This weekend I read two stories that both, in their own ways, summed up the dysfunction that’s dominating American political life. They’re both tales of action and reaction, of reading far too much into the events of modern life — even modern life in the “age of Trump.” And they both illustrate a core truth of our time: America is losing its sense of proportion and perspective.
The first story comes from the heart of “nice” America — a prosperous southern community near Houston. Last week Texas Monthly published a long and sordid tale of a Trump shirt, a temper tantrum, and all the craziness that followed. Our story begins with four teenage girls in line to buy chocolate-chip cookies. One of the girls was wearing a souvenir shirt she bought in Washington, D.C. It bore the name of the current president of the United States.
Well, that was too much for an older woman in the line, a liberal activist and member of the city council named Kellye Burke. She saw Trump’s name and started derisively yelling things like “MAGA” and, yes, “Grab ’em by the p****.” So, there’s your first overreaction. Can a grown woman not see a Trump shirt without shouting her protest, especially when that protest is directed at a young teen girl?
But wait. We’ve barely begun to escalate. The incident of course hits social media, Burke belatedly realizes her error, and she decides to apologize, in person, to the offended families of the four girls. She in fact meets with the first family and things seem to go well, but that was the false dawn. After apparently botching the arrangements for the next meetings, the other three families refuse her offer to meet, reject her attempts to apologize, and file a criminal complaint against her for disorderly conduct.
Well, as soon as the criminal complaint hit the books, the media got involved, and the next thing you know, the story spread across the Internet, followed by inevitable profane insults and threats of violence. One of the parents even spoke to the local news with his face in shadow, a move that the author of the article, Mimi Swartz, compared to one used by participants in the witness-protection program.
Except for the media coverage, stories such as this are playing out all over the American landscape. Neighborhood Facebook groups have grown so contentious that it’s a sad joke. I once belonged to a neighborhood group that systematically censored conservative comments, and when conservatives started a competing “uncensored” page, trolls immediately posted pornographic links on the page to “test their commitment to free speech.”
This is life now.
But what else can we expect when people who know better — who truly have a great depth of knowledge and have contributed brilliant works in other contexts — exhibit traces of the same hysteria. This brings me to the second piece of the weekend, a book review by Cass Sunstein of two books about the experience of ordinary Germans under Nazi rule. The review was titled, of course, “It can happen here.”
Sunstein is an interesting and provocative writer. His work on the law of group polarization is one of the keys to understanding the atmosphere of hysteria I’m describing in this piece. But I fear that even Sunstein has fallen prey to the overwrought temptations of the time (I have too, by the way). His review is more temperate than the title indicates, but it does contain this interesting paragraph:
If the president of the United States is constantly lying, complaining that the independent press is responsible for fake news, calling for the withdrawal of licenses from television networks, publicly demanding jail sentences for political opponents, undermining the authority of the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, magnifying social divisions, delegitimizing critics as “crooked” or “failing,” and even refusing, in violation of the law, to protect young children against the risks associated with lead paint — well, it’s not fascism, but the United States has not seen anything like it before.
I’ll agree that in the narrow sense Sunstein is correct. We haven’t seen any president quite like Trump. And I agree with most of the indictment above, but in the broader, more meaningful sense, it’s worth remembering that we’re much farther from fascism than in generations past. Indeed, the contemporary American embrace of individual liberty is so comprehensive that previous generations of Americans would be dazzled by our freedom.
There is no “Trail of Tears” now. Woodrow Wilson’s acts of censorship would be blocked by layers of Supreme Court precedent. A repeat of Franklin Roosevelt’s internment is unthinkable. We’ve moved from two centuries of slavery and one century of servitude to electing a black president for two terms. (And he probably could have won a third if he had been eligible to run again.)
None of this means that America is perfect or that contemporary disputes aren’t important. Strains in America’s alliances are real, and the looming summit with North Korea could be of great consequence. But it’s time for Americans to realize that — by and large — we are blessed to live in a time of normal politics with normal stakes. We’ve gone more than a decade without a crushing attack like 9/11 or an economic meltdown like the Great Recession.
Millions of our fellow citizens are filling the religion-size hole in their hearts with a renewed dedication to politics.
Increasingly, however, we can’t handle “normal” without escalation, and the reason lies outside politics. We live in a time of normal political stakes and abnormal cultural change. We’re running a large-scale, uncontrolled cultural experiment on the minds and hearts of Americans, combining fracturing families, declining religiosity, economic transformation, and the immense emotional domination of social media into a toxic stew that is deeply (and sometimes mortally) wounding our fellow citizens.
The decline of religiosity alone is an enormous factor in increasing the stakes of political conflict. After all, millions of our fellow citizens are filling the religion-size hole in their hearts with a renewed dedication to politics. The politicization of everything is the devil’s counterfeit version of “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Whatever you do, advance social justice. Whatever you do, own the libs.
And that’s just one toxic effect of cultural change. Consider that American life expectancy declined two years in a row in large part because of deaths of despair — suicide and drug overdoses. We don’t have the final numbers for 2017, but life expectancy is likely to drop for a stunning third straight year — even as the economy booms.
What do wounded people do? They lash out. They react with disproportionate rage. Fears magnify. Anger builds. Tolerance fades.
In a speech late last month, my good friend John Kingston — running for the Senate in Massachusetts — surveyed these statistics and called America “a nation in mourning,” and he’s right. It’s a nation that’s not just mourning lost lives, it’s mourning lost relationships. Fractured families are now a multi-generation challenge, creating immense suffering and limiting economic opportunity. These are big issues, creating wounds that politics can’t heal.
But what do wounded people do? They lash out. They react with disproportionate rage. Fears magnify. Anger builds. Tolerance fades. And we overreact. Women yell at kids. Parents refuse to forgive momentary transgressions. Academics worry that fascism is knocking at the door. American political life grows incrementally more miserable, and the question hangs out there, unanswered: When conflicts ignite, who will be the first to forgive?