Andy Schmookler: A crisis of the spirit of America?
Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, while welcomed by some, was devastating news for a great many people. It would be useful, I believe, for Trump voters to understand why.
We’ve all experienced being on the losing side in one election or another. But for many, this election feels entirely different. Weeks after the election, deep suffering over this outcome is still the dominant reality of their lives.
Recently, I asked several dozen people I know, who clearly wanted a different outcome, to describe the impact the 2016 election result has had on them. About half of those people indicated that it was the most painful big-world event in their lifetimes (more traumatic, they said, than the attacks of 9/11, or the assassination of JFK).
Clearly, they perceived something in this election that goes deeper than the usual level of liberal-vs.-conservative politics.
Those usual kinds of elections divide people who disagree about what direction in which they want our nation to move. But this time, what many on the losing side fear is that the nation will change in ways that hardly anyone – including those now celebrating – want.
What people fear is that the spirit of America will now become something fundamentally different, and profoundly darker, than that of the America we have always known.
Here are some of the fears that have made the election just past devastating for some:
• Will America move decisively away from the spirit of “Love thy neighbor” and toward greater hostility between different groups of Americans?
• Will America lose its allegiance to any ethic of fairness and give free rein to unlimited greed, widening the already troubling inequalities of wealth and power?
• Will America surrender the values of our founders – for democracy and the rights of the individual – in favor of more authoritarian rule from the top, as in Putin’s Russia?
• Will the long-standing American practice of pragmatic decision-making based on hard-won, real-world knowledge be abandoned in favor of charting our course on the basis of ideology, or prejudice, or ignorance, or mere whim?
• Will the American values of kindness and compassion be pushed aside by impulses of anger and cruelty?
• Will what the Declaration of Independence called “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind” be replaced by an overweening national arrogance?
• Will a respect for the truth be drowned in a tide of power-serving lies?
• Will America slough off its role of the guarantor of the peace and become the nation that picks needless fights?
These pairs of opposing values reveal the fundamental truth about why this election has had so deep an impact on so many: the fundamental issue raised by this election arises at the level of the spirit.
This becomes clear if we assemble these pairs into their two opposing groups.
The more benign options in each pair add up to a coherent picture of a beautiful spirit: love and justice and compassion and peace and regard for the human spirit. It is a spirit that should be familiar to anyone with an awareness of biblical morality.
When put together, the other parts of these pairs also present a coherent picture – a picture of the spirit of darkness.
Time will tell whether the fears felt by many today in the aftermath of the 2016 election are needless, or whether they are well founded. But as I think we can assume that few Americans want to move in that dark direction, and a great many Americans – who are not fools – see that shadow hanging over our future, it behooves all of us to monitor where this election takes this nation.
There was a time when we understood better that “we are all Americans,” and the time to revive that understanding may soon be upon us.
If the fears of those who feel devastated prove valid, it behooves us to be ready to join forces to protect the better kind of America that almost all Americans presumably want.
In this season that celebrates peace on earth, and good will toward men, it is a fitting task to take on.
Andy Schmookler is an award-winning author, and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012. His newly published book is “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – And How We Can Defeat It.”