Who Are We, Any Way?

If there’s anything Donald Trump’s presidency has provided America, it is an intense, national examination of the nature of class and voters’ political motivations. Trump’s election, and the transformation of the Republican Party into a nationalist, authoritarian totem has scrambled conventional thinking about political and social divides of every kind.

Every week we receive a new treatise telling us who Trump voters really are. This week The Atlantic told us that evangelicals are the ones who really elected Trump. But we’ve also heard tales of blue collar whites (now rescinded), disaffected middle class whites and also minority voters who felt let down by Barack Obama’s presidential tenure.

The Democratic and Republican parties are tearing themselves apart in response to Trump, each in their own way. A growing coalition of socialist Democrats are trying to take control from the “New Democrats” who first rose to power under Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, while some conservatives rail against voting for the Republican Party at all in this year’s Congressional mid-term elections.

At the moment, America seems like a crazy, topsy-turvy country, with no clear center and a million competing visions for the future. No matter what the political issue, gun control, abortion, energy, environment or transit, the fractures created by geography, class, race and religion loom larger than ever. We are bedeviled to find a common language as we are blessed with internet-speed communication.

From our very beginning, America was forged from different peoples with dissimilar, often incongruent ideas about the nature of liberty and nationhood. At our best, the fact these differences exist is the bedrock of American diversity. But occasionally these opposing ideas of liberty divide us to the core, and once that divide is exposed, it often takes either great leadership or a cataclysm to bring us back together.

Our two earliest colonies, Massachusetts and Virginia, founded by Puritans and Cavaliers in the 1500’s, had very different ideas of a successful society. Puritans were a close-knit community with rigid rules for all participants, but also with a high priority on the population’s general welfare. The Cavaliers, in Virginia, created an exploitive, every-man-for-himself society with that held the individual’s abilities and freedom at the highest level.

Throughout American history, these two ideas of liberty – rule-bound but with community assistance that frees a person from want, versus freedom from government that makes success or failure entirely your own – have been the core of almost every internal conflict. Soon after independence, this split drove America’s first crises over taxation and a national bank. The split revisited us eighty years later, leading to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Today, our struggles over the role of the welfare state and who is really entitled to be an American can be traced back to that split.

What do we stand for, any way? The Trump Administration continues to pull down icons of the old, liberal order, leading everyone to question what it means to have “American values”. Just this month Trumpists won Supreme Court judgements that stymie public employee unions and reduce voting rights while ordering federal bureaucrats to new levels of cruelty by separating toddlers and children from immigrant parents at the border.

Strong unions, voting rights and open borders, major policies enacted in the 1960’s and once considered bedrock, are now all up for debate.

Does the Trump Administration embody American values? A respected poll released Thursday reports 47% of Americans approve of President Trump’s job performance. While in office, Trump has never gotten below the high 30’s, suggesting that some large portion of America really likes what he’s up to, and always will.

Meanwhile, a survey sponsored by former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Joe Biden found that 55% of Americans believe American democracy is getting weaker. A plurality of non-white Americans believe racism and discrimination is weakening democracy, while 77% of all Americans believe “the laws enacted by our national government these days mostly reflect what powerful special interests and their lobbyists want”.

Clearly, Americans are conflicted. We have a lot of opinions about Donald Trump, but it doesn’t seem we’ve made up our mind about him and what he’s up to.

One thing I’ve learned about democracy is that it’s easy to find people with an opinion. Ubiquitous polling has proven that. But it’s a whole other thing to find people that will vote. The voting part is what decides which values become policy.

A Time For Moderates, But Not Moderation

Where does this all end? At some point Donald J. Trump will no longer be president. Either the electorate, his health or some array of political forces will end the Trump presidency and America will have to reckon with the policies he enacted and the global relationships he forged and frayed.

