Trumpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall.

Will America Have a Great Fall?

Daniel Kriegman, Ph.D.

            I vividly remember the day back in middle school when my social studies teacher entered my algebra classroom. With incongruous tears streaming down her normally stern, humorless, and authoritarian face, she told us that President Kennedy had just been assassinated. In the ensuing days, I watched my entire country go into mourning.

The Day After

            The day after the 2016 election, something like that happened again. Almost all of my family, friends, colleagues, and most of my patients (I’m a clinical psychologist) went into shock as if a very close loved one had suddenly died. Unlike the Kennedy assassination that brought my country together, this time, half of America joyfully celebrated what the other half thought was the death of everything that really made America great. Later, I would find out that most of my patients (but by no means all; some voted for Trump) were reeling and struggling to understand why it hurt so much. In this crazy divisiveness that had gripped our country, I understood why it hurt so much: A loved, cherished one had truly died. Would all the king’s horses and all the king’s men be able to put America back together again? 

            No, nothing really changed. The lost loved one had been an illusion. Trump’s election exposed the fact that half of all Americans had no clue about what the founding fathers had created; thus they were willing to sacrifice it in an orgy of frustrated anger. So, nothing that had existed was lost. Rather, there was an awakening from a complacent dream to a harsh reality. Our shared commitment to democratic values was shaky at best; our democracy may be far more fragile than we thought.

What Made America Great

            So, I got to thinking about the nature of the loved one who may have died on election day. This is what I came up with: America was built upon the unifying ideal that liberty and freedom could be shared by diverse groups of humans — humans of different ethnicities, races, and creeds — and that America was a nation that would always stand together for the mutual protection of our lives and those liberties. We were all supposed to believe in and hold sacred the spirit and words of our national anthem and our pledge of allegiance to “one nation,” an “indivisible” republic of “United States” that offered “liberty and justice for all” in “the land of the brave and the home of the free.” Those principles were just an extension of the pledge made by the signers of the Declaration of Independence — a modestly diverse group of white, European men — who pledged their “Lives, Fortunes and sacred Honor” in order to establish and defend their freedom from tyranny.

            You see, the Declaration of Independence was a suicide pact. It was an act of treason that once signed and promulgated could never be taken back. The signers knew that their property would be confiscated and they would be hanged if they lost the revolutionary war. It was in the coming together from the thirteen distant colonies and signing that pact — a pact that they knew would have to be defended with their very lives — that they created the United States of America.

Abraham Lincoln

First Inaugural Address

Monday, March 4, 1861

[The South had seceded and Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the first President of the Confederacy two weeks earlier. Lincoln understood the inviolate, sacred pact that had formed the Union. Though he was the head of the anti-slavery Republican party, the newly elected President of the United States was trying to avoid a civil war.]

      Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. ...
      It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our National Constitution. During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens have in succession administered the executive branch of the Government. They have conducted it through many perils, and generally with great success. Yet, with all this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.
      I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever ...
      Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it—break it, so to speak—but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?
      Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. ... And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."
      But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.
      It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.
      I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. ... I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
      In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.
      While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years. ...
      In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."
      I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

            Yes it’s true that quite a few of those who signed the declaration that “all men were created equal [and] were endowed by their Creator with ... unalienable Rights [that include] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” were slave owners who had the power to treat living human beings as if they were domestic animals and to use them as sexual toys. As repugnant as slavery was to some of the signers, they did not use the word “men” to refer to those of recent African descent,* not to mention the notion that women might also enjoy such rights.

            So the Declaration was surely an imperfect document. In order for its ideals to be actualized, there would have to be major elaborations of the underlying principles over the ensuing centuries. And those improvements required great struggle and enormous sacrifice. The bloodiest war in American history, the Civil War, was fought to reaffirm that sacrosanct pact — the irrevocable pledge of the signers’ property, honor, and their very lives — that created the indissoluble union, and to simultaneously force an end to slavery throughout the land. It’s true that even that war didn’t come close to creating racial equality; we know that racist policies and laws made true emancipation and the extension of equal rights to all of our citizens a very slow process. Today that process is not complete; racism, sexism, and all sorts of sexual phobias remain problems that are still being resolved.

            But the distance we have traveled in establishing liberty and justice for all is rather remarkable. With Barack Hussein Obama’s election and reelection (with a majority of the popular vote), I’d say it is astonishing. This journey that the United States has been on from idealized words to true freedom and justice for all is what made America a truly great nation. And it is something that those who were bamboozled by the slogan “Make America Great Again” did not understand. America was great. It was (and so far, still is) the greatest nation in all of human history. Today, thanks to the election of Donald Trump — which was predicated upon divisiveness and thus undermined the foundational principle that “united we stand; divided we fall” — it is less great. With renewed effort it can again be a shining beacon to all the world of how a diverse nation without a single, shared religion, a multi-racial land with a wide variety of ethnic groups can work to become united in defense of freedom, justice, and liberty for all.

