On Friday Donald Trump played the news media like Nero played the fiddle. This is worrisome. Not because Trump shows, like, zero respect for just about anyone, nor because the news media pretty much well deserves it. It’s because of what it tells us about us.
Trump’s latest humiliation illustrated his prowess (thanks to what’s likely years worth of market research) for playing to and deceiving an audience, but also the fundamental weaknesses in our so-called great American character.
The classic paradigm of the American character is that we’re a hard-working, can-do people whose gumption, grace under pressure, and resilience are second to none on the planet. Well, if we’re second to none on this Third Rock From The Sun, then that famous line from The Planet of the Apes comes to mind. It’s when astronaut Taylor, played by Charlton Heston, and his still-alive fellow astronauts stumble across primitive human-like creatures rummaging through a cornfield. (This is right before the horns sound and men on horses holding rifles charge through the field – and wait, the men aren’t men, they’re gorillas!) Taylor, looking at the humanoids (and remember, this is way before he rides up to a mostly-submerged Statue of Liberty at the end of the movie and realizes he’s back on Earth and apparently we voted in the wrong guy and he pressed the nuclear red button), says to his compatriots:
“If this is what’s here, we’ll be running the planet in six months!”
We see how Taylor’s species-ism comes out. There are very few quality humans and the rest of humanity is like the herd of stupid sheep, braying and baa-ing and really in need of social justice warriors to rescue them.
Now back to America, present day, real world. Some of us have been taught, and we bitterly cling to the notion (the fantasy?) that Americans have this unique character, that Alexis de Tocqueville and H.L. Mencken had it right: that we are an independent, but industrious people. Well, that might have been true of the colonists and early (non-native) Americans who survived. Remember, most of the English settlers in Plymouth died from starvation because their attempted kibbutz on Cape Cod didn’t work too well with socialism – no one worked to, like, grow anything or catch anything, they waited for someone else to do the work.
Yep. Sort of like Republican voters today. Waiting for the Supreme Court to rule Obamacare unconstitutional. Waiting for Ted Cruz – and only Ted Cruz – to sacrifice himself and “take out” Trump. Always waiting for “someone else.”
So what is the real American character today?
If Mitt Romney had it right that “47 percent” of the country just wants a handout, and if the Bernie Sanders candidacy shows the appeal of an avowed socialist-Marxist because he promises “free” stuff to people who don’t work for it, then close to half the country is nothing more than a drain on the body politic.
Here’s the real problem today: Donald Trump is showing that a good chunk of what’s left either can’t tell the difference between the truth and an obvious lie, or far worse, doesn’t care!
Add all these groups up. We have:
• The “47 percent” of the moochers, the takers or whatever pejorative you choose;
• The fools who can’t tell the truth from the lie
• Others of questionable character who don’t care when the lie becomes the truth
• And then you have plenty of others – I’ll call them opportunists – who don’t care about any of the foregoing as long as they can make a good living.
This, my friends, is most of the American population if not humanity at large.
If we look back at our history this is also accurate of our population. So has there really been a change in the recent American character or is the historical paradigm wrong?
Maybe the concept of American self-starters is a reflection of the high-achieving minority which seized the opportunity to create new lives and new wealth without interference from early American federal or state governments, or in colonial times, from the Crown. Maybe it’s the result of history being written by the survivors. Or a slick marketing con job by the early 16th-century mercantilists who needed to sucker investors to fund that next exploration. Surely there were salesmen like Donald Trump four centuries ago. And real facts, stuff like Native Indians slaughtering entire Jesuit outposts – which happened in the 1570s, decades before the Jamestown, Virginia settlement – that wasn’t good for convincing investors, sailors, soldiers or monarchs. Maybe the achievers, the conscientious, the responsible – maybe those were the exceptions to the rule, always the minority in America.
In other words, these qualities were not characteristic of Americans, but rather of those who would become the leaders, the opinion leaders, the business leaders, the landowners and, often, the first elected officials. (Another aside: Is that really any different from human nature at large, any society, where there is a sliver at the top which works hard and runs the show?) And perhaps it is those qualities and their rarity which explains why the Founding Fathers and early leaders recognized the average man on the street – the stinking commoners – would be prone to emotions like factionalism and other dangerous passions. They saw that responsible civic life required having a stake, or what today we call “skin in the game.” But the number of people who had that stake back then were few and far between. Not too different from today.
This is why America’s first governments restricted the vote, generally, to property owners. This meant that only those who had plenty to lose from bad policies or tyranny had the ability to vote for representatives to set those policies.
Can you imagine an early American election where every adult could vote, in a nation where most people were living a subsistence life as laborers? You don’t think that the day laborers of that time wouldn’t fall for the siren song of a Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump walking off the next ship in Boston Harbor and promising to tax those nasty landowners and craftsmen? What do you think the Boston Tea Party was about? Yes, on one level, it was written up in history as a protest against monarchist tyranny, but how much would you bet against this just being an easily-incited mob action by the “have-nots” destroying private property. The Crown lost tax revenue. But in our history, why is there no mention of the loss to the poor sap whose tea got destroyed? Private property, bah! Some struggling merchant lost his tea? Oh, the heck with him. See how the class envy of the day could be manipulated? It’s just not how history – or one reporter in the mass news media of the day – wrote it up.
Let’s exalt the great American character. Just remember it’s emblematic of our leaders and not of the led. This insight can yield a lesson for how we can rebuild our society and culture, whether on our shores today, or other shores tomorrow.