Where Does America Go Now: A Farewell Letter To My Readers

Republican U.S. president-elect Donald Trump stands wife Melania and family at his election night rally in Manhattan, New Yor
Republican U.S. president-elect Donald Trump stands wife Melania and family at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Dear Readers,

For the last 14 months, I have written at least weekly about the candidates, the campaign and the pressing issues raised by this turbulent political season. I'm very grateful to The Huffington Post for this privilege, and to all those who read and often commented on what I had to say. So this letter is my way of saying thanks.

First, however, I want to reflect on what this election means and -- especially -- the defining choices we now face about what kind of country we want to be.

Donald Trump is now our president-elect. Our institutions and founding ideals will be tested as never in our lifetime. The election of an unstable and unqualified demagogue signals the beginning of a sustained national ordeal which will require the best from our leaders and ourselves. But unlike the times in our history when were tested by foreign wars or economic crises, we have no common understanding of the challenges ahead -- which, though unknown in their particulars, are suggested by the fissures which brought us to this moment.

The rancorous and divisive campaign which gave us Donald Trump has driven home some dire lessons. The Trump campaign was not a program -- it was a desperate, last-ditch cry for something different. All too many Americans are alienated from their fellow Americans and from the government which exists to serve them. All too many face the future with a sense of anger and betrayal or, as enervating, a helpless, hopeless impotence. All too many doubt that we can escape political paralysis, or partisan blame -- shifting where a cacophony of voices shout past each other.

Those voices include our media. In better times, the established print or broadcast outlets served as a kind of informational glue, the principal means through which most Americans sort out their political choices. But the destructive path of this campaign caught traditional journalism in its vortex. So it is well to consider its role in Trump's rise; the way his candidacy challenged its practices and traditions; the degree of damage he has already inflicted on its credibility; and whether and how it can still inform our national dialogue.

A September 2016 article by Frank Newport of Gallup describes how -- at least until the campaign's latter stages -- the media enabled Trump over Clinton, while slighting the issues at stake in our choice of the next president. Writes Newport:

With a few exceptions... Americans have little recall of reading, hearing, or seeing information about the policies of the presidential candidates or their positions on issues. Our research shows instead that in the case of Mr. Trump, Americans monitor his statements, his accusations, his travel and his events... [I]n the case of Mrs. Clinton they report mainly hearing about her past behavior, her character and, most recently, her health.

In short, the media at large emphasized Trump's entertainment value over his character or positions. By doing so, it normalized him, particularly during the primary season, obscuring his ignorance, demagoguery, mendacity and total lack of qualifications to be president. This was Joseph McCarthy's ideal, the media as megaphone.

But like McCarthy, Trump presented unique and troubling challenges to journalistic integrity. Over time it became ever more inescapable that this potential president was a shameless, incessant and blatant liar and, in all likelihood, emotionally disturbed.

Thus our most principled media faced two excruciating ethical questions: At what point does a candidate's falsehoods become so constant and pervasive that it is insufficient to report them without comment? And when do his repeated behaviors suggest an emotional dislocation so potentially dangerous that it does not suffice simply to record each behavior in isolation?

As Edward R Murrow demonstrated during the McCarthy era, there are times when strict journalistic neutrality serves neither truth nor decency. One year into Trump's candidacy, a handful of commentators began remarking on the mounting evidence of his psychological instability. And in September 2016, his mendacious press conference blaming Hillary Clinton for initiating the birther slur at last provoked the New York Times to catalog and label his stunning sequence of untruths for precisely what they were.

This corrective was imperative -- Trump brought this rigor upon himself. But like so much about him, it has come at a cost to us all. With his usual projection, he used the "dishonest media" as a foil to stir his followers' outrage. As president, his own outrage and intolerance of criticism may pose real dangers to journalistic independence. And so, in a country which more than ever needs honest journalism to provoke thought and conversation, honest journalism has become ever more discredited, and truth ever more subjective.

All this raises a profound question for a country as roiled as ours: On what basis will Americans relate to each other, and how will we resolve the challenges which, whether we like it or not, all of us face in common? Our answer -- for better or worse -- will define our common future.

America is now a multiracial and multicultural society. We see it in our streets, our electorate, on the internet, and on our screens. We see it in our current president.

But the election of Donald Trump arose, in good measure, from the tensions, fears and tragedies spawned by racial and social difference. These not only affects the justice system, but how different Americans view it. As but one example, the rates of incarceration for whites and nonwhites vary widely. Do we see this simply as reflecting criminal activity among particular groups? Or do we ask ourselves whether our laws, and our legal system, help drive this disparity?

Officer-involved shootings of African-Americans raise similar questions. Will we recognize that the facts of such shootings are often painfully particular? Will we acknowledge that, nonetheless, all too often blacks die the hands of police when whites would not? Will we render judgment based on pre-existing prisms -- that we must protect our police, or prosecute racism -- without caring whether, in any given case, which imperative most applies? What role will a President Trump play in how we respond to the ongoing trials of race?

