“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Increasingly these days I find myself wondering what planet I am living on and how I got here. I look around myself and see few of the familiar landmarks I am expecting. The ones I do recognize have become garish, caricatures of themselves which in many cases represent a complete reversal of the roles they played in orienting my childhood.
Like Alice, I appear to have fallen down a rabbit hole into a new world. And daily, life in Trumpland seems curiouser and curiouser.
When Leaders Were Still Responsible
My childhood was marked by strong leaders in our White House. John Kennedy stared down the Russians intent on creating a nuclear silo in Cuba just 90 miles off our coast coming within a breath of an all-out nuclear exchange. His successor pounded out a whole series of civil rights acts even at the cost of his own personal and his party’s political future. Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, was a consummate foe of communism even as his administration opened the door to thawed relations with Mao’s China and held his nose as the Clean Air Act and Head Start went into effect
They were flawed men, to be certain. Johnson’s obsession with Vietnam would cost thousands of people their lives and damage the lives of many who would survive the war there. Nixon’s obsession with domination of the political process would lead to a administration corrupted to its very core that ultimately imploded in the face of a likely impeachment and removal from office.
But even as the voters held LBJ responsible for his blunders in Southeast Asia and a once-responsible Congress held Nixon accountable for his paranoiac criminal activities, there was still a sense that the American system of government was reliable and the people we chose to lead it were ultimately capable of responding to reason.
Such cannot can be presumed in Trumpland.
My memories of my childhood are marked by ongoing expressions of an obsessive animus toward the Soviet Union and its Stalinist vision of communism. Under a foreign policy whose acronym MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) said everything you needed to know about it, I spent my childhood perpetually on guard for the sirens that might mark the genesis of a world war studded with nuclear mushroom clouds. In such a tense era, anyone who dared to say anything remotely positive about the USSR or any of its so-called “satellite states” was roundly scourged for such impolitic behaviors. They were at best seen as unpatriotic and at worst as outright treasonous.
Few Americans were more scathing in their denunciation of what they called “godless communism” and more dogged in their paranoia regarding anything Russian than America’s white evangelicals. Often conflating “God and country” as if these commodities were somehow interchangeable, they seemed oblivious to the obvious idolatrous implications of such understandings. Evangelical preachers routinely used their bully pulpits to demonize the Russians as pawns of Satan just awaiting a chance to infiltrate American society and cause its internal rot from moral decay.
America had to be constantly vigilant, they told us.
The paranoia about the Russians was hardly limited to government leadership and conservative religion. By the time I reached high school, seniors were required to take a course called Americanism v. Communism in order to graduate.
Less an educational endeavor than a ham-fisted attempt to indoctrinate children whose minds were routinely described in those days as “impressionable,” the course was animated by a great fear that the Communists would weaken us from the inside through the insidious work of “pointy headed liberals” in the academy and the media. The supposed inclinations of this liberal elite toward the Red Tide of communism had rendered them a little red, thus they were called “pinkos.” According to the unquestioned Cold War dogma, the Russians had only to wait until we were sufficiently softened up internally to conquer us through military action externally.
This ongoing Red Scare was rooted in the belief that the Russians ultimately sought to enslave us. Ironically, as we would later find out, that was exactly the same fear Russians had of us.
Before the Cold War was over, it would end up bankrupting the Soviet bloc whose nation-states finally had had enough by the late 1980s. Ironically, the outspending and outlasting of our dreaded adversaries would also bankrupt America. Enormous deficits arose from inordinate spending on costly military toys like a Star Wars system that never worked while cutting the social safety net including mental health services. One of the many pathological results of that approach was the rise of a quasi-permanently homeless population that continues to plague our cities to this day.
Even as America wallowed in self-congratulatory celebrations of “the end of history,” its social institutions from its once envied public education system to its once vaunted interstate highway system began to decline. A once vibrant middle class withered away under policies which favored the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. An income inequality which has marked unstable social systems historically approached and then exceeded the levels preceding the Crash and Great Depression of my parents’ generation.
In the end, those most seriously damaged by this neo-liberal post-cold war orgy which came at their expense would respond by voting Trumpland into being. Thus they insured that the very corporate cronies who already dominated their lives would now have absolutely no checks on their power.
How in the hell did we get here?
Souls for Sale
Today I find myself at the bottom of a rabbit hole in which the world I encounter is decidedly different from the one in which I came to adulthood. Our White House is occupied by the second popular loser in a presidential election in 20 years. We were taught in the American history courses of my youth that such a phenomenon was a fluke and unlikely to ever occur again in our lifetimes. Yet, it has now occurred twice within six elections to the benefit of the same political party.
