The Nation, the Idea and the Will of Good People

(Image: GetUpStudio / iStock / Getty Images Plus)(Image: GetUpStudio / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

This is the first July 4 of the Donald Trump era, and I am at a loss. It hasn’t been six months since his inaugural carnage, and already I feel like I’m a mile underwater with a boulder tied to both feet. You can’t even see the daylight when you’re down this deep. The pressure is crushing, and my lungs are screaming for air.

His every spoken word is a punishing humiliation. “I have, seem to get very high ratings,” he told the Associated Press not long ago. “It’s the highest they’ve ever had. On any, on air, [CBS ‘Face the Nation’ host John] Dickerson had 5.2 million people. It’s the highest for ‘Face the Nation’ or as I call it, ‘Deface the Nation.’ It’s the highest for ‘Deface the Nation’ since the World Trade Center. Since the World Trade Center came down. It’s a tremendous advantage.”

That’s one comment. Just one. In it, he brags about getting high ratings as if he were still a reality TV star instead of the president of the United States before going on to say that getting more viewers than the attacks of September 11 did is a “tremendous advantage.” In the middle, he coughed up that hairball of a joke about the show’s name like a little kid who thinks he just invented something. This kind of thing has been happening every day since he slithered into office, and every time it does, we are all diminished like Donne’s promontory.

Trump didn’t know about all the tax cuts for rich people in the Senate’s latest Affordable Care Act-repeal bill. He believes “internet taxes” exist. He gleefully gives away incredibly sensitive intelligence data to visiting Russian swells while sitting in the Oval Office, and all on camera. He probably couldn’t find North Korea on a map. He leers like a lecher at Irish reporters who are just trying to do their job. Visiting dignitaries and world leaders approach him as if he were a bag of live snakes. The man quite literally appears entirely incapable of shame.

A slice of the population cheers this on because, as Alfred said of the Joker, some just want to see the world burn. He plays to them like the jolly wrecker he is while his friends in Congress conspire to steal as much as they can scrounge for their wealthy benefactors. Whenever his cratering approval ratings have him down in the dumps, he holds medieval pep rallies and whoops it up with stream-of-consciousness gibberish generously flecked with bile.

Thanks to this small fraction of a man, the caricature of dominant US culture that Hunter S. Thompson produced almost 50 years ago is gaining new relevance every day: “We are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”

Donald Trump is our salesman-in-chief, his absurd comb-over a capstone stacked upon the gruesome dark side of our worst collective attributes: Greed, fear, spite, malice, rage, hate, disdain and cheerfully willful ignorance. This is his core essence, and our cross to bear.

I am at a loss, so I choose to take today and ruminate on some beliefs I have held close and dear for a very long time. Here’s what I think; your mileage may vary: The United States is not entirely limited by its history as a settler colony, a dumping ground for England’s poor and unwanted or as a society built on slavery. It’s also more than a geographic location or a place on a rock in space.

The US is indeed all of these things, but it’s also an idea. Some words on old parchment we could choose to live by, created in a time of extreme violence and brutality. The idea began and remains deeply flawed, but it was gifted with the capacity for self-improvement right alongside its capacity for self-destruction. We have seen our fair share of both over the years; for every Dred Scott decision there is a Civil Rights Act, for every Dick Cheney there is an Archibald Cox.

The only thing holding the idea together is the thing that makes it beautiful and so terribly vulnerable: The will of good people to hold to the idea and their desire to let no one be above it or undermine it. If we have that, we can hope for a future that begins to address some of the harms engrained in the founding of the United States. If we lose this idea, we are doomed.

I do not intend to let Donald Trump or anyone else doom that idea, not within reach of my good right arm. It is bigger than he is, bigger than all of us and very much worth fighting for. When I watch my daughter gasp in awe at the bursting colors in the sky tonight, that is what I will be celebrating: A flawed idea with a strong heart, and the will of good people to keep it alive.

Happy Fourth of July.