These questions are seminal, and raise other pervasive concerns about the role of race in our society -- including, critically, with respect to voting rights, racial and religious diversity, and economic and educational opportunity. We cannot ignore them, for they will not ignore us.

For the passions which drove the Trump campaign are not simply -- or even primarily -- about economics. They also stemmed from deeply rooted white discomfort with, and fear of, the racial or religious "other" -- blacks, Hispanics and Muslims -- whether seen as criminals, terrorists or symbols of societal change and social displacement.

This helped define the campaign of 2016. Racial animus against Barack Obama fueled Trump's entrée into presidential politics, the birther movement -- were it otherwise, the Canadian-born Ted Cruz would have no place in the Republican Party. The principal engine of Trump's campaign was anti-immigrant sentiment, whether aimed at undocumented Mexicans -- the scapegoats of his calls for massive deportation and the Wall -- or Syrian refugees and other Muslims from abroad. And Trump and his party waged a multifaceted war against minority voting, both through bogus charges of voter fraud and cynical laws designed to deny the franchise to African-Americans and the poor.

The truth is inescapable -- fear of the other was Trump's political petri dish. Though millions of diverse Americans opposed him, he as now become -- at great cost to us here and abroad -- America's human symbol to the world. Around the globe we have shaken allies, tarnished our self-professed ideals and, quite possibly, forfeited our preeminent place -- it is hard to gauge the full damage to our standing in the world. And at home, the racial and religious discord he exploited is now ours to deal with, far more toxic for his efforts.

Add to this the rocket fuel of paranoia and distrust. In Trump's world, every one of our institutions is incompetent, dishonest or corrupt, if not part of a sinister conspiracy: government, the media, our electoral machinery, and our political parties. In his telling, there is nothing left for anyone to believe in save Trump himself.

In the process, he waged a scorched earth campaign against civil society itself. He trafficked in insults and lies, vilifying his opponents and degrading the standards of political dialogue in a way not easily repaired. By his vile words and actions, he lowered our sense of collective and personal decency, whether in our leaders, our society, or ourselves. Again and again, he asked Americans to believe that the electoral process was rigged against him, that minorities were engaged in massive voter fraud, that the media was conspiring to take him down, and that all those who opposed him were enemies of all they held dear. The damage to our societal mosaic is not easily repaired.

Many will be tempted by the siren song of complacency, the belief that Trump is sui generis. Others will dismiss his voters as worthy of our anger and contempt, but not our interest or concern. Both errors are dangerous to our future.

For Trump is not a bizarre aberration, a celebrity who inhabited a political party by sweeping a weak and divided field. He rose because millions of angry or terrified blue-collar workers believe that America has betrayed them. That feeling is neither transient or incomprehensible. So we must look through their anger to see, and address, the reasons for it.

A changing economy has left them adrift in a country which, in their view, no longer respects or even hears them. Their dislocation is real -- and, to many of us, invisible. Instinctively grasping their desperation for change, Trump presented himself as the one leader who saw them. So when he conjured an economic revival from a compound of protectionism and racism, they listened.

Here, the GOP must search its soul. Both parties have their share of bigots; all of us harbor bias in some form or another. But Trump did not import racial animus to the Republican Party. Its antecedents include the massive migration of southern whites in reaction to the civil rights bills of the 1960s; the GOP's adamant opposition to any form of racial preferences; the hostility toward Hispanics which began 20 years ago in California; the party's efforts to weaken the voting rights act; its bogus voter fraud bills aimed at suppressing minority voting.

This history cannot be dismissed. And it merges with efforts by some within a fractured and incoherent party to distract blue-collar Americans with race -- flavored tropes which blame their travails on the government, instead of honestly addressing their real problems -- the very stratagem which gave us Trump.

As to those problems, both parties need to do better. Trafficking in the false promises of Trumpism -- trade wars to repeal the global economy, or magically restoring jobs lost to automation and globalization -- will only deepen the sense of betrayal and alienation among blue-collar workers. The path to hope must be grounded in reality: infrastructure programs, job retraining and education for the new economy, and help in moving to where the work is.

Too many Americans -- white and non-white -- are hurting. Too many kids lack the educational opportunity enjoyed by the children of affluence. Too many young people must choose between crushing debt and forgoing college. Trump's witchcraft must be replaced by a real commitment to create much more opportunity for many more Americans, enriching our societal talent pool while lessening social and racial friction.

The question is this: Do we as a society, including those we choose to lead us, have the will -- and the goodwill -- to act?

The the answer, I suggest, depends on how Americans resolve our relationship to our government and to each other.

The rise of Donald Trump illustrates the degree to which our political parties are deepening the divide of class, race, religion and locality. The Democratic Party includes minorities, the better educated, and the secular, often concentrated in metropolitan areas and on the coasts. The Republican Party is dominated by whites, including fundamentalists, and its base lives in rural and exurban areas, including in the Midwest, South and Rocky Mountain states.

In our polarized politics, both parties depend on turning out their loyalists, not meeting in the middle. Both are divided within themselves, making it harder to search for common ground. Our gerrymandered Congress further elevates trench warfare over compromise. The result is a spiral of dysfunction, empowering other forces which erode our sense of common citizenship.

