else, is what motivated millions to demonstrate in the streets yesterday. Despite all the other reasons and excuses, America and Americans failed us on November 8, 2016. We need to come to terms with that uncomfortable fact if we are ever going to rebuild.

    I note your point but Trump is now the President and Americans must learn to deal with him. If he abuses his position, however, then there will be grounds to impeach him.–Din Merican

    • Yes, Din, my friend, I agree. That’s why I ended my commentary with this sentence: “We need to come to terms with that uncomfortable fact if we are ever going to rebuild.”

      The millions who demonstrated in the streets a couple days ago was the voice of the people we lost since the Vietnam War. I believe more will be coming throughout the Trump Administration. I would say the voice of the people is more directed at the Congress than at Trump, pressuring the Congress to do their job right to check and balance. No one believes we can change Trump’s mind. He is a mad man and his cabinet a rubber stamp.

      I remember reading Mark Singer’s writing of a profile in 1997 on Donald Trump. Singer tells the story after interviewing Trump, which seems to capture the essence of Trump perfectly. He concludes that The Donald has no interior life and ends his piece with, “He had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury: an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”

      “An existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” I just wonder if Donald Trump has a soul at all.

    • “I have listened to all the blame foisted on the Clinton campaign for doing this or that wrong, or the media for not exposing Mr. Trump, or for giving him too much airtime. I don’t buy it. Hillary Clinton’s campaign wasn’t that bad, and Mr. Trump was exposed enough for any thinking adult to see exactly what he is.”
      The writer, seriously, must be either delusional or in denial to come up with such a preposterous understatement.

      LaMoy, I am sure you are among many of Americans who participated in the recent protests because you are genuinely concerned with the direction America is heading. However, I must say that the motive of the majority of the protesters is suspect. Their actions would have been applauded as a joke if not for the dire situation your country is in right now.
      Really, if the nation wide protests were just rallies against sexism, racialist, etc, I wonder where have all these protesters been hiding all these years? It is strange that they chose such an opportuned time to crawl out of the woodwork.
      What ought to be the real concern of Americans right now is the direction the great American democracy is heading, veering and degenerating towards being a 3rd world democracy a la Red/Yellow shirts massive street protests of Thailand to forcibly remove a democratically elected government.
      Surely, this has to be a logical considered prediction as one can imagine what the outcome is going to be if Trump is forcibly removed from office by whatever means to be replaced by Hillary by default of her winning the ‘popular’ vote – which seems logical enough on paper. However, the reality is that she was more ‘popular’ than Trump by just a couple of million votes which translate to how many percent of the American total population? And again, isn’t it strange that the so called massive numbers of the recent nation wide protests, give and take, tally to about the same percentage of the American total population?

  2. For pendatang like myself, I have never dare dreamed that I could experience the meaning of losing a land I knew. To my white American Christians, I had merely repeated from what I learned from Jesus this last weekend “this world is not my home”. Jesus is definitely not American. Yet, many Trump voters are Jesus followers. My ability to do so comes from American exceptionalism who knew the subtle depth of that phrase “this world is not my home”. No, we are found when we are lost. For my Ketuanan countrymen, I am unsure what the ultimate would say to your generation. To the modern Chinese (post-Imperialistic China), welcome to the world of smog.

  3. Kevin writes eloquently but the mood he displays is negative. It is time we all accept that Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States and let him get on with his job and give him the Cabinet team he wants. America is an exceptional nation, a city on a hill, but I hope America is not an arrogant country. There is no reason to be negative. A more cooperative media should make a difference. –Din Merican

  4. “A City on the Hill” is a metaphor not only meant as a shining example of God’s benevolence made possible by the hands of Man, but also a very Christian concept which has been mistranslated to mean ‘exceptional’.. It is both a personal and community-based commitment to ‘Goodness’ – not Wealth, Materialistic Accruement nor ‘Will to Power’.

    Trump’s vices are not virtues and whomever is blind to his past and present misdemeanors and awful attitudes miss the whole enchilada. He ‘unfortunately’ is now the most powerful ‘Fool on the Hill’.

    America is not ‘Exceptional’ – Americans, used to be in the pre- and immediate post-WW II era. That also bred the Image of the Ugly American – nowadays dumbed down to the ‘Hapless American’. WASPs have lost the edge, due to their corruption and misapplication of Cheap Grace (D. Bonhoeffer).

    Yeah, and i shouldn’t be speaking of Fascism but of ‘Personality Cults’, right?

  5. Quote:- “Trump should never have happened in a country with the values we profess”

    ….perhaps the “values” have truly changed because America itself has truly changed?

  6. “….perhaps the “values” have truly changed because America itself has truly changed?’ Wayne.

    The core value of Americans has not quite changed and it is chiseled in every Americans’ coin: Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one). American liberals have been loud and noisy; that is the reason why the core value was not heard outside the USA. Now, with Trump, Americans and many outside the USA will hear more the core value embraced by average Americans in their daily life. If one can ignore all the commentaries on Trump and his personal short-comings, then I think he/she should be able to see Trump’s actions and words in the campaign and the last few days of presidency are in the direction of promoting “Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum.”

    However, the challenge is still that the high-minded American liberals will always be making the loudest noise outside the USA trumpeting the half truths: human rights and democracy and kindness. Average Americans and conservatives tends to mind their own business in their day-to-day life; Vocal Trump is an exemption. One yellow Asian that was not so dumb as to putting all the eggs on the half-truths is the late Mr. Lee Kwan Yew, who refused to embrace the high-minded liberal ideals, who not only fought gallantly those out-of-touch ideals expounded in the imported western newspapers and professional-looking magazines, but who also spent his precious months in US as a sabbatical student dotting think tanks and US institutions while he was the prime minister of Singapore delegating his duty to his deputy.

  7. Wayne, I think the writer makes the mistake of thinking about this in terms of values.

    The DNC lost because they were strategically inept, cannibalized their better leaders and were chocking on their own hubris.

    Furthermore, Russian know how coupled with American lust for power, enabled Trump to win the propaganda war , which is still perpetuated by the likes of good old Bunn Negara.

    I like what CLF wrote but my own thinking is that America is truly that Lucky Country. And while America has an inordinate share of extraordinary individuals (historical and contemporary), mediocre Americans have always made the mistake of thinking that , that points to a manifest destiny.

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