Although the word “unprecedented” was used constantly in 2016, and though there were many behaviors and statements made that were indeed unprecedented, what was going on—fundamentally—was not. We do this to ourselves about every eighty years. We renegotiate and redefine our answer to the question: What does it mean to be an American?
Toward the end of each American crisis (and we are nearing the end of the fourth American crisis) we define a new identity. After the American Revolution that gave birth to our country, we identified as Land of the Free. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, we became the Land of Opportunity. After the Great Depression and World War II, we became Superpower. Today, as we conclude this crisis—the War on Terror and Great Recession—we have a choice of new identities: Global Stewards or America First.
Global Stewards is the direction President Obama was taking us, and likely would have continued under Hillary Clinton had she been elected. President Trump has proposed a nearly opposite identity in his inaugural address, America First. Trump’s advocated new American identity has visceral appeal to many Americans. It makes folks who feel left behind, or feeling suddenly dispossessed of their position in American social, economic, and political order, empowered, or at least comforted in the moment. It taps resentment of government as its clarion call. It is, however, a diabolical ruse intended to concentrate power in the presidency of Trump without regard to established American values or the rule of law. It is profoundly dangerous.
America First is a fearful, zero-sum, win/lose, and isolationist future for America. It puts America’s position in world order in peril by allowing other powers like China and Russia to move aggressively—both politically and economically—into Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It relies on deceit and divisiveness to exercise power over Americans for the benefit of the very few, represented most obviously in Trump’s selections for his cabinet.
Trump won the presidency not, however, by fear and anger, or even by Mr. Comey or Mr. Putin. He won because too many Americans were complacent or apathetic. Voter turnout and civic engagement operate at pathetic levels in America, but in a democracy you get the government you deserve. Moving forward, many more Americans must take responsibility for themselves, their community, and their country if we are to transcend and defeat the mockery of American values President Trump represents. We must unite and engage with a calm sense of profound resilience if we wish to protect the future of this great nation.