All too often, Americans of opposing backgrounds or beliefs no longer trust or even know each other. More and more, they sort themselves into separate camps living in different places. Worse, they live in gated communities of the mind, walled off by partisan media who profit by persuading them that many of their fellow Americans are their enemy, their suspicions further inflamed by the feverish effusions of social media unmoored from fact or reason.

So more Americans than ever think that our politicians are self-serving hacks, bent on buying off their favored interest groups with pernicious policies. They divine, correctly, that our system of campaign finance enhances the power of a privileged few. Thus, Americans of all political stripes and ages believe that our political institutions are incompetent or inimical, instruments of harm who no longer represent them. Sadly, the highly- damaging intrusion of James Comey and the FBI in the election itself further eroded the trust of many in our organs of government. The certainty that government cannot address our real problems -- indeed, that it aggravates them -- becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In this hotbed of gridlock and estrangement, those problems are compounded. Rising income inequality does not simply limit the the prospects of those now left behind. Our failure to address it -- sensibly and responsibly -- strangles the optimism which has always made us, as a country, believe in ourselves. And it cheats our society of coming generations whose potential will be stunted by our failure to reach out.

Equally insidious, it deepens yet another social fissure, the divide between winners and losers who no longer know each other. As a nation we have no common bond -- like National Service -- which brings diverse Americans together. We are losing the ability to see, or even to imagine, the lives of others.

This has never been our history. However indelible our sins -- the horror of slavery, the mistreatment of native Americans, the internment of Japanese -- since our beginnings we have always been a nation of others. We ended slavery; opened the country to immigrants; passed civil rights bills; put together a social safety net -- all because the lives of others mattered to us. Our sins toward the other have shamed us; new waves of others have enriched us. Seeing the other as each other allowed our consciences to grow.

This was the essence of American exceptionalism. Many countries in history have enjoyed great power and wealth. But only America has combined democracy with an inclusiveness which made so many diverse peoples into fellow citizens with a shared sense of pride and purpose.

This common idea of what we are and could be enabled us to endure depressions, recessions, wars, assassinations, impeachment proceedings, electoral malfunctions and racial and social upheavals. It empowered us to weave women, minorities and the foreign-born into the fabric of a stronger, better country. More than anything else, it has been the means of our survival and the engine of our progress.

It could be still. But only if we can surmount the election of Donald Trump, and rescue that vision of America from the forces which would tear it down by tearing us apart.

Many issues will illuminate the answer. But let me pose four problems which, in varying ways, pose existential tests of American exceptionalism.

First, can we continue to thrive as a multi-racial society in a time of changing demographics? The election of 2016 gives us disturbing evidence of discord, and the promise of more to come. And yet a principal component of resistance to Donald Trump was just that -- that he sowed and exploited racial and religious antagonism. The question is whether, Trump notwithstanding, our government and our society will honor the common humanity which makes all Americans orthy of opportunity, compassion and respect.

Second, can we defeat the scourge of terrorism while retaining our essential character? Trump stands for scapegoating American Muslims, barring refugees from abroad, curbing civil liberties at home and employing torture abroad. But many Americans perceive that this will further disfigure the face we present to the world, and to each other, creating a breeding ground for terrorism both at home and abroad. The question is which vision of American resolve will prevail.

Third, can we re-open the paths of opportunity enjoyed by prior generations? Trump promises fake solutions to real problems not yet addressed by either party. As jobs vanished, economic security diminished, and special interest money burgeoned, too many Americans -- including the young -- felt their optimism curdle into hopelessness and mistrust. The question is whether we can work to make our free market economy more inclusive and secure, or whether our political entropy will make still more American strangers to hope.

Finally, will we passively allow climate change to choke the world we have received as an unearned yet priceless gift? Trump has added to our well of criminal ignorance by labeling climate science a "hoax." Such irresponsibility is the price we pay for the cynical politics and mass disinformation which promotes our most selfish and short-sighted delusions. The question is whether Americans, at large, still possess the vision to imagine and shape the future.

The past decades in our politics give us ample ground for skepticism; our fractious present gives us more. The GOP is splintered, and the Democrats are divided between progressive pragmatists and a newly empowered left. But the Republican Party now controls all three branches of government and must find, if it dares, a way forward more responsible than the shoddy demagoguery of our president-elect. In particular, leading Republicans in Congress must rise above their parochial political interests, and recognize the weight of responsibility they must bear for keeping the country whole.

Their performance over the last two decades -- not to mention in this election -- does not augur well for rational governance. Thus much depends on whether we as citizens can see each other, our country and ourselves, as worthy of much better -- and demand that our elected officials do the same. For if we slink back into our corners, closing our eyes and our minds, our leaders will be no better.

Despite all this, I continue to hope. I know too many Americans, of all origins and backgrounds, not to hope. Which is why I chose to spend these last 14 months as I have.

I did this, of course, because I knew you were there. There is no better gift for a writer who cares about these things than readers who care just as much. As I set writing aside, at least for now, please know how grateful I am.

With many thanks, and all good wishes in all things,

Ric

Related articles: