The Republican National Convention now is over, and Donald Trump's vision for America now could not be more clear.
News accounts describe that vision as being "dark," "apocalyptic," or "frightening." But this is one case where the messenger's lack of credibility should not tarnish the message. America is in deep trouble, and the nomination of Donald Trump is only the most recent confirmation. There are others. The most serious other signs of serious trouble on the American horizon, though, somehow did not get mentioned in his speech:
- Over 600,000 bridges in the United States are structurally unsound or functionally obsolete
- We spend 65% less than we need to each year to keep up with tens of billions of dollars in necessary road maintenance
- Water, natural gas, and electrical infrastructure in the U.S. is decades old--in some cases over a century old--and will require trillions of dollars to repair and upgrade
- Necessary entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security can be fixed but remain unfunded, while as each day goes by they grow harder to shore up and the promise to my generation gets harder to keep
Those are only a few.
Yes, it's true crime has ticked up by some measures. Yes, it's true that terrorism is a (statistically very small) problem (though ISIS is now in retreat and some analysts believe it will be gone by this time next year). But there is one thing in Trump's speech that I want to focus on. Even if it is patently absurd to say that the President has divided us by race and color, Trump is correct that we are divided.
It is our divisions that give Trump strength, and it is our divisions that lie at the root of all of our real problems. The meeting of those two facts can tell us what is essential to understand in 2016.
Our most serious problems are self-made problems. And, when I say 'self-made,' I do not mean politicians or some abstract 'America.' I mean you, dear reader. I mean the person you said 'Good morning' to and the person you'll ask to pass the salt at dinner. I mean all of us.
WE have made this mess, and to support Trump or to vote for him is not to solve the problem. It is to chase the same rabbit deeper down the same hole.
What a reassuring thing to hear--"I alone can fix it." If we just elect this one man, cast just one vote, all our problems will melt away, "Beginning on January 20, 2017."
Happily, our Constitution doesn't permit any such thing. But that doesn't seem to have stopped many people from believing it.
Worse, we have been believing in magical solutions like that for a long time. We want someone to push a button and fix it, whether his name is Nixon or Reagan or Clinton or Obama. Slowly, across decades, we have been abandoning our own responsibility for politics and governing, turning more and more to the leader who will save us instead of doing the hard work to save ourselves under a system of government that entrusts that duty to us as a free people.
The biggest problem with American government today is not that is does not represent us. The biggest problem is that it does. And, much too well.
American government represents our selfish refusal to pay for anything we don't personally benefit from directly. American government represents our entrenched polarization and its my-way-or-the-highway attitude about compromise. American government reflects our simple ignorance about the institutions of government and the political process. American government reflects our determined refusal to treat complicated problems like they are complicated.
We the People demand all of that.
Why is it that our government has permitted our entitlement programs to get so far out of hand, our roads and basic infrastructure to deteriorate? Why is there a crisis in America? Why do we seem to be in decline?
WE wouldn't let government fix it. It's just as simple as that.
We could accept higher taxes and lower benefits. We'd still be among the least taxed advanced economies in the world, and still the wealthiest economy in the world. But.... no.
We could make some adjustments to the profligate ways that we live to ensure the stability of our economy and our natural environment for the future. But.... no.
We could entertain the idea that it's not possible for our political opponents to be 100% wrong all the time about everything. But.... no.
We could read deeply and widely on our own time to understand the complex world we live in and shape our expectations of education to form citizens who would and could do that. But.... no.
So what we get is Trump.
The truth of politics, especially American politics, is that progress and any change demands hard work and sacrifice from all of us. Hard work and sacrifice, that is, to forge compromise and overcome disagreements. When we won't do that work, when we divide along party lines, shout our disagreements at one another, that's easy and it does nothing to solve real problems.
Our simplified expectations and schoolyard foodfights now have come dangerously close to deeply disfiguring our political community. We are on the edge of something bad.
And, I should be clear. It's not Trump. He's not the problem. WE are. We made Trump. Trump is a charlatan, a huckster, an opportunist. He saw his chance, he seized it. But we gave him that chance.
It has happened before that a free people found their freedom too demanding and too burdensome, and so turned to a charismatic leader. It has happened so much that our Founding Fathers warned us about it repeatedly, built that fear into the Constitution. But it still can happen. This is what it looks like.
But when it happens, don't blame Trump. Take a good, long look in a nearby mirror. You'll find the cause there.