Our airwaves are daily consumed by the rantings of this popular loser. His regular abuse of social media reveals him to be a pathological narcissist who appears to be suffering from a case of arrested development - if not serious mental instability. His thin-skinned adolescent responses to the media and the members of his own administration are reminiscent of the Red Queen of Carroll’s classic who routinely shouts “Off with their heads!” at those who fail to please her.
I also find myself worrying about those pesky nuclear mushroom clouds again, something I had once thought was relegated to a closed chapter of my life history. Yet, with people around the world I watch this l'enfant terrible in horror wondering how in the hell this man ever got within a White House tour of the access codes to the nuclear football.
Even curiouser, it is the white evangelical “God and country” folks who once demonized the Russian horde who seem most likely to give this moral monster - and his Russian hackers - a pass. In virtually every way imaginable, the Red Queen of Trumpland is the absolute antithesis of who evangelicals have said they were historically.
From his condescension toward women to his demonization of immigrants to his ridiculing of the very disabled human beings Jesus spent his life healing, Donald Trump is the antithesis of the Jesus these evangelicals claim to worship. And yet, they are his most fervent group of supporters.
When one looks closely at them, however, it is hardly Jesus upon whom their worship focuses these days. The recent anthem created for use at First Baptist in Dallas contains lyrics such as “Lift the torch of freedom all across the land. Step into the future joining hand in hand.” These lyrics are talking about a misanthrope who has steadily demeaned and sought to repress the free press and whose hands – when not occupied with female genitalia - would scarcely clasp those of the Mexicans and migrants rebuilding America that he routinely denigrates.
The athem’s title? “Make America Great Again,” Trumpland's campaign slogan.
This rather thoughtless conflation of the deity and the nation-state is reminiscent of many examples in history in which leaders from pharaohs to fuhrers were deified. In each case, the presumption that G-d favored “the people” – always defined in self-serving terms - lasted only so long as the next conquest by those presumed to be outside the pale of divine favor. One cannot help but conjure up images of the prophet Jeremiah pleading with his fellow Judeans to recognize the danger they were in, danger they denied with self-reassurances of divine favor even as the Babylonians who would take them into captivity were pounding at the gates of Jerusalem.
In the second century of the developing Christian tradition, the leaders of Christian communities often described those whose values ran completely counter to the Way of Jesus as “antichrists.” Verily, I tell you as I look around me in Trumpland, if the popular loser in the White House is the antithesis of democracy, his white evangelical supporters are certainly the antitheses of the Way of Jesus. There is no small irony in observing the people who have most fervently kept watch across the horizons for the advent of the AntiChrist so oblivious to the antichrists who have risen among their own ranks.
If all of this were not curious enough, it is the peers of my generation - those of us who completed that AVC course warning us against tyrannical government – who most seem to have lost sight of its lessons. Had anyone even attempted anything during my childhood remotely close to what the Trump boys did in colluding with Russia in this past election, they would have been enroute to federal prison for treason if not facing a lynch mob bearing torches, pitchforks and the flag, all the while mindlessly changing “USA! USA!”. Today, it’s those same fellow Boomers who are willing to give this boy king a pass and explain away his sins as lies and false news.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many Americans obsessed over the possibility that America would become subject to authoritarian rule. We read Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World and told ourselves that it was unthinkable that something so severe could happen in a country which lauded itself as the beacon of freedom and democracy in the world. But in Trumpland 2017, the possibilities that authoritarian rule defending oligarchic privilege at the expense of the vast majority of Americans daily becomes not only possible but perhaps even likely.
Ironically, just our AVC texts had predicted, authoritarian rule won't have to be imposed from without. It is happening exactly as the authors of that well-intended but obviously ineffective AVC course feared it would, rising from within.
And our dreaded tyrant has not come from eastern Europe or China. He comes from a television “reality show” wearing a red baseball cap (made in China, to be sure) reading Make America Great Again. He stands in the shadows of the flags of a vanquished Confederate army borne by self-proclaimed "patriots" and rides a tide of electronic espionage to an electoral victory generated by the very Russia that we were once taught was our greatest enemy.
In 1956, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev warned a roomful of western diplomats of their impending doom: “We will bury you from within!” he shouted. Here, at the bottom of the rabbit hole in Trumpland, 61 years later, it appears Kruschchev may have been right.
But the Russians won’t have to bury us. Sadly, we have proven more than willing to bury ourselves.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston 2017