The biblical story of the Golden Calf goes like this: Moses answers God's call to climb Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. He stays on the peak for forty days to hear God's instructions. In the meantime, anxiety and disbelief overtake the people. To quell their fears, Moses' brother Aaron caves to the majority's will to build the Golden Calf, an idol that is anathema to the values they had just pledged to uphold.
As Moses descends the mountain, the two tablets in hand, his assistant Joshua says, "The sound of battle is in the camp." Moses replies, "Not a sound shouting strength nor a sound shouting weakness; a sound of distress do I hear." (Exodus 32:17-18)
There have been many analogies about America and the covenant on Mount Sinai. Signers of the Declaration of Independence and framers of the Constitution felt that these documents -- as well as America's pledge of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- were covenantal in nature; that America represents a calling from God.
Our current political quagmire begs yet another comparison. Donald Trump is the answer not to a sound of strength, nor of weakness, but to a growing and transformative sound of distress. The current answer to distress is to rally around someone who contravenes many of our values -- especially respect, equality and freedom -- that are part of America's covenant. Maybe Donald Trump is America's Golden Calf.
Like with the biblical Golden Calf, this distress is based on some legitimate facts, but not on the rational or reasonable. It is, however, understandable, and its combination of outrage and insecurity is driving our politics. The vulnerable response is to embrace someone who will just make things right, for them, their families and our country.
The slogan "Make America Great Again" fits so perfectly with this troubled atmosphere because it signals to the electorate that: it's not your fault; you're suffering because America is not the America you have believed in. It's the system -- not you -- that is flawed. When we restore the system, all will be good again. This mindset exonerates Americans from responsibility for the way our system operates and the rules we abide by. It places blame simply on the politicians.
Trump himself recently referred to the distress call he answers: "I represent millions of people who feel angry and disenfranchised," he declared on CBS Face the Nation.
The sad story is that the malaise that Trump thrives on has some validity, and the fact is that we all play a part in its making or in making things right again. The problems are cultural and attitudinal, not structural. Wall Street Journal veteran columnist Peggy Noonan calls this syndrome "The Rise of the Unprotected."
"The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful -- those who have power or access to it....Because they are protected they feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality."
The unprotected are Americans with limited resources and limited access to power; those who have suffered under expansive immigration because they work at lower wages and at jobs that can be taken over by immigrants. According to Noonan, they've been ignored, disrespected and disenfranchised.
"The unprotected came to think they owed the establishment -- another word for the protected -- no particular loyalty; no old allegiance. Mr. Trump came from that....This is the terrible feature of our age -- that we are governed by protected people who don't seem to care about their unprotected citizens. And a country really can't continue that way."
There is good reason for the distress of Trump's supporters and why their desperation leads them to take desperate action. Without desperate and drastic action -- personified by their Golden Calf -- they can't envision that the system will change.
Among the unprotected, incomes have become stagnant or gone negative. Two and three jobs -- if they can find them -- don't pay the bills. Unemployment -- although officially at 4.6% -- is more realistically estimated to be 15% or more because so many have given up looking for a job. Corporate CEOs are making more money than ever, especially as compared with their workers' salaries. The stock market -- with its uncertainties and speculation -- is more volatile than ever. Wealth is out of reach.
There are other dysfunctions in a system that can be perceived as not working or rigged, except for the 1%. Corporate America -- motivated by fears of a downturn -- is starting to cut back on its rate of hiring. The efficiency of government to get anything done is problematic. It's not a stretch to surmise that nobody in authority cares anymore.
There's more. Distrust of government -- fueled by a cumulative string of NSA data spying, IRS integrity issues, possible Social Security implosion, and many other concerns -- represent to many a system that disregards Americans and their families. College debt continues to spiral. Disrespect, incivility and negativity dominate popular TV and news shows. Mass shootings seem to happen virtually every week. Workplace bullying is estimated at 35%. Racial and police tensions are real and increasing. Optimism about America is at extremely low levels.
Without reasons to be positive about the future -- about the vitality and reality of the American Dream -- there is credence to the popular distress. Enter Trump as the savior.
But there's a fallacy here. Just as the idol was no substitute for God, Trump is not the answer that will unite us or restore greatness. For that to happen, it will take all of us.
Noonan concludes with a stark warning:
"Social philosophers are always saying the underclass must re-moralize. Maybe it's the overclass that must re-moralize. I don't know if the protected see how serious this moment is, or their role in it."
Actor Louis Gossett, Jr. put it prophetically in a pre-Oscar red carpet interview: "We're not going to get to the Promised Land until we view each other as one family." We're all in this together. Treating each other as we would want to be treated doesn't easily fit onto the front of a hat, but it may very well be the solution that makes America great again!
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org