Better Angels

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

With those words Abraham Lincoln concluded his first inaugual address as the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln, as almost everyone knows, was the first Republican to be elected president, and by inauguration day, it seemed that he might be the last — not the last Republican president, but the last President of the United States. Seven states had already seceded, four more would soon join them, and the future of the country was very much in doubt.

Yet here was Lincoln speaking hopefully and confidently about something no one could see and few likely believed: Americans would be reunited when their memories were touched by their better angels.

Republicans are still referred to as the party of Lincoln, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of Lincoln in the Republican Party these days. The 45th President of the United States, nominally a Republican, seems as determined to divide the country as the 16th was to hold it together. Not long ago a Republican US senator announced that he’d had enough of what his party had become and announced that he would not seek reelection in 2018. In his closing, he too cited Lincoln’s better angels.

Elected on the slogan “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” (it’s in all caps like that on the hats), Donald J. Trump left a lot to the imagination as to what his slogan might possibly mean. His supporters quickly filled the void.

Apparently slogans are in the eye of the beholder.

For a lot of voters — though not a majority; the Democratic Party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, won the nationwide popular vote by nearly 2.9 million — making American great again was a compelling idea.

There’s an old joke about country music that poses the question “What do you get when you play a country song backwards?” You get your job back, your truck back, your wife, your dog, your sobriety…

A lot of Trumps’s base of support is hurting. Unemployment is up, wages are down. Substance abuse is up. Suicides are up. And life expectancy for younger and middle aged white Americans is down. Trump won white voters without a college degree by 39 points. Things are not great for whites without a college degree.

But things once were great for whites without a college degree. It once was possible for someone without a college education, without even a high school education, to work his way into the middle class and to support a family on one income. When did this mythical white male utopia exist? About 50 years ago. I happen to know this because my dad did it. Worked hard, made decent money, drove a new car, joined a country club… Great, no?

Not so great was the African American or Hispanic experience of 50 years ago. It also wasn’t too great for women of any description, who despite having the vote since 1920 had (and still have) no equality with men. And it wasn’t great for LGBT persons or people with disabilities or a bunch of others who weren’t straight, white, able-bodied, English-speaking males.

Thus, making America great AGAIN meant making it great for people who’d had it great in the past. And they knew who they were.

Facebook has a feature that brings up items posted on the current date in previous years. Five years ago I posted a link to an article about Donald Trump’s much ballyhooed “bombshell” revelation about President Barack Obama turning out to be a dud. No problem for Trump, who seized the attention to rant about Obama being the “worst” and “least transparent” president ever and to bait him to release college and foreign travel records in return for a promised $5 million donation to the charity of Obama’s choosing. Obama ignored Trump and went on to win reelection. We don’t know what happened to the five million bucks.

Unfortunately, failure in any conventional sense is no discouragement to Donald Trump. He built his brand, fame and fortune largely on an amazing ability to say ridiculous things and garner lots of publicity for it. Trump’s long promotion of phony claims and conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace and citizenship were a GOLD MINE for Trump. And mine it he did. For years. Trump got all sorts of media coverage for free, along with the admiration of a lot of people who wanted justification for hating someone as smart, well educated and successful as Barack Obama (who just happened to be black).

The success of Trump’s Obama bashing was a model for personal attacks and bogus charges that he would use again and again during the 2016 presidential campaign, first against Republican rivals, then unceasingly against the Democratic nominee, who was smarter, better educated and vastly more experienced (and who just happened to be female).

Seeing a pattern here? Trump’s modus operandi is to attack, call names, threaten, bully, and lie about anyone who stands in his way, using any tool or proxy at his disposal. It has not gone unnoticed by Trump’s core supporters that his targets are generally NOT white guys. Haters of various stripes now feel they own the White House. By selecting Mike Pence as his running mate and cozying up to the religious right, people who say they are pro-life Christians now believe they have a friend in Jesus AND in the White House. Fossil fuel lobby? You bet. “Second Amendment people”? Absolutely. Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent? Photo op! Russian ambassador? Da! (Sorry, no American press allowed)

It’s a game of endless division, not unity. Trump has assembled a coalition of shamelessly self-interested supporters who seem perfectly willing to knock anyone else down to take what they want. America is one continuous Black Friday door rush at Walmart.

Our better angels aren’t throwing elbows. They aren’t spewing venomous, personal attacks. They don’t engage in name calling, character assassination, or scapegoating. They aren’t in it for themselves, damning all others and the consequences. Our better angels aren’t spreading rumors, falsehoods and outright lies. They aren’t boasting about sexual assault, nor are they complicit in it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King was not the first to make such a statement, it goes back at least as far as a mid-nineteenth century minister and abolishionist. Theodore Parker said also “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. …Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.”

No one is saying that the path to justice is a straight line, but that right will ultimately prevail. Our better angels are around, we just need to start listening to them again.

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