I’m only 34-years-old. But even I can see that this is not the America I grew up in.
I grew up in an America that believed “small-d” democracy was based on who could produce the best ideas, and where compromises could be created to achieve at least a little bit of progress, step-by-step, pushing us toward a more prosperous future as time went by.
I grew up in an America where the age-old idiom, “politics is the art of the possible,” was regularly practiced. And I truly felt that politicians I read about in the newspapers (I was kind of a dorky kid), though sometimes expressing distaste or animosity toward one another, had genuine feelings of respect for their opponents as well. Ideas were what mattered, and personal insults, when they happened, were soundly rejected.
As it stands today, however, the marketplace of ideas is on life support. At least, that’s how it seems to be under the the leadership of the current president, who uses his “bully pulpit” not to inspire greatness or promote his programs, but to belittle his opponents and demean others who have the gall to criticize him. Donald Trump has no need for winning arguments based on rational thought; he much prefers insults and fear-mongering to wit and logic.
That is dangerous for our democracy, and was once rejected by another president more than 80 years ago. “The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself,” quipped Franklin Roosevelt at his first presidential inauguration speech, according to the National Archives. “Freedom from Fear” was even included as one of the “Four Freedoms” Roosevelt recognized in a speech he’d give nearly one year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, per the presidential library that bears his name.
We mustn’t be naive, of course, in criticizing the normalization of fear from this president. Other leaders in the western world, including former presidents of the United States, have utilized fear for their benefit. Many commentators before Trump in fact wrongly pushed an irrational fear of his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, of being a Muslim subversive, according to reporting from the Washington Post. Fear in politics isn’t something new, and it’s not something that came out of a vacuum.
But most of the leaders in the America I grew up in, Democrat and Republican, were always promising a better tomorrow. It wasn’t about trying to create a permanent boogeyman by suggesting a treasured institution in our society was the “enemy of the people,” or by saying that Central American asylum seekers are actually criminals looking to invade our country, as reports from CNN show the president as doing now. It was about winning a debate based on what was convincingly accurate. Mistakes happened, but at least an argument was allowed to take place without it being resolved on the basis of who disparaged the other person best.
Those seem to be the sentiments of our current commander-in-chief. Rather than showing any mental prowess in his arguments, the attitudes Trump demonstrates provide evidence of true cowardice on his part, an inability to win over the American people with his ideas, and his willingness to drastically lower the bar in order to scare his base of support into adopting a message of hate and disgust for anything opposing their president.
We need not go down that path any longer. We have the opportunity to have a proper debate, in Washington and elsewhere, to have a government where one side propagating fear is countered by another promising a better way forward.
America does better when a conversation allowing all sides to have their say is encouraged to flourish. Trump will still have his bully pulpit, no matter what the outcome of Tuesday’s midterm elections may be. Hopefully the winners of Tuesday’s elections can force the president to use that bully pulpit for its intended purpose in the coming years: to promote a positive vision for this country, rather than breeding fear and angst, and to figure out ways to reach across the aisle and make grand compromises during the remaining two years of his term.