Models for Sharing Planet Earth

            You see, this is what the world, the planet earth must do if we are ever to live in peace on this crowded planet. And America was alone and unique among all nations in the continuous evolution of a highly diverse coalition of human beings toward freedom and dignity for all of its citizens — even those who are not like us. That is what made America worth pledging our honor and lives to defend. We stand together, united in defense of liberty for all of our citizens; without such a vigorous, united defense, history tells us that freedom inevitably falls.

            There has simply never been as diverse a nation as the United States that has continuously evolved toward increasing the freedom and respect for the lives of all of its men, women, and children. Humans have always fought for their tribe, their race and ethnic group, their religion. But the fight for the principle of freedom and liberty for all, even those unlike us, was the unique (and initially far from perfect) invention of the founding fathers. Today, we watch as the European attempt at union starts to unravel as they struggle to cope with the conflicts caused by different races, religions, and ethnicities entering their midst. And on election day, we watched half of America reject the essence of what made America great.

The America that Was

            When I was growing up in the 1950s, America was united. We had just fought and won the most horrific war in human history. While we had very rich and very poor people in our land, the obscene level of wealth inequality we see today did not exist. CEOs made 20 times what their workers made. Today they make 300 times what the average worker gets. A typical, working man could earn enough to support a family on his salary alone. We had created Medicare and Social Security to protect our citizens in their old age. We were starting to act like a truly united tribe that took care of its members. We all watched the same television programs and listened to the same newscasts.

            Or so it seemed to me as I grew up. Eventually I learned that this prosperity and unity applied to most Americans as long as they looked more or less like white Europeans. I had no idea that my Jewish parents would not have been shown houses in the other parts of my town on Long Island when they bought our home. And I had no notion of what black people continued to endure; if I remember correctly, there may have been as many as one black student in my highschool class of about 500.

            In those days, in the South there were separate facilities for blacks and whites. Growing up in a suburb of New York City, I didn’t see that. But I also never saw an interracial couple on TV. Black and white men and women never touched one another unless the story was about a black man raping a white woman. Blacks had only recently been allowed to play major league sports.

             Yes, today America still has racial problems. But if you understand what America has continuously struggled to stand for — the ideals embryonically embodied in the Declaration of Independence — you have to be amazed and proud about how far we’ve come. Just watch a football game. Teams that win are teams that are united. We now have black quarterbacks and coaches. Black and white men constantly embrace one another in demonstrations of triumphant victory. This was unheard of when I was a small boy, which was when the military was just starting to integrate its fighting units. Today, the bands of brothers who put their lives on the line for one another in defense of our great nation include men and women of all races, creeds, and sexual orientations.

Beyond Homogeneous Tribalism

            You see, it is not all that amazing or unusual for a tribe with a shared racial identity, ethnicity, language, and religion to stand together. Indeed, that is human history; tribes and later cities and nations of homogeneous people stood together to fight violent conflicts with other human groups. Europe is a place where boundaries have been largely drawn around racially homogeneous tribal groups with shared religions, customs, and languages. That explains (1) why European nations have, until fairly recently, continually been at war over their boundaries and sovereignty, and (2) why almost all European nations developed universal health care and a much stronger social, safety net for their citizens. In diverse America, it still remains a struggle to get everyone to agree to provide basic health care to all of its citizens.

            Yet this is what the founding fathers understood: In order to protect our freedom, we need to be united in our mutual defense. But because we were already a land of diverse religious beliefs and values, the union had to be about something other than a shared religion. So the founding fathers focused on an ideal, freedom. While this was intended to protect religion — for religious freedom has been one of the most basic and fragile freedoms in all of human history — the universal principle that united the states was not based on any particular religion. This union around something other than a religio-ethnic identity was something that had never been done before.

            Religious freedom and the separation of church and state became issues after the decision to unite. The colonies already had significantly different religious notions and identities and challenges from one religious notion to another became more problematic after the union of the different states was formed (and later, when large groups of immigrants came over to live in states that had mostly homogeneous religious identities, for example Catholics coming to Protestant Boston). The English king had granted the colonies charters to establish their own ethno-religious enclaves. Thus, they already had a version of what would later be called “states’ rights.” While the freedoms and rights the colonies were uniting to defend only extended to white, European males, the founding fathers who negotiated the Declaration of Independence did not see themselves as a homogeneous group. They had to enshrine the separation of church and state as a basic principle in order to protect their religious freedoms once they joined together states with conflicting religious beliefs.

