I grew up with the deeply planted dream that had shaped America. We were a nation of immigrants — including the Bayers who came here from southern Germany and the MacDonalds who came from Scotland. We were — and still are — a fairly young nation when compared to the lands from which we had come. My forebears, like most American families, had been captured by the dream that was articulated in Emma Lazarus' poem enshrined at the Statue of Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
This dream was planted in the fertile soil of democracy, and over two and a half centuries ago, it became politically embodied in a Constitution. Ours was to be, as Lincoln later put it, “a nation governed of, for and by the people.” The Constitution was based on the proposition that all of us were created equally and endowed with unalienable rights. There were to be no aristocrats, but rather a community of equal citizens who cared deeply about one another and one another’s welfare. Nobody was to be left out. Kindness and a mutual generosity were woven into the fabric that was America. While there was plenty of room for those who were smart enough or hard-working enough to prosper, even that right was encased in an egalitarian ethos.
We belonged to the land, from sea to shining sea, and we pledged to take care of it for ourselves and for those who would come after us. Slowly, the dream was made incarnate in laws that guaranteed the protection of the natural order as well as universal suffrage, the rights of women, infants, children, the elderly, the poor, the disabled and anyone needing a hand.
Along the way there were several disastrous wrong turns. We systematically slaughtered those who had been here for centuries prior to our arrival. We polluted the dream with slavery, a bloody civil war and Jim Crow laws. And from these misadventures we have not yet fully recovered. But the embodiment of the dream has persisted in our national life.
While we were to be the world’s lighthouse, calling people everywhere to examine the dream, we were not to be engaged in the exploitation of other nations, nor were we to exercise political, military or economic hegemony over them, or make them servants of our national interests. “America first” was not to become our version of “Deutschland uber alles” (“Germany Over Everything”). While we have not always been faithful in following that dream, it has continued to re-emerge even after it had been smothered in the name of patriotism. While no political party has perfectly exemplified the dream, it has often been refocused by “the better angels of our nature.”
Consider the shock of discovering an incompetent egomaniac has attempted to destroy that dream, and he is supported by a collection of misguided followers who put party over rationality. These beguiled pawns now do not know how to get out of the quagmire they are unsure how they got into.
No one has articulated the current malaise more clearly than the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times. Consider these excerpts from the first few paragraphs of a weeklong series of opinion pieces.
“It was no secret during the campaign that Donald Trump was a narcissist and a demagogue who used fear and dishonesty to appeal to the worst in American voters. The Times called him ‘unprepared and unsuited’ for the job he was seeking, and said his election would be a ‘catastrophe.’”
“Still, nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck. Like millions of other Americans, we clung to a slim hope that the new president would turn out to be all noise and bluster, or that the people around him in the White House would act as a check on his worst instincts, or that he would be sobered and transformed by the awesome responsibilities of office.”
“President Trump has taken dozens of real-life steps that, if they are not reversed, will rip families apart, foul rivers and pollute the air, intensify the calamitous effects of climate change and profoundly weaken the system of American public education for all. His attempt to de-insure millions of people who had finally received healthcare coverage … and his projected enactment of a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich …and he has proceeded with his efforts to defang the government’s regulatory agencies and bloat the Pentagon’s budget even as he supposedly retreats from the global stage.”
In the weeks to come I will detail what I believe to be the central values that those of us committed to the dream must continue to honor.