The prob­lem with Amer­i­can op­ti­mism is Amer­ica

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada

The hor­ror with which many cit­i­zens re­gard the Trump pres­i­dency is premised, in part, on the no­tion that its chal­lenges are unprecedented and its moral­ity an­ti­thet­i­cal to long-stand­ing na­tional val­ues. So “nor­mal­iz­ing” Pres­i­dent Trump has be­come a mor­tal sin, and “that’s not who we are” a ral­ly­ing cry for those who view today’s anti-demo­cratic and na­tivist com­pul­sions as aber­ra­tions on that long arc to­ward jus­tice.

Ex­cept this is nor­mal. And it is who we are.

Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of Amer­ica,” though it in­tends to up­lift, nonethe­less offers a nec­es­sary and sober­ing cor­rec­tive. Amer­ica’s past is “more of­ten tragic” than other­wise, the his­to­rian writes, “full of bro­ken hearts and bro­ken prom­ises, dis­ap­pointed hopes and dreams de­layed.” In times of fear, our lead­ers “can be as of­ten dis­ap­point­ing as they are heroic.” And if the soul of Amer­ica is found in those at­tempts to ex­pand the space for more peo­ple to live freely and pur­sue hap­pi­ness, Meacham also points to a “uni­ver­sal Amer­i­can in­con­sis­tency” — even as we up­hold life and lib­erty for some, we hold back oth­ers deemed un­wor­thy.

Slav­ery, the Klan, Jim Crow, the

Klan again. In­tern­ment of Ja­panese Amer­i­cans. Gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and sci­en­tific racism. McCarthy­ism. George Wallace. All lead­ing to a pres­i­dent whom Meacham con­sid­ers “an heir to the white pop­ulist tra­di­tion,” a leader ea­ger to un­der­mine the law, the truth and “the sense of hope es­sen­tial to Amer­i­can life.”

Trump is nor­mal in that he em­bod­ies re­cur­ring mal­adies of Amer­i­can pub­lic life; per­haps the main anom­aly is that he brings so many of them to­gether. Such his­tor­i­cal aware­ness can com­fort, es­pe­cially if you be­lieve, as Meacham does, that ev­ery gen­er­a­tion con­sid­ers it­self un­der siege and that, with the right lead­er­ship, Amer­i­cans usu­ally find a way for­ward rather than back. “The good news is that we have come through such darkness be­fore,” he writes. “All has seemed lost be­fore, only to give way, af­ter decades of gloom, to light.”

Of course, if you’re liv­ing in the gloom, aware­ness of his­tor­i­cal pat­terns be­stows lim­ited con­so­la­tion. It might, how­ever, in­ject small doses of those qual­i­ties that lat­ter-day re­sis­tance re­quires: In­spi­ra­tion. Pa­tience. Even hu­mil­ity.

Coun­ter­points and par­al­lels to Trump abound through­out his­tory and through­out “The Soul of Amer­ica,” too. It’s no sur­prise that Meacham, a bi­og­ra­pher of Thomas Jef­fer­son, Andrew Jack­son and George H.W. Bush, fo­cuses on the White House. “The most con­se­quen­tial of our past pres­i­dents have uni­fied and in­spired with con­scious dig­nity and con­sci­en­tious ef­fi­ciency,” he writes, cit­ing qual­i­ties that do not im­me­di­ately evoke the 45th com­man­der in chief.

Yet even the ex­em­plars are im­per­fect. Woodrow Wilson, who signed women’s suf­frage into law, also re­seg­re­gated the fed­eral workforce, sup­pressed free speech and screened “The Birth of a Na­tion” in the White House. Franklin Roo­sevelt, who saved the coun­try from the Great De­pres­sion, also sought to pack the Supreme Court and, more damn­ing, de­tained Amer­i­cans for no other cause than their Ja­panese an­ces­try. “A tragic el­e­ment of his­tory is that ev­ery ad­vance must con­tend with forces of re­ac­tion,” Meacham writes.

