On January 27, 1838, only weeks before his 29th birthday, in a speech called “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Lincoln warned that the greatest threat to America was, basically, Americans. Any danger America might face, he said, “must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
It would seem that destruction from within is America’s lot. It’s what we do. We’re well over two centuries in and the constant acts of self-harm are now just the injustice du jour.
No matter how angry any act perpetrated by an elected official, cop or corporate executive may make you, to a certain degree, you’ve absorbed the shock and are still operational. I’m not saying you’ve normalized the American Horror Story of the last two years. But you have re-mapped the territory and found your footing.
This constant adaptation to that which must be endured until it can be changed is part and parcel of being American. I’m not talking about the heavy lift of American democracy and the impediments of compromise. I’m talking about the beatings Americans subject themselves to year after year. Creating a perfect killing machine like the AR-15, making it available to people who can’t even set their DVR, and spending millions of dollars to ensure said weapons will be at the ready for the next massacre, might strike many rational people as completely insane. That’s because it is. But it’s also American. Like school shootings, baseball and Fentanyl abuse. No other country plants a tree and painstakingly attends to it until it’s the tallest one in the world, only to render it into millions of clubs to bash the heads in of those who don’t have one.
It’s this premium quality self-sabotage, whisked into the roiling puree of the American identity, that makes progress, at times, impossible. When Trump copped the Reagan-era slogan “make America great again,” he inadvertently started a relevant conversation. It can be argued, “When was America great?” as well as, “When wasn’t it?” The truth is that America’s been both. At the same time. From the beginning.
It seems to be an American habit to remedy a bad situation only when the wrong people finally get caught up in it. Ronald Reagan and his wife were not overtly homophobic. They were quietly and patriotically homophobic.
The HIV virus was something that only affected “those” people. As his administration ignored the problem, millions of people had not an inkling as to the devastating virulence of HIV or the horrific effects of AIDS. Thus the world’s bestest country brought a modern-day plague upon itself, ushering in a new dark age, with all the ignorance you would expect—until Magic Johnson, a legendary heterosexual, contracted HIV.
It was around the mid-1980s when I realized America, while great, was a place I had to survive, protect myself against and sometimes rescue others from. Millions of gun owners never take their weapon out of their homes. When asked why they have a weapon or weapons where they live, they’ll tell you that they are a protective measure against harm from criminals and their own government. This isn’t an evolved point of view as much as a reflexive American reaction to what citizenship entails.
Even though it’s 2019, and even though I’m certain there are more rough times ahead, I will state for the record that I’m living in post-Trump America. Our history proves that America only gets better when what we’re doing to ourselves become so intolerable that even the most accommodating misery sponge has to tap out. America builds big, beautiful walls so everyone who wants to can beat their heads against them — but when those people find out it was an elective all along, things change.
Trump thinks he’s the greatest of the 45 presidents. He’s not, of course, but he might prove to be, albeit unintentionally, one of the most transformative. The rise of women in politics isn’t a bubble. It’s an ascent that will not be stopped. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School inspired more of their peers than Trump could ever hope to. In the decades to come, it will be the kids who hit the streets, protesting for their right to go to school and not be assassinated, that will shape the American landscape, not people in overpriced red baseball caps. It will be non-white Americans elected to political office who value equality and opportunity who will determine the outcome of the American century. Not people howling “Lock her up!” These diverse, game-changing young people are the text; Trump is a footnote.
It took me a few months of Trump’s presidency to realize that his administration was doomed. He was done minutes after he got the keys. Perhaps he knew he could count on the cowardice of the House and Senate majorities to sustain him for awhile. But soon enough, all those members who had supported him could do was look the other way and hide from media inquiry as they prepared their private sector exit strategies.
Perhaps a few of these scoundrels saw this coming, but most probably had no idea they were going to be so complicit in their own takedown, yet another example of the unforced error. It’s the American way.