There are a number of great lines in the classic 80s film The Princess Bride.
But there is one I love above all others, and that I think is particularly applicable to a number of situations, including to America’s current political climate.
Inigo Montoya, speaking after finally avenging his father’s death, says, “You know, it’s strange. I have been in the revenge business so long that, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
Let Him Go…
Can you remember back to the year 2015, when Donald Trump was nothing more than a real estate developer, pageant promoter, and reality T.V. host? It’s a difficult exercise, but you might be able to do it if you try. This was before Donald Trump captured a coalition of discontented Americans and before the Democrats, media, and Big Tech identified him as the single biggest existential threat to their hegemony, America, democracy, human decency, and world peace.
It seems long ago and far away because Donald Trump has so dominated our news, media, culture, politics, and morality that it’s hard to imagine something different.
But we can. And we need to. He’s no longer the President. So the media, Democrats, and Big Tech can relax (kind of…more on this later). And, he’s no longer President…so his supporters can climb down off the barricades, too (again, kind of).
We need to let Donald Trump go. For America’s sake. For his sake. For my sake. For your sake. With respect to impeachment, let me say this. Its purpose is to remove a president under limited circumstances when elections were unequal or inadequate to the task. Clearly, that’s not the case here. So, let’s get out of the revenge business.
…But Don’t Forget Him
But letting Donald Trump go doesn’t mean we’ve moved on from Trump just by going through an election. I’m playing with semantics a bit here, but this is the point: If you think that we solve anything by switching presidents, I think you have missed the import of the last 5 years.
Here we stand today, in an America that seems broken. But America wasn’t broken by Donald Trump’s election. America wasn’t broken by Joe Biden’s election. No, America was broken long before that, by both parties who largely ignored Americans in their pursuit of political goals and ideological crusades, and by the American people, who allowed and enabled it.
Donald Trump is not the cause of our brokenness. He is a symptom of our brokenness. And for that reason, while we shouldn’t obsess about him, we also shouldn’t just forget him, whatever your opinion about him personally.
Going back to the same dysfunction that enabled Donald Trump to become President of the United States does nothing. If you were feeling relaxed and sanguine about America’s future when Donald Trump was President, OR if you’re feeling relaxed and sanguine about America’s future because Donald Trump is no longer offending the world on Twitter and embarrassing you on the world stage, I would suggest some caution.
In my view, regardless of the fact that Donald Trump is no longer President, we’re still in the Trumpian Era (TE). The Trumpian Era is the era of long-term dysfunction that created the conditions for the election of Donald Trump. And I don’t see how ANYTHING has changed.
The Trumpian Era
All is not well in Zion.
It is hard to perceive structural weakness, especially when hidden behind a fancy facade. And although I can’t prove it, I think America is tottering. Its foundations are shaken. What is bringing it down is not COVID-19, deficit spending, government subsidized healthcare, border walls, court nomination battles, or even arguments over systemic racism. None of those things help, but they are not at the root of the rot.
What is at the root of America’s rot is my refusal to believe your good intentions. Your suspicion of the motive underlying my distasteful (to you) actions. Your willingness to villainize and ridicule people who think, talk, and grew up like me, and my rude dismissal of people who speak, eat, and dress like you. These attitudes make each of us vulnerable to the Professional Exploiters — folks who are perfectly willing to divide us for professional advancement and personal gain — and there are plenty of them out there. These things — not Presidential rantings on Twitter or Trump Derangement Syndrome — are the hallmarks of the Trumpian Era.
So, when I say that we need to let Donald Trump go, I am saying we need to let Donald Trump the candidate — the personality — go.
How To Move On
But to truly move on from Trump, we need to transcend the Trumpian Era. We need to pay attention to what enabled him and identify and solve the conditions that have created the Trumpian Era in which we live. This includes restoring and creating an America that better works for all its citizens (whatever you believe that entails). But it doesn’t start principally with a new slate of political priorities. Rather, it starts with a reversal of the trust deficit. It starts with a rededication to charity and kindness, with giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
These are the small and simple steps that yield great fruit. But they are the hard work of living and interacting. They are the humility of washing ourselves in the muddy Jordan stream versus doing some great thing. They are the nigh superhuman task of letting go of our pride—our enmity toward our fellow men. They are the coupling of our mighty efforts on pet ideological projects with the much more important struggle to say a sincere, kind word about someone who has politically divergent views and who may have laughed at us.
If we are unwilling to take these small, but difficult, steps, then I see no hope for the American Experiment. Because the American Experiment is not fundamentally about creating the precise mix of political institutions to check the worst parts of human nature. It is not, fundamentally, an experiment in a specific combination of economic or social policies. Instead, it is a great bet, placed (to a large extent against the odds revealed by the historical record) on the ability of a people—despite their shortcomings—to commit to a common interest and shared destiny for the long term benefit of all, despite individual weakness and short-term setbacks. It is a wager on the ability of a people to treat each other with the common decency that forms the basic condition for self-government, without balkanizing into ever smaller in-groups, ending only in individual isolation.
I feel like this post has been a giant series of cliches. But I believe strongly that our political failures are a symptom of our collective mistreatment and suspicion of each other. And America’s future hangs in the balance.
The good news is that transcending this era of Trump doesn’t require us to try and do the impossible. Americans are never all going to agree on the policies of the government in power. Nor should they. That would be a recipe for shallow, self-congratulatory mediocrity at best. We don’t need (or want) a miraculous consensus. What we need is a broad, shared commitment, among members of all parties, that despite the current government in power, America works for them and their children.
The good news is that we have been on the cusp of failing before, and pulled it out. The good news is the fact that America has problems should surprise nobody who is paying attention. The fact that we fall short of our ideals is not a new, shocking revelation. So, I have hope that we can pull it out again. But we will not do it without a change of attitude, at least from a substantial number of us.
I think the American Experiment is one worth saving. Even if it means we end up allocating healthcare in a way different that I would like. Even if it means gun policy isn’t what you would prefer. Even if I think our current deficit spending is unsustainable. Even if you think we are, at times, callous and hypocritical in our approach to justice. I could go on and on.
Can you see that an America in which only you or I win on the big questions isn’t one that will survive? How we cheapen the idea of America when we reduce it to little more than our favored political outcomes!
If you believe, as I do, that the American Experiment is worth fighting for, let’s recommit, fundamentally, to America, which really means recommitting to each other.