What does it mean to love a country? I have spent most of my life studying American history and literature because of a deep if sometimes difficult affinity I would call love. Deeper, though, is a feeling like a love of family, a hope that whoever by whatever accident or choice falls under the definition of family will thrive and will experience even a difficult life as a blessing because his or her worth is a fact without conditions.
A family would take practical steps to ease one another through hard times and to preserve the integrity of home as a special refuge. The honor of a family would consist in a very generous acknowledgment of claims on its loyalty and care.
It is often said that America is an idea, stated definitively in early documents left to us by a coterie of men seemingly too compromised to have come up with such glorious language — as we would be, too, if we should happen to achieve anything comparable. Human beings are sacred, therefore equal. We are asked to see one another in the light of a singular inalienable worth that would make a family of us if we let it.
The ethic in these words should be the standard by which we judge ourselves, our social arrangements, our dealings with the vast family of humankind. It will always find us wanting. The idea is a progressive force, constantly and necessarily exposing our failures and showing us new paths forward.
For some time we have been dealing with an active rejection of this idea. As a woman in her late 70s who saw the world before the movements for civil rights and women’s rights, I know how potent the idea of equality can be. There are those who find it threatening, who are so fearful of dealing with people of color, or with women, on equal terms that they fantasize about violence toward them, treating whole categories of their own people as deadly enemies.
They have translated anger and disappointment into rage against people of color, people of other opinions, the elites, the poor, even people whose very existence cannot be proved (so secretive are they!) but who are in sinister cahoots with Democrats and liberals. The policies of the other side may seem rational, practical, familiar, but their true nature is revealed in the fact that someone claims to have seen black-clad passengers on a commercial flight somewhere.
As a liberal, I am loyal to this country in ways that make me a pragmatist. If someone is hungry, feed him. He will be thirsty, so be sure that he has good water to drink. If he is in prison, don’t abuse, abandon or exploit him, or assume that he ought to be there. If these problems afflict whole populations, those with influence or authority should repent and do better, as all the prophets tell them.
Over the past few years President Trump has promoted the belief that a large share of the American people are endlessly productive of plots, frauds and hoaxes, that they are not to be heard out in good faith, not to be acknowledged as enjoying the freedoms of the First Amendment.
This is the aspersion, the fraud, the hoax, most corrosive to democracy. Once a significant part of the population takes it to be true that other groups or classes do not participate legitimately in the political life of the country, democracy is in trouble. The public has no way to legitimize authority, which then becomes mere power.
Less than a month before the election, we have come to a place where every aspect of our electoral process is in doubt and at risk, threatened by suspicion and resentment now loose among our people to our great mutual harm. If the one civic exercise that gives legitimacy to our government defaults, we will, if we are honest, have to find a word other than “democracy” to describe whatever we will have become.
Resentment displaces hope and purpose the way carbon monoxide displaces air. This fact has been reflected in the policies of any number of tyrants and demagogues. Resentment is insatiable. It thrives on deprivation, sustaining itself by magnifying grievances it will, by its nature, never resolve.
At present we are told that America is being made great again, but specifics are hard to come by. It is true that, compared with the America of memory, little has been done recently to demonstrate modest foresight, let alone grand vision.
The failures of infrastructure can dim the spirits of people who deal with shabby schools or faulty bridges or who live downstream from a failing dam. Problems like these could be solved if there were the political will to solve them. It would feel good to see the old competence brought to bear again. Of course this would require investments of public money and the use of public money for the benefit of the public.
This is anathema to legislators who actually persuade their constituents that austerity, indiscriminate parsimony, is the highest good, whatever the consequences for public health or economic development. The cost of outright failure, in any specific instance or progressively and cumulatively, seems never to be factored in.
In place of better schools, with all the talent and aspiration education can unleash, it is cheaper to encourage a contempt for knowledge and for the “elites” who deal in it. If the small towns are dying out, encourage a hatred of the cities. In all cases, urge resentment of foreigners and immigrants. See the full force of our government deployed to terrorize a chicken factory.
