While we have been called the United States of America since September 9, 1776, that unity has always been more a dream than a reality. Division has defined us as much as have common goals or views, each period in our history shaped by whether we are led by unifiers or dividers.
The first century of our existence was shape by a divide between the agricultural, slave-holding south and the industrial north. That division produced in the 1860s, the bloodiest war ever known to mankind until that point. While the “Union” forces won, the divisions remained.
Those divisions continue to this day to be manifested as those between rural or less populated America & urban America, between those who believe more in states rights and those who support a stronger federal government, between those who embrace diversity and those frightened by it.
Politicians have sought to capitalize on this from the earliest days of the republic. Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans advocated for states and the agricultural south, Hamiltonian Federalists advocated for a more industrialized vision of America and a stronger central government
The bitter battle over free and slave states, over abolition and ultimately between North and South were shaped by this divide. But even after, Southern Democrats spent years promoting racial division and nationalism until the GOP assumed that role which they maintain to this day.
It is an irony of our time, of course, that the red states that ostensibly reject a strong federal role are the greatest beneficiaries of federal spending but then again, these divisions have always been fueled as much by ignorance and fear of change and political demagoguery as they have been by reason or reality. We have come together as a country in times of crisis, although racial divisions in our society have been reflected by those in our military and in each major conflict profound injustices were done to minority Americans.
We have also benefited together, been strongest when we acted as truly United States, but nonetheless today we find ourselves facing those old divisions again. We have a man as president who is using the powers of his high office to promote racism and hatred of immigrants.
He is fomenting division between red and blue states, between people of color and whites, between racist thugs and their victims…and not coincidentally between the richest Americans and everyone else…because it is a proven technique in America of gaining power.
Sometimes the divisions have been promoted more subtly than they are today…but this is not the first time an advocate of such divisions has held the highest office in the country. And, as has also happened in the past, our enemies abroad are seeking to use our internal conflicts against us. Russia knows that when our divisions drive our decisions we are weakened and they have taken advantage of the openness of our society to foster such divisions. (Note their disinformation attacks not just on behalf of Trump but around racial conflicts, in support of white supremacists & anti-Semites.). In short, the idea of being “United States” has always been aspirational. When we realize it, we flourish. But the centrifugal forces in our society are strong enough to have survived centuries.
While we have never faced a threat from those divisions quite as great as we did during the Civil War, perhaps this moment is as dangerous as any other than that profound national crisis. While past presidents may have been racist or supported institutional racism, Trump is much more overt, much cruder, much more incessant. Racism and division-mongering is much more central to his political message and movement. Further, there are no countervailing forces within his own party as there often have been in the past.
There is no “conscience” of the GOP. The entire party has gone all-in in support of Trump’s vileness, his ethno-nationalist formula to promote strife despite the damage it does to America, because it is good for Trump, good for the GOP and good for their sponsors in the Kremlin.
The fact that the country is also more economically divided than at any time since immediately before the Great Depression and that the 1% have decided they will support a racist in the White House in exchange for lower taxes and less regulation that they will advocate hate if it makes them richer and more powerful than they already are…is as despicable as any aspect of this moment. But we should not underestimate the toll all this takes. There is not just the human cost of hate speech or babies in cages.
There is not just moral damage to our country and our standing in the world. There is also this lingering reality that being “United States” is not a foregone conclusion. Like any marriage, it requires work and our system dies when it is taken for granted.
As we have seen, standards of decency are not automatically upheld. Good does not naturally prevail over evil. Institutions and laws designed to protect the rights and dignities of men and women are easily sidestepped or undercut.
If it suits the powerful,the sinews that bind together our society can be easily cut away. What is more, there are forces deeply ingrained in our society that are like the primordial pressures that build up along the faultlines beneath our feet, that once unleashed can devastate.
Trump and the GOP and the 1% may believe they are getting what they want as they fan the flames of social tension within our society, but these are forces which history have shown can take on a life of their own. They seem to dismiss that. The Kremlin, I think, is counting on it.
We must therefore, do what has been done before. We cannot heal every rift within our society over night. But we must resume that work. We must resume the painstaking job of creating new sinews–of infrastructure, of culture, of law, of tradition, of understanding.
We must gain harness the “angels of our better nature” because if we do not, we leave the battle to be won by the devils who thrive on that which is worst within us. Tragically, dangerously, our president and his party and their sponsors are no longer on the side of those angels that were once invoked by Lincoln. So the battle is going to be tougher. But one thing is certain, absent a real commitment to undercut the power of the dividers in 2020 we will again be at risk of undoing that 243 year old dream of making out of many one.
The story of this moment in our time is that what has been the bedrock of our society is fragile, that what was unthinkable is thinkable, & that there is no enemy so great as complacency or acceptance of those who tap into the power of what is worst in our shared national story.