By David K. Shipler
A measure of a country’s health is its capacity for self-correction. The same holds true of an institution, even of an individual. The test is what happens when behavior departs from a course that is moral, legal, decent, and humane; when it sacrifices long-term vision for instant gratification; indulges in fear and fantasy; abandons truth; oppresses the weak; and promotes cruelty and corruption. The election tomorrow is a test.
An open, pluralistic democracy can reform itself, and the United States has a long history of moral violations followed by corrections--or, at least, a degree of regret. The colonies’ and states’ persecution of religious minorities led to the First Amendment’s provision separating church and state. The atrocities against Native Americans led eventually to more honest teaching of history, although not the compensations for stolen land and destroyed cultures that the victims deserved. The scourge of slavery led to its abolition by the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil War to a stronger (if imperfect) union, the Jim Crow segregationist laws to an uplifting civil rights movement and a wave of anti-discrimination measures by Congress and the courts.
The denial of women’s suffrage was reversed by the Nineteenth Amendment. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was ruled unconstitutional, albeit too late for the prisoners. The character assassinations by Senator Joseph McCarthy of imagined communists, ruining careers and lives, were ultimately repudiated as repugnant and, in themselves, un-American. The illicit FBI and CIA spying on antiwar and other dissident groups led to a series of federal statutes regulating domestic surveillance, although those laws were watered down after 9/11. And most recently, the society’s broad distaste for homosexuality was revised into broad acceptance, including a Supreme Court decision overturning laws against gay marriage.
These and many other issues demonstrate that progress does not move in a straight line. The correction is never quite complete, and there is backsliding. While blacks in the South were once denied the vote by means of poll taxes and literacy tests, Republicans have now employed other means to the same end, purging registration rolls, for example, moving and reducing polling places in minority areas, and discarding registration forms on the basis of flimsy inconsistencies.
But in the long run, when this democracy damages its own interests and others’ well-being, it experiences something of a gravitational pull toward the more solid ground of social justice. That happened in the civil rights movement when the brutality of the segregationists, unleashing dogs, cops, and thugs to attack nonviolent demonstrators, became ugly enough to mobilize the conscience of the country. What will it take to mobilize the conscience today?
Since Donald Trump began campaigning for the presidency, and continuing into his tenure in the White House, he has led the United States down a steep descent. He has played to the bigotry of his base of rightwing extremists and created a tinderbox of domestic terrorism, as Stephen Tankel warns. He has given license to racism and other forms of hatred. He has stoked the flames of grievance and resentment toward nonwhites, immigrants, and others considered outsiders. He has continued the Republicans’ practices of politicizing the courts, thereby undermining that vital branch of government. And now, by sending troops to the Mexican border as props in the midterm election campaign, he has politicized the military as well.
He has lied steadily, created imagined threats, and dragged the Republican Party along with him into abysmal dishonesty. His attacks on the press, aimed at sowing disbelief in accurate reporting, have helped to set the country adrift from factual reality. He has thereby hung a blank canvas on which he can paint any monstrous fantasy that he wishes—and a large minority of Americans will believe him.
He touts himself as a promise-keeper, but he has broken his nation’s promises internationally, on climate, on nuclear nonproliferation, and on trade—and with tariffs has damaged farmers and small businessmen who supported him. He has insulted allies and praised autocrats, who now cite him to justify their oppression. Trump has thereby converted the United States into a model for dictators, not democrats.
The President has dislodged his great country from its pinnacle on the international order—diplomatically, militarily, and economically—into a go-it-alone outlier which will have fewer friends when needed. He has planted the seeds of global collapse into an anarchic array of parochial nationalisms.
Domestically, he is dismantling to an extreme the regulatory mechanisms that have promoted cleaner air, cleaner water, workplace safety, consumer rights, restrictions on harmful chemicals, pharmaceutical oversight, and protections for employees and investors. The radicals in his cabinet have gone far beyond reasonable trims of excessive regulation, and are putting ordinary Americans at risk. His Republican Party has slashed corporate taxes and increased the deficit, pushing up job growth but also injecting what some analysts regard as an unsustainable “sugar high” into the economy and the stock market. He runs the most corrupt government in modern history, self-dealing and using his position to enrich himself and his family. He and the Republicans in Congress continually threaten health benefits under Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Trump has not created anything significant. His new trade deal with Mexico and Canada contain only marginal improvements over NAFTA, which he campaigned to eliminate. He has no new trade agreement with China, and he cast aside the Trans-Pacific pact that would have strengthened American commerce in the region at Chinese expense.
He has done nothing for Israeli-Palestinian peace except antagonize one of the parties, the Palestinians, by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and thereby eliminating the US as an honest broker. He has given Saudi Arabia a blank check in its merciless war in Yemen, bringing widespread starvation to innocents there. In abandoning the nuclear pact with Iran, he has squandered leverage to negotiate an improvement. He has nothing to show for his vaunted summit with the North Korea leader, Kim jung-un, except a suspension of testing and hostile rhetoric, which is all to the good, except that there is no deal to end their nuclear program.
And despite Vladimir Putin’s miscalculation in preferring Trump over Clinton in the 2016 election, Trump’s awed admiration for the Russian leader has not translated into real policy. Trump has simply withdrawn from the 1987 INF treaty restricting intermediate-range nuclear missiles without trying to negotiate a new agreement that would stop Russia’s cheating and include China in a set of restraints.
The one thing that Trump has managed to create is a cult of personality among his followers, to the point of terrifying Republicans who go against him. That has given voters tomorrow little choice of sensible Republicans who would put a check on Trump. Now, only Democrats can do that.
Contrary to some expectations during the 2016 campaign and shortly after his election, Trump has not become a political liability to his party. So he’s made this midterm vote all about him. It will be a referendum of sorts, and therefore a test of whether the country is ready to take a first step in the process of self-correction or will have to continue farther down this path before realizing where it has led.