Trump-like fig­ures are most ev­i­dent among the lat­ter forces. It is dif­fi­cult to read Meacham’s de­scrip­tions of politi­cians such as Pres­i­dent Andrew John­son, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Gov. George Wallace and not feel the cur­rent pres­i­dent loom­ing. McCarthy, stok­ing the Red Scare of the early 1950s, emerged as “a master of false charges, of con­spir­acy-tinged rhetoric, and of cal­cu­lated dis­re­spect for con­ven­tional fig­ures . . . . McCarthy could dis­tract the pub­lic, play the press, and change the sub­ject — all while keep­ing him­self at cen­ter stage.” Wallace, who called for seg­re­ga­tion now, to­mor­row and for­ever, “brought some­thing in­trigu­ing to the mod­ern politics of fear in Amer­ica: a vis­ceral con­nec­tion to his crowds, an ap­peal that con­founded elites but which gave him a durable base.” And don’t for­get Ge­or­gia Gov. Clifford Walker, who at a 1924 Klan con­ven­tion urged Amer­ica to “build a wall of steel, a wall as high as Heaven, against the ad­mis­sion of a sin­gle one of those South­ern Euro­peans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the lan­guage of a democ­racy in their lives.” (No word on whether Italy would pay for it.)

For all his em­pha­sis on elected lead­ers, how­ever, Meacham ar­gues that “what counts is not just the char­ac­ter of the in­di­vid­ual at the top, but the char­ac­ter of the coun­try.” Here, the Amer­i­can soul proves ex­pan­sive and mal­leable, some­times dan­ger­ously so. When industrial up­heaval and ur­ban­iza­tion up­ended ru­ral life, Meacham re­calls, the Ku Klux Klan promised “racial sol­i­dar­ity and cul­tural cer­ti­tude” — an apt sum­ma­tion of white na­tion­al­ists’ ap­peal a century later. In the 1920s, Klans­men held 11 gov­er­nor­ships and 16 U.S. Se­nate seats, while more than 300 del­e­gates at the 1924 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion were Klan mem­bers. The op­po­si­tion of the press “had the per­verse ef­fect of boost­ing the Klan rather than un­der­cut­ting it,” Meacham notes. “Hos­til­ity from the jour­nal­ists of the East con­vinced a num­ber of middle Amer­i­cans that a cause un­der such as­sault must have some­thing to rec­om­mend it.” The elite news me­dia as the en­emy of real Amer­ica is hardly a novel Trumpian con­ceit.

Re­sis­tance is nor­mal, too. “The spirit of re­sis­tance to gov­ern­ment is so valu­able on cer­tain oc­ca­sions that I wish it to be al­ways kept alive,” Jef­fer­son wrote to Abi­gail Adams in 1787. Meacham dwells on the prophetic power of Martin Luther King Jr., who upon launch­ing the Mont­gomery bus boy­cott in 1955 de­clared that black Amer­i­cans were sim­ply seek­ing to live out Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship “to the full­ness of its mean­ing.” A decade later, King would marvel that it took a white South­erner, Lyndon John­son, to help ful­fill that vi­sion. Progress in Amer­ica, Meacham ex­plains, “comes when the whis­pered hopes of those out­side the main­stream rise in vol­ume to reach the ears and hearts and minds of the pow­er­ful.”

Today, those whis­pered hopes seem raised in anger and jeers, but in “Our Towns,” James and Deborah Fal­lows find and heed dif­fer­ent voices. Self-con­sciously in­vok­ing past literary road trips by John Stein­beck and Alexis de Toc­queville, the hus­band-and-wife writ­ers roam the United States in a sin­gleengine pro­pel­ler air­plane for 100,000 miles, vis­it­ing dozens of small towns and ci­ties from 2012 to 2017 to take a “fresh look at the coun­try, its dis­ap­point­ments and its pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

Sioux Falls, S.D. Hol­land, Mich. Greenville, S.C. Al­len­town, Pa. Fresno, Calif. Colum­bus, Ohio. Dodge City, Kan. Many of the com­mu­ni­ties they ex­plore went for Trump in 2016, “but when we vis­ited, none of them dis­played the seething fury de­scribed by the me­dia dur­ing that cam­paign.” In­stead, the au­thors gaze lov­ingly upon re­cur­ring signs of civic and ur­ban re­vival: river­walks and bike paths, re­search uni­ver­si­ties and in­no­va­tive high schools, ren­o­vated down­towns with re­lo­cated cor­po­rate head­quar­ters. If your town has an artist-in-residence pro­gram and an over­the-top slo­gan (“Fresno? It’s Fres-yes!!”), chances are Team Fal­lows landed on a nearby airstrip and hit the lo­cal craft brew­ery.

