What follows here is a draft introduction of my next book, American Deliverance: Restoring the American Dream in the Post-Trump Era. I am sharing it with subscribers to provide an historical context and outlook on the question, What now? I hope to have it completed and published before we need it!
American Deliverance: Introduction
I was born in 1957, the peak birth year for Baby Boomers and the year the Soviets launched Sputnik into space which, just thirteen years after vanquishing the fascists of World War II, shocked Americans into the reality that yet another existential threat loomed on the horizon, this time led by the hydrant-sized gap-toothed Nikita Khrushchev. As Elvis Presley’s gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Show blushed the cheeks of women viewers and left network censors chewing the insides of theirs, Dwight Eisenhower, the twelfth and last military general to become president of the United States, began his second term. Although 1957 marked the end of the interregnum of relative tranquility between existential threats—between World War II and the heightening of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union—the late 1950s and early 1960s also thrust the United States from a somewhat clumsy pubescent world power to a full-throated superpower in the international system. The so-called Camelot years of the administration of John Kennedy became the debutante moment for America’s coming-out ascension on the world stage. America’s aspirational hegemony—sometimes real and at other times fantasy—was challenged by the Soviets and their proxy states for the next thirty years. Once Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika—accompanied by Soviet misadventures in Afghanistan— caused the Soviet model to collapse in 1991, America became the world’s lone superpower. What followed was what many historians and political scientists refer to as America’s unipolar moment. With all existential threats once again vanquished, it was up to Americans to lead the world, or to squander its power through fits of hubris and incurious negligence. Unfortunately, the latter prevailed.
America’s external threats, however, like the fascist regimes of the early twentieth century and the Soviet menace that followed, were not the threats that ultimately placed American power in peril. It was the unforced errors of American leadership, the apathy of the American electorate, and fundamental inversions of American values and practices that pushed the United States from its pinnacle of power. In the realm of foreign affairs during America’s superpower era, engaging militarily in Vietnam was the first egregious error. Kennedy and, moreover, Lyndon Johnson, justified U. S. involvement in Vietnam by the simplistic fear of a cascading domino-effect of communism that might somehow propagate to American soil some 8,600 air miles away but which, of course, never made it within 8,500 air miles of reaching American shores (even though the Viet Cong succeeded in running the U.S. out of the country). The second grand mistake in foreign affairs followed the events of 9/11 when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney allowed emotional vengeance in Bush’s case, and a chicken hawk’s romanticized thirst for bloodletting in Cheney’s case, to cast a criminal act—9/11—as an act of war. The power of law enforcement, which would have been supported by most of the world outside of Osama bin Laden’s circle of power, was set aside for neoconservative delusions of American grandeur that resulted in the isolation of the United States from its allies and cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Even today, some fifteen-plus years later, a final accounting of this exercise in imperial overreach cannot be summed. Victory—which was never clearly defined by Bush or Barack Obama—remains an elusive fantasy. These unforced errors are, however, only a part of the story of American decline.
Apathy in American politics is nothing new, although the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era was marked by Americans taking a long—forty-plus year—vacation from politics. Fatigued by the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and by broad cynicism toward government following Watergate, more than half of Americans disengaged from politics. This abdication of civic duty was compounded by the effects of accelerating affluence that lulled Americans into a lethargic state of stewardship of American values. This American stupor also allowed the degradation of traditional Constitutional protections by political maneuvering like the legal (but-not-right) acts of gerrymandering in Congress, and extraordinary rulings by the United States Supreme Court, like Citizens United, that compounded the concentration of power among the moneyed class of American corporatists, including Charles and David Koch. This stupor allowed the future to be directed by the few who remained engaged and enraged; by extremists who seized the levers of power and by those who could afford to purchase even more power. Notwithstanding the apparent progress marked by the election of America’s first African American president, Obama, in 2008, by the elections of 2016 the rudder on America’s ship of liberty was dangling from its hull.
Leadership issues and this general electoral malaise accentuated by rising affluence in the late stages of the twentieth century also compromised three critical American dispositional values that had helped the U.S. rise from ‘The Land of the Free’ following the American Revolutionary War, to ‘The Land of Opportunity” following the Civil War, to its ‘Superpower’ position after World War II. Individualism, or the notion that Americans were possessed of free will and took responsibility for its expression thereof, was replaced by narcissism. Perfectibility, or the idea that Americans always strive to make things better than the way they were found, was exchanged for an adolescent sense of entitlement. And, exceptionalism—the exemplar kind—where Americans attempted to set the example for others to follow, was set aside for hubris. The upheaval associated with flipping these values to their evil-twin modality allowed, among other things, the election of what psychologists have termed the “malignant narcissism” of Donald Trump as president. And, as evidence of the power of the presidency and the servile behaviors of Republicans who controlled Congress, Trump was allowed to inflict much more damage on America and the world than any of his forty-four predecessors.
The question for the post-Trump era is, What now? The broad answer lies in how we address the question, What does it mean to be an American? More specifically, what values do we choose to support moving forward and what is the story they tell about our fundamental identity? In the period of cyclical crisis we emerge from today, the values we embrace and the manner in which we execute them will determine whether America moves forward as the world’s steward of goodwill, or discards its legacy becoming—simply and tragically— the next empire to be tossed into the dustbin of history. The stakes are high and the outcome uncertain. But, as I will argue in what follows here, among the elements of success are: a return to political engagement, most importantly at the state and local level; a commitment to personal and collective moral resilience; and the reconstitution of authenticity and virtue. In short, this is what I refer to as leading from the soul.