            So what freedom made them want to do that? It was in large part economic freedom. Without economic freedom — the freedom to control and use resources necessary for the expression of all other freedoms; the ability to reap the benefits of one's labors — there can be no freedom. Taxation without representation is tyranny. It’s not mere happenstance that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were wealthy landowners or businessmen or were representing such men back in their colonies. It was the economy, stupid. Without any voice, these colonists were told to pay tribute to a faraway king who would protect them and maintain civil order — or not — as he saw fit. If they protested or made any demands to be heard, they were often hanged. They were also conscripted and kidnapped into service in the wars that the king was fighting. It was a protection racket and the tyranny such rackets entail that the colonists revolted against.

After World War II

            Because of the enormous resources and opportunities in the genocidally emptied land and the relative lack of European-style, ongoing, devastating international conflicts, America eventually became the undisputed, richest and most powerful nation on earth. After WWII — and after union struggles to rest a decent deal from the wealthy — an unskilled, uneducated, white, American male could work a tolerable 40 hour week and support his family. Meanwhile, most of the rest of world was living in poverty. But America was where things were produced and consumed. Much of the production and most of the market were both in the same land. So there was little competition and an unskilled worker with no training could take his place on the union protected assembly line and live a life richer in health and wealth than most human beings who had ever lived.

            With the advent of cheap, large-scale transportation and telecommunications, however, goods could be manufactured anywhere in the world and shipped to the American and emerging First World European and Asian markets. The unskilled, middle class jobs began to be moved to Third World countries where they could be performed by horrifically overworked and mistreated people earning subsistence wages. Over the last 40 years, with increasing civil rights allowing people of color to compete for the better jobs, along with the automation of such jobs and their continued geographical movement, the white, middle class began to be squeezed. Hard. With women entering the workforce, middle class wealth could be maintained, but it took much more labor to do so. So, the kids were put in day care, women went to work outside the home, and with two salaries, the middle class struggled to maintain their standard of living.

            As automation and outsourcing became more and more efficient, the income from doubling the number of paid hours worked by a family was eroded. The middle class was starting to come apart at the seams.

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            While it is always important to be able to see the humor even in a tragic situation, the pain in the heartland was real and deep. Even though poor Americans still had it better than most of the world, the narcissistic injury of losing ground and not being able to see a secure future for oneself and one's children, the end of "the American Dream," was simply excruciating. The Democratic coasts and big cities, where the corporate managers, owners, and their middle class servants (like me) lived, didn't feel the brunt of the pain. And we couldn't believe that people would really fall for the hateful rhetoric spewing out of The Donald. We were oblivious to the suffering.

            Meanwhile, the top managers of the corporations and their stockholders were reaping the enormous benefits of greater and greater productivity and profits while employing fewer and fewer decently paid workers. So, while the middle class in the First World struggled, the top corporate managers and owners were getting richer and richer. Today the wealthiest 1% own more than half of planet earth, that is, more than the 99%. Another way to look at that is that the 8 (yes, eight) richest people own more than the poorest half, more than 3.6 billion people!

            So, how do today’s politicians — who are beholden to the people with money and power — sell this absurd state of affairs to the masses? The problem is them. The problem is foreigners working for nothing overseas or coming to our land; either way, they’re taking our jobs. It has nothing to do with artificial intelligence and automation (which are more and more rapidly replacing most human labor). It has nothing to do with the fact that the greater productivity and wealth being generated by technological advances and globalization are disproportionately going to the top 1%. Trump is so good at this snow job that he can look his followers directly in the eye as he brazenly calls for further tax breaks on the richest of the rich while invoking the thoroughly discredited notion of trickle down economics.

            And it worked. Trump was (supposedly, we can’t be sure since he is still hiding his tax returns) one of the billionaire “winners.” He (along with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the Koch brothers’ Tea Party) simply hoodwinked the conservative, white “losers.” Right in front of everyone’s eyes, winners like Trump have been taking ownership of most of America — its resources, property, and productivity — while blaming the lost economic security of the middle class on them, the others who are not like you. In order to carry out this heist in broad daylight, they had to undermine America’s great principle of unity in defense of liberty.

            To a very real degree, the 2016 election took the United States of America apart. America is less great than it was. It’s up to those of us who understand this to put her back together again.

             ---------------------------

            *Apparently, all human beings are African descendants as our species originated in Africa.




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