“We’ll always have Paris.”
Except when we don’t. Except when we stop believing in Americans rolling up shirtsleeves and doing big things. Except when our leadership tucks tail between legs and runs.
I have, in this blogspace and in real life, tried to understand this new America in which we live. A shirking, closing America that is unrecognizable to many–an America that is willing to hand over the mantle of leadership, an America no longer interested in exceptionalism, an America curled around itself like some wounded animal, insular yet dangerous.
I’m wrestling with this animal now.
Many years ago, I was introduced to the concept of globalization through Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree (now, with the benefit of hindsight, I recognize Friedman’s writing as heavy on anecdote, light on research). Reno was booming–the housing market seemed unstoppable, the War on Terror still a year away, and America still seemed ready to tackle the big issues. Through the university, I was unwittingly entering into a specific, privileged meritocratic system. The flow ran through college, Peace Corps, graduate school, Washington, D.C., jobs abroad, and eventual self-employment. I rode a wave of connectivity that crossed borders and languages. I remember an afternoon discussing with colleagues how our graduate program was preparing us to be the leaders of the future, without the self-recognition that our system was both callous and unforgiving to those unable to swim. The infectious whirlpool of D.C. protected us, murmuring, “All is well,” among the rocks.
But globalization, trade, false meritocracy hid a metastasizing cancer. Those left behind by “suits in Washington” were failing. Economies of small towns were collapsing, crushed by a recession abetted by this collusion. Families saw their sons and daughters sent to far-off deserts, coming home at times as broken as our misadventures. Inequality sharpened, and those living gilded lives had little connection with those who made it possible. Seismic shifts occurred in our political parties–conservative fiscal policy also meant aligning oneself with anger and mistrust; liberal social policies necessitated embracing Wall Street and Mammon. The question we in D.C. forgot to ask ourselves was how we allowed ourselves to be fooled that our fellow citizens do not matter.
The cancer bloomed in Donald Trump–a savvy (in his way) charlatan who played on the anger and resentment towards a smarter-than-thou meritocracy. Trump is a new equation, yet we keep thinking we can address his x with our y. Our sycophantic arrangement with Big Business became our undoing–a seamless move in-and-out of the Beltway. We point out that Trump is clearly doing no “draining of swamps” yet those arguments ring hollow when we live in the bog itself. He understands how to market himself as a real agent of change–and sells it with the pugnacity and showmanship that won him the Executive Office. Our indignation at his bull-in-china-shoppery doesn’t win Ekalaka, Montana; his determination to oversee the ebb of American power makes a dangerous sense when that power has concentrated itself far from the plains of Nebraska, the cornfields of Iowa, the mesas of Texas.
Pulling out of the Paris Accords reeks of economic foolishness. Paris forces America to innovate–and innovation has always been America’s selling point. But talking about innovation may not carry the same weight as middle class jobs seem to evaporate. Voters put Trump in charge of change, yet a perversity of immobility locks many into a trap of needing change to come to them. Slogans like “Bring Back our Jobs,” and, “Make America Great Again,” are hearkening back to some imaginary time when everything was just perfect. It’s a grand fairy tale, one to read at night, but is made of the same raw material of all stories: air and dreams.
Yet it is certainly not too late to change the ending. Trump can still be an aberration in America’s Choose Your Own Adventure, where it seems we are about to hit “The End,” only to be rescued by new choices. We can choose classist meritocracies, or we can work to improve the lives of all Americans. We can use Trump’s indecencies to rewrite our understanding of and collaboration with globalization. Progressivism is the birthright of all Americans–a better, more inclusive, more robust nation from Burns, Oregon, to New York City.
I refuse to believe in Trump’s America–closed and cruel. I refuse to believe that his answer is the best we have for those left out. I refuse his dismantling of American leadership, his calculating belief in false economics, his distaste for honesty. And, luckily, I find myself in good company–states whose governments refuse to comply with Trump, businesses seeking balance between profit and the social good, politicians sincerely seeking the betterment of their constituents, but mostly American men and women who refuse to shirk their duty, who believe we can still tackle hard problems, who know–in their very marrow–that these colors don’t run.