Let’s finish the fight. Let’s reclaim our heritage and fix our future. Let’s set our eyes on the next America.
As I watched the empty, fragile, flaccid, and Covid-infected man that is our 45th president attempt to bully his way past Joe Biden in the debate, then rescue his deluded self-conception as a modern-day Mussolini saluting Marine One (or the lawn?) from the south portico of the White House, I felt the week’s images captured perfectly and poignantly the state of our country. In a word: pathetic. An empire rotting from the center of its power—the White House.
How far we have fallen in just four years. I have studied leadership, taught it, written about it, and advised and led a number of companies. More books have been written about Lincoln than any other president—for his character and leadership. The same will occur for Trump—for his cruelty and failures. Trump’s presidency will, for many years to come, provide a vast array of abject lessons of failed leadership. Just when you think he couldn’t screw things up any worse, he consistently surprises us—to the downside. Clearly, the only thing that has sharpened his mind in the last several weeks is the prospect of jail time. Unfortunately, this acuity has set him on a more aggressive course of destroying America.
Like many of you, I have been down all the rabbit holes to examine what happens with a contested election (which Bill Barr is pursuing aggressively as I write). It is ugly, to say the least. In the wildest paranoid nightmares of our founders, none of them imagined a president could be this horrific. And while it is possible Trump and Barr will be able to prolong their defeat, I have confidence our collective outrage will produce the landslide we need to bury the Trump administration and its many enablers under an impenetrable pile of rubble. On January 20, 2021, the next America will begin.
For decades upon decades, Americans have met crisis after crisis and have succeeded in lurching, chaotically forward, to a more perfect union. We will never achieve perfection; that much is certain. But the promise of a better future always resides in the striving. Is it really worse today than when Washington and his too-few troops froze their asses off to cross the Delaware River to confront Hessian forces, who were sure to kill them and crush the revolution? Or, when Lincoln—addled by depression—quickly pivoted to fund the construction of the transcontinental railroad to the west fearing the South and the Union were lost? Or, when the country had more soup lines and Hoovervilles than McDonalds and McMansions, and Hitler’s reign of unspeakable horrors descended upon the world?
It always seems worse in the present—as if we are special in our suffering—but is it? The simple truth is this: chaos, corruption, and dishonesty—the touchstones of Donald Trump—were never sustainable. Nightmares end. He is a monstrous stain on the presidency of the United States, but we are on the brink of expelling him and his sycophants forever. (Stay well Joe and Kamala.)
We have choices and our time for choosing is approaching. We will, as we have near the end of each American crisis, emerge with a new answer to the question: What does it mean to be an American? As Trump trades in his extra-extra-long belly-concealing ties for prison stripes, so too will his toxic conception of “America First” loose its gold-flake luster like a diploma from Trump University. As with everything he touches or conceives, the substance is little more than bad hair glued to an empty orb. Bowling balls have more character and competence. At least they know where they are going. So, what will our answer be? What will our next identity be?
No longer superpower, at least not in the tradition defined in terms of the Cold War. Nor do I believe it will be what Obama was pursuing: global stewardship. “Global” is a bit ambitious given the state of our current union that still has immigrant children locked in cages, supremacists masquerading as law enforcement, and the worst response to Covid-19 anywhere in the world. Still, we can aspire to something greater even as we clean up Trump’s tempest of terror. It is time to lift our eyes and assert our will. I propose enlightenment and exceptionalism.
Enlightened exceptionalists (EEs) are more inclined toward reason than faith; toward knowledge rather than beliefs. They borrow the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress from the Age of Enlightenment that preceded the founding of the United States and proceed with a temperament of exceptionalism that holds integrity and virtue as paramount standards of behavior.
For EEs, the Age of Deceit that spanned from the War in Iraq through Trump must be put asunder. As Americans, EEs believe it is our duty to lead the world through its most difficult challenges, starting with climate change that although a technological challenge, is an even greater economic and political challenge. The world expects America to lead, and addressing climate change for the benefit of all the world is a fast-track back to American credibility.
For EEs, the American Probity Values of responsible individualism, exemplar exceptionalism, and perfectibility—leaving things better than we found them— must again be the defining standards of Americanism. EEs do not see races, religions, ethnicities or nationalities; they see humans who each are deserving of dignity and respect. They understand that the lessons of failure pave the way toward success at home and abroad and that America’s greatest strength lies in the unification of a diverse peoples who each have the capacity to make meaningful contributions to the future of humankind.
EEs believe that E Pluribus Unum—”Out of Many, One”—must once again supplant “In God We Trust” as America’s clarion call of the nation. They believe in referent power—the kind granted through service rather than imposed through coercion. EEs seek to build bridges rather than walls, but also believe that while at times people must migrate to escape peril, the greatest successes are achieved when people thrive within their own homeland and particular cultures and, moreover, that the burden of climate, economic, and personal insecurities must be addressed within the ethos of reciprocation: wanting for others what we want for ourselves.
EEs believe that while capitalism has proven to be the greatest model of wealth creation ever conceived in history, its endgame that produces high concentrations of wealth have the potential to weaken democracies and liberal institutions allowing the rise of plutocracies and other authoritarian regimes that may, in the end, create widespread conflict placing fundamental human rights and welfare in great jeopardy. Preserving the benefits of capitalism while affecting the security of democracies and human rights from concentrated wealth is second only to climate change on the EEs list of most pressing issues.
EEs have little interest in having a high profile or participating in social media; they prefer anonymity to celebrity. They are truth-seekers and problem solvers. They have a plus-sum, win-win mentality. Finally, EEs are committed to the long-game; short-term gains are always welcome as long as they provide the building blocks to long-term gains creating strategic victories that address a myriad of issues and objectives. Big problems like climate change and the concentration of wealth are, by definition, big, because they subsume so many other smaller problems and issues. This is an example of enlightened exceptionalism: embracing empiricism and reason to guide the application of resources toward their highest and best use for the benefit of the many—perhaps all of humankind. EEs occupy the transcendent center of the American political spectrum; politically engaged but staunchly non-partisan.
Whatever your concept of the next America, this much is clear: your participation is your passport to a better tomorrow. As Wallace Stegner argued, “culture is like a pyramid to which each of us brings a stone.” Go get your stone. Our time is nigh. It is time to dream again.