To an extent unlike any other modern presidency, Trump and his media supporters have gone all-in. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson told viewers last week, “If you’re looking to understand what’s actually happening in this country, always assume the opposite of whatever they’re telling you on the big news stations. And that’s certainly the case here. They are lying…”. Meanwhile the Trump White House makes official statements with blatant falsehoods. Team Trump has obliterated any set of common facts, and has told viewers at home that anyone who disagrees with him is unworthy of respect.

And it’s working: A recent poll shows North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has higher approval among Republicans than House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. How does that make sense?

Past elected leaders have always kept in mind: At some point, I won’t be in power, so if I want my accomplishments to continue past my tenure, I need to get a super-majority of electoral support. Not with Team Trump. They burn it all down, ram it through, and proclaim conspiracy theories to denigrate their opponents.

What will happen when a new president and a different Congress want to change Trump’s policies? Will we have to endure more of the same? Will it draw blatant lies, political tar and feathering to ensure Trumpism remains in place?

Instinctually, Americans on both the left and right dread what’s to come. To protect ourselves, we are entrenching. We get our news from sources we already agree with. Those with means, are moving to communities with like-minded neighbors. The Republican Party, thrown to the right by Trumpism, may foreshadow a leftist surge among Democratic voters this election season.

Meanwhile, researchers are beginning to suspect our political conflicts have become pathological. Self-righteousness, a by-product of our Facebook arguments and comment battles, may be a form of addiction, which would be no surprise to those of us who struggle to get through family Thanksgiving gatherings in peace.

The conflicts of the Trump era force everything into sheer black-and-white contradictions. Even policies that tack against a steadfast majority of Americans are wrapped in Trump’s American flag. You don’t like family separations at the border? You must be pro-MS-13! You’d like to see Obamacare’s patient rights protected? You’re just looking to tax the little guy!

Steadily, the Trump-right is undoing the accomplishments of Barack Obama’s previous, slightly-left tenure. In response, a growing chorus of Bernie Sanders supporters vow to reinstate Obama policies, and do even more.

Inevitably, whether because morality tugs at our senses or because many Trump policies are so broken they defy the laws of physics, a majority of voters will demand a change. And then things can either get better, or much worse.

Just as in physics, every action in politics sets off an opposite and equal reaction. Our partisan-ified media lures us into thinking we can “demolish” and “destroy” the ideological opposition, but nothing could be further from the truth, as ideology only changes slowly over time, not as a result of assault by fact. Instead, global political history has shown that radical lurches to one political group only emboldens opponents to go even farther, introducing an endless cycle of left-right combat and increasingly worse governance.

If there was ever a time for moderates to rise up, this is it.

But a centrist revolt seems unlikely, as former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank once pointed out, “Moderate Republicans are the people who are there when you don’t need them.” His riposte is thin gruel however, since leftist Frank cheered the collapse of the Blue Dog Democrats, his party’s moderate wing in the 90’s.

Being a moderate is hard under any circumstances. Moderates are often mistaken as weak or lesser beings, but at crucial times they can be the flywheel of political society, slowing down the machinery before it tears itself apart. And because of who they are, moderates tend to lack the romance and dash of their right and left-wing compatriots. After all, their basic message is, “Let’s not do anything too hasty, okay?”

Whoever leads us out of this morass will be challenged with tremendous inequality among economic class, race and gender. Making it all worse, we suffer from a broad sense of distrust of the media, politicians and institutions.

Looking at how big these problems are, the idea of “moderation” seems a cop out when radical responses will be necessary to counterbalance Trumpism.

Yet, at this very moment, moderate leadership would seem relatively inviting, wouldn’t it? Bring us back to the center and calm the debate. Reintroduce a common set of facts and bring back a steady level of progress with which we can all be comfortable.

As we march in rallies, donate to campaigns and ultimately, cast our ballots to repair our government, let’s take care to remember that for lasting change, we need to bring more than just a temporary majority with us. We need to demonstrate why a new, better America will be good for all Americans, with moderation.