NOVEMBER 9, 2016. BEGINNING ALL OVER AGAIN
Trump won, against all expectations, and those who thought he was as bad a candidate as the country has ever seen are upset and baffled. The American people ignored the criminality, the narcississm, the sexism, the racism, the frauds, the abuses, indeed embraced it all, as if it were nothing to them, as apparently it was. In favor of what? Climate change? Coziness with Russia? Reckless foreign policy? Who can understand this?
Those at the bottom, apparently. Not the desperate poor at the very bottom who gave up hoping for anything better a long time ago. Not the disenfranchised, the immigrants, the refugees, blacks, Moslems, the chronically ill, the old, and all the other people stuck in the glue of killing defeat. I'm speaking of the adult whites who have lost not just jobs but futures to globalization, automation, and all the other economic forces that beset us, who are watching their lives drift away on the unfavorable tide of history. These are the people, apparently, who turned to Trump to save them, with his border wall and his promise to deport all illegal immigrants, all eleven million of them, and to keep Moslems out of the country, and to bring back American jobs. And in the processs of making those promises he ignored all the Constitutional protections that individuals enjoy in the United States and all the institutional traditions that have proven as well to protect the orderly processes of government, plus he ignored the impossibility of bringing back what has been lost. There was never any mention of how he was going to do these things, never a program, a plan, a strategy. Jobs have in fact been lost to macro-economic forces that nobody has the power to stop. Some of the Constititional protections he said he would destroy, others he simply acted as if he would ignore--in short laying an authoritarian hand over government as if it belonged to him. But it has never belonged to any President, however strong. There are fundamental checks and balances built in, and traditional ways of working in government as well, that are designed to keep situations, and governments, under control. It remains to be seen whether this system will continue to work.
But given the man's record, I'm quite nervous. Not only does he have no actual policy positions, no programs, only bankruptcies and bad behavior behind him, nobody knows what will happen next. His closest advisors are fools and buffoons like Gingrich and Giuliani. His own wife is an illegal immigrant. And this is the "people's choice."
So if this is what the people preferred, it's time to look at the people. Hillary Clinton called them, half of them anyway, a "basket of deplorables." It's a general rule that people get the governments they deserve. The Founders understood this; when Franklin was asked when he walked out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 what kind of government they were making, he famously replied, "A republic, Madam, if you can keep it."
If you can keep it.
And Jefferson saw the import of that, he understood that to be a citizen at all required a level of attention and knowledge on the part of the individual that went well beyond the ordinary, that people needed to be informed, and understand how government worked and to an extent how the world itself worked, in order to be responsible citizens. That citizenship came with responsibilities. That a citizen needed to be involved not only in his professional life, his working life, but in the life of the community and the country, that his opinions had to be as versed in the complexities of issues, in the pros and cons of different courses of action, as time would allow. Jefferson was superbly informed himself; he went out of his way to educate his own family, he founded a University to educate his state, Virgihnia.
That's the ideal, that's what makes a republic work, makes it viable. An informed citizenry. But we have failed, miserably, to make this happen. Our public educational systems no longer require courses in civics that explain the mechanics of government, how laws are passed and the like. Newspapers, even the best, continue to shrink and shrink and lose readership. Other sources of news have lost their sense of public responsibility, of public mission; and news increasingly passes over into entertainment. One consequence is that the whole public realm weakens, a sense of unity, of being part of one people, dissipates, and what divides us does so more and more strongly, more permanently, and we no longer feel like we have one purpose, one identity. As citizens of a particular place and a particular country.
When that goes, we get what we got yesterday. A demagogue for a President.
Republics, to put it another way, are hard work. To keep them going takes a cerrtain amount of wisdom, and that in turn takes an education, it takes knowledge, and not just in school. It takes keeping up with events and their meamings, it means reading about events and their meanings, not just in the papers but in news magazines and even books. It means developing your curiosity. It means in the end getting involved. Especially at the local level, where it's possible to be unusually effective.
For starters, we would have to go back to teaching civics. To teaching history, political history, diplomatic history, all the old-fashioned kinds of history, which educated people like Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and most of the modern Presidents as well. This is what Lincoln read, picking up his education when he could. Now srtudents take something called Social Studies, an umbrella term for intellectual volleyball; toss it, teach the classics. When the country was being created it was reading Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Diderot--the Enlightenment philosophers, and their thoughts thread through the Constitution. It was Voltaire who said, "If you believe absurdities, you will commit atrocities." Right now our own citizens believe the most amazing absurdities, because they don't have the knowledge or even just the information to know better. Thus Donald Trump. He is no better just because he's been elected President. He's only more dangerous.
The idea should be not to dumb down, but to smarten up. The whole culture has to bend its efforts to make this happen, or we are permanently lost.