Resentment is crucial to the drift away from reality that makes meaningful public life so difficult now. An especially pernicious form of suspicion, it thrives by insisting that no positive construction should ever be made of the thinking or the motives of the despised oppressors, that is, of those who are of another mind or another party. Their perfidy infects information in every form except for the shrieks and whispers to be found on the internet and the leggy and glossily profitable Fox News.
There is another source of inflamed unreality: the Trump White House.
Donald Trump, the magister ludi, is a very odd duck. He has spent his long career demonstrating unreliability as a way of life, and he is embraced and trusted passionately by people who trust no one else. One man’s charlatan is the next man’s messiah, and we are witnessing a kind of staged resurrection that will harden both views of him.
He would like us to believe that Covid-19 has no power over him. He has broken its grip on his own person, demonstrating that his insouciant posture toward the pandemic was somehow right and those hundreds of thousands of deaths were a failure of will in the departed, or a lack of what he calls good genes.
How ill was the president to begin with? If he crashes after an apparent recovery, it will be within the range of expectations for the disease. Regardless, he has triggered another irresolvable dispute that will make him the center of attention during the run-up to the election, relieved of any expectation that he will propose policies like, for example, plans for health care or for infrastructure. This would be slippery and shrewd, that is, not improbable.
So we have, in the country’s highest office, a man who is at best an illusionist. He might talk about injecting disinfectant only to keep our minds off the children at the border. In other words, his bizarre ideas and behavior might be calculated to obscure his actual use of the powers of the presidency, which have grown in his hands till they have overwhelmed old concepts of limited government, of a balance of powers.
We do not know whether the president is blundering or scheming, sick or well. We do not know if he is trying, however ineptly, to bring the country through social, economic and political crisis or is using instability to heighten his power. Because he is erratic, we eye him carefully. We try to discern the limits of his excesses and vagaries, we watch his mood.
This is a president who holds grudges against our great cities. Mighty engines of wealth and culture that they are, this bankrupter of casinos wants to impose his will on them. He permits or refuses the public the benefits of institutions and resources that belong to us, converting government into patronage. This is a radical disempowerment of the people, accomplished through incompetence, chicanery and an absolute disrespect for the position he holds.
“Put not your trust in princes,” says the psalmist. “When his breath departs he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” We would also be wise, on these same grounds, not to despair over a political figure, either. Mr. Trump’s impact on so many areas of life is a product of his idiosyncrasy. We need not imagine that another faux businessman with a peculiar power to charm and repel, a virtual part of the living room furniture of many Americans over many years, will rise in his place. We do not even know what his plans are, of course, and the fact that he has created a cult of personality will inevitably narrow his effect in the longer term.
Leaders perish but the people have a relative immortality. Therefore the first order of business for us as a people is to find our way back to equilibrium. If Joe Biden wins, we will no doubt see in part a restoration of the old order. That order had many flaws and quarrels, but it had also, we now know, a loving deference toward the Constitution and the laws. If we learn anything from this sad passage in our history it should be that rage and contempt are a sort of neutron bomb in the marketplace of ideas, obviating actual competition. This country would do itself a world of good by restoring a sense of the dignity, even the beauty, of individual ethicalism, of self-restraint, of courtesy. These things might help us to like one another, even trust one another, both necessary to a functioning democracy.
This country was, from the outset, a tremendous leap of faith. We tend not to ponder the brutality of the European world at the time our colonies formed and then fledged, so we have little or no idea of the radicalism not only of stating that “men,” as creatures of God, were equal, but of giving the idea profound political consequences by asserting for them unalienable rights, which were defined and elaborated in the Constitution. Our history to the present day is proof that people find justice hard to reach and to sustain. It is also proof that where justice is defined as equality, a thing never to be assumed, justice enlarges its own definition, pushing its margins in light of a better understanding of what equality should mean.
There is much to be done, more than inevitably limited people can see at a given moment. But the other side of our limitation is the fact that it carries with it a promise that we still might see a new birth of freedom, and another one beyond that. Democracy is the great instrument of human advancement. We have no right to fail it.
Marilynne Robinson, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is the author, most recently, of the novel “Jack.”
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