On this day before Christmas, I should like to try to come to terms with a problem that has been troubling me for almost a year: how to speak and write about Donald Trump in a manner that expresses my dismay at his fascistic tendencies and the harm he is inflicting on America’s political institutions and culture while at the same time remaining true to the critical stance I have adopted toward this country for the last sixty years of my life.
Let me begin to explain what I mean with one simple example. Increasingly in recent months, mainstream political commentators on cable news programs like MSNBC and CNN have stripped away their cautious professionally neutral language and spoken openly about Trump’s flagrant violation of the norms and traditions of American public life. They appeal to their viewers urgently to defend America’s long tradition as a City Upon a Hill, as a nation born of a faith in freedom, as a society that has since its birth sought to perfect the democratic vision of the Founding Fathers. I applaud the willingness of even Republican commentators to condemn Trump as a fascist, and I hope against hope that their voices will encourage millions of Americans to vote against him and his Republican toadies.
BUT: I do not believe that America is a City Upon a Hill. I do not believe that America is a nation born of a faith in freedom, nor do I believe that America has, since its birth sought to perfect a democratic vision. I have written an entire book arguing that this story of America, articulated in the most influential college American History texts of the twentieth century, is a myth completely in contradiction to the historical truth. Were I to try to utter the condemnations of Trump in the words used by an ever greater chorus of public commentators and intellectuals, those words would stick in my craw, choking me.
And yet, I know quite well that at this moment it is urgently necessary to forge as broad a coalition as possible in opposition to Trump and his enablers. I doubt that such a coalition can be encouraged with complex, nuanced criticisms, challenging the unquestioned faith of those I seek to mobilize in an America that I believe is a fantasy.
Another example: Terrified of the Mueller investigation, Trump has launched an all-out assault on the Federal Bureau of Investigation, an assault that is countered by those same cable news commentators who speak and write in glowing terms of the professionalism, honor, independence, and incorruptibility of career FBI agents. I have great hopes for the Mueller probe, and I view any attempt by Trump to fire Mueller a threat to American democracy.
BUT: I am quite old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover, the Red Scares, the attack on Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the persecution of progressives, and all the other horrors of these noble professionals. How can I vocally defend Mueller against Trump without saying things I know to be false?
A third example: I view Trump’s foreign policy, insofar as he actually has one, as a dangerous embrace of dictators and tyrants and a threat to peace. But every time I hear America described as “the leader of the Free World” and a “champion for democracy” I must struggle with an involuntary urge to throw up. Old as I am, I cannot keep in my mind the list of the democratically chosen governments that America has in my lifetime overthrown or tried to overthrow, starting with the Mossadegh government in Iran when I just was nineteen years old. I first protested publically against one such effort – the bay of Pigs fiasco – fifty-seven years ago. And yet, I really do think that Trump’s chaotic and authoritarian foreign policy is even worse than what has preceded it in the post-World War II world.
So my question for all of you is this: How can I, and others like me, at one and the same time join in a politically effective assault on Trump while remaining true to our admittedly unpopular and contrarian view of America?