I look back at the stressed-out writing I did four years ago after Trump was elected and recall what my European friends were saying at the time. They were a bit blasé about the new administration, a bit cynical about whether anything had changed or would change in U.S. geopolitics.
They wanted to know why I was so upset. They saw Trump as a slightly more pungent embodiment of the same old repellent post-WWII American hubris. Yes, he lacked Obama’s varnish and capacity. But, in that sense, they seemed to think Trump was a little better—take the makeup off the beast and you can see it more clearly. Take off its camoflauge and you can more easily track its movements. America, they felt, is evil, uneducated, childish, and wrong. Let’s be honest. Let’s reveal its true nature. Why not accomplish this by letting Trump flail about and demonstrate American dysfunction on the international stage?
But the imperial, crass, clumsy, adventurist America that colored the perceptions of my friends abroad wasn’t what I was mourning. Countries, like the people that create and sustain them, are not simple. Reducing them to an exploitative foreign policy (which their people may not even fully understand or approve of) and the philistine values of their nastiest and most brutish citizens is disingenuous at best.
The America in which I grew up was liberally and tolerantly Democrat and Republican. People voted locally, believed in civil rights, valued humanistic education, and, incidentally, were not part of anything that could be considered “systemically racist.” Higher education and health care were expensive but were seen as inherently good and worth working for. My southern Californian neighborhood was diverse. My childhood friends were Hmong, Vietnamese, Italian, African-American, Polish, Mexican-American, and every other ethnicity you can imagine.
This is not to say that the country (including my small part of it) didn’t have serious problems or that there was no racism or crime. It’s to say that America was seen as a decent place in which to live, in spite of those things. And I grew up in a fairly poor neighborhood in a house with the roof always falling in. I wasn’t dirt poor, but I wasn’t “rolling like a hog in the fat house,” either. So, with deep reservations, I voted for Hilary in 2016. I was well aware of the evils in my country. But it was the good that I cared about and wanted to protect by voting Democrat. I suspect most who voted Republican felt the same way.
The reason I was upset four years ago, and why I disagreed with the pessimistic view of my European friends, was that Trump brought a vision of “American carnage”—a distorted view of failure and fallout that didn’t square with what I knew from firsthand experience as a citizen. He encouraged us to envision ourselves as a nigh-failed state. And I knew that what you envision eventually becomes real.
But none of us could foresee the damage that this would do to the political continuum in the United States and, by extension, to American society. The last four years have been tragic, convoluted, and intense to an almost unbelievable degree, such that the best analysts and political commentators now seem occupied with catching up or doomsaying instead of predicting what’s to come or offering solutions; though, one can admit that foreseeability is always an issue.
The complexity of this moment in American history is as broad and deep as it is disturbing. And we might forgive the pundits for having a hard time with it. It’s hard to think of any moment in American history simple and clear enough that we can say it’s open and shut, that we can easily understand it without much discussion.
For example, it’s not enough to argue that Truman dropped the bomb in 1945 to curtail protracted war in the Pacific and ultimately save lives. It’s not enough to say that he was spineless and unduly influenced by hawkish generals and politicians looking for payback and glory. It’s not enough to say that the American public had grown hardened by the war to the extent that the mass-murder of Japanese civilians seemed like an acceptable trade-off for victory. If we’re in search of the broadest, clearest, most unvarnished view, we have to say all these things and more.
Such considerations and a hundred others like them, existing side by side, are what make American history so confounding and fascinating (and are what make the New York Times’ dubious “1619 Project” more race-oriented speculative fiction than history, on par with creationist textbooks and What If the Nazis Won the War fan fic). History is not simple because we are not simple. The breadth of a cultural, historical moment is always hard to grasp, even in retrospect. And, at the time, suffused as it is with emotion and rhetoric, it’s nearly impossible to fully and clearly understand what’s going on, even if we have a great deal of information.
Nevertheless, we all agree that it’s the job of journalists, philosophers, artists, historians (even politicians) to set aside the fear and make sense of things. When they succeed, we can arrive at maybe a partial understanding of what’s happening, maybe to the extent that we can act in accordance with best possible premises and mitigate the damage. But after four years of American carnage, we seem to have unambiguously failed in that respect. And we can’t pin it all on Trump. We’re the ones who fed him tequila and acid and took him off the leash. We’re the ones who burned our own neighborhoods. Political writers, in particular, share the blame.
What we unfortunately have now is vicious black-and-white thinking across the political spectrum, the sort of irrationality that greenlights violence, tribalism, feuding, and revenge and thinks it’s all for the best, the sort of illiberal extremism that forgets how to come together and resolve differences. And foreseeability remains a key problem—even the partial sort that sets aside the Huxlean herd poison in favor of the common good.
The vision of American carnage is coming to pass when we could have imagined and brought forth something far better. Such is the root of my discontent—what I felt in 2016 and what I feel now. It’s why I regard political conventions as rituals of death worship, paying homage to dead systems and broken ideologies, rigidly entrenched in old enmities and feuds, and enslaved to a partisanship so obsolete and toxic that it has become clownish and absurd.
Cynicism and black-and-white thinking are too easy in times like this. My deepest wish for the United States is that it will let go of those things and embrace classical liberalism—the radical notion that the left and the right can come together in the middle, take the best of what they are, and form a more perfect union. We’ve done it before. I don’t see why we can’t do it again.