“We were in­ter­ested in places that had faced ad­ver­sity of some sort, from crop fail­ure to job loss to po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, and had looked for ways to re­spond,” James Fal­lows, a na­tional correspondent for the At­lantic, ex­plains early on. (Rather than meld into a sin­gle voice, the au­thors al­ter­nate their im­pres­sions.) Of­ten the lo­cal mis­for­tune in­volved the de­par­ture of a dom­i­nant in­dus­try — tex­tile fac­to­ries or a truck man­u­fac­tur­ing gi­ant — that com­pounded longterm eco­nomic stresses. The agents of re­cov­ery grow fa­mil­iar the longer one lingers in “Our Towns”: young, cre­ative types who move to the area from big­ger ci­ties or re­turn to launch star­tups; lo­cal of­fi­cials and busi­ness lead­ers strik­ing pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships (the au­thors adore pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships); and an over­ar­ch­ing “lo­cal pa­tri­o­tism” and “den­sity of so­cial cap­i­tal” that, they con­clude, in­still pride and spur en­trepreneuri­al­ism.

But there is a boos­t­er­ish vibe run­ning through this book that mars its an­a­lytic ef­forts. It may be the con­fir­ma­tion bias that re­sults when you pur­posely seek out towns with great turn­around sto­ries that can form a broader na­tional nar­ra­tive, or sim­ply the per­ils of in­ter­view­ing so many peo­ple who get paid to pro­mote their ci­ties. When an of­fi­cial with the cham­ber of com­merce in Greenville raves about “the mo­men­tum, the ac­cel­er­a­tion . . . the po­ten­tial” of the area, he then adds, “But, of course, I’m from the cham­ber of com­merce, so you’d ex­pect me to say that!” Pre­cisely.

Deborah Fal­lows, a lin­guist, has a keen eye and ear for lo­cal cus­toms and sub­cul­tures across the coun­try, find­ing them ev­ery­where from com­mu­nity pools to pub­lic li­braries. (Her dis­cus­sion of the most com­mon ques­tion she hears in dif­fer­ent places — “Where do you go to church?” “Where did you go to high school?” — is a de­light.) But more than “Democ­racy in Amer­ica,” the book that comes to mind when read­ing “Our Towns” is Richard Florida’s 2002 best­seller, “The Rise of the Cre­ative Class,” which ex­tolled the power of high-tech work­ers and artists to trans­form post-industrial Amer­ica. Fif­teen years later, Florida ba­si­cally apol­o­gized in his book “The New Ur­ban Cri­sis,” not­ing that he failed to an­tic­i­pate how re­gional growth hubs could also deepen eco­nomic in­equal­ity and ex­clu­sion.

Re­gard­less of the eco­nomic mer­its of “Our Towns,” the au­thors’ po­lit­i­cal in­sights are in­struc­tive. Again and again, they em­pha­size how dif­fer­ent the con­ver­sa­tions oc­cur­ring through­out the coun­try sound com­pared with Washington squab­bles. “When we asked peo­ple what was on their minds, we’d hear about schools or drugs or down­town-rede­vel­op­ment projects or new com­pa­nies that might come to town,” James Fal­lows re­calls. “Vir­tu­ally never did any­one vol­un­teer the sta­ple themes from na­tional politics — Do we trust the me­dia? Which party do we dis­like more? — that came to dom­i­nate so much of the na­tional news.”

It’s an en­cour­ag­ing thought, that lo­cal unity can by­pass na­tional dis­sen­sion. But the two can co­a­lesce in un­ex­pected and in­sid­i­ous ways. James Fal­lows notes that “in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties in smaller-town Amer­ica can be acutely aware of be­ing con­de­scended to by bigc­ity fash­ion­able Amer­ica. That aware­ness . . . plays a part in their ef­forts at turn­around.” But that aware­ness can also play eas­ily into the hands of a pop­ulist, fear­mon­ger­ing politi­cian who en­cour­ages lo­cal re­sent­ment to build na­tional sup­port for a plat­form of prejudice and scape­goat­ing — es­pe­cially if the turn­around is long in coming.

Both “Our Towns” and “The Soul of Amer­ica” mean to en­cour­age in dis­cour­ag­ing times. James and Deborah Fal­lows ac­knowl­edge that po­lar­iza­tion is real but that it offers only a par­tial pic­ture. “What is true of the coun­try as a whole at any given time is mis­lead­ing about many of its peo­ple,” they de­cide. Meacham tells us we’ve been here be­fore and can find our way out, urg­ing read­ers to en­ter the arena, avoid trib­al­ism, re­spect facts and lis­ten to his­tory. “For all of our darker im­pulses,” he con­cludes, “for all of our short­com­ings . . . the ex­per­i­ment be­gun so long ago, car­ried out so im­per­fectly, is worth the fight.”

Af­ter read­ing these jour­neys across time and ge­og­ra­phy, I would of­fer but one amend­ment: The Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment is not just worth the fight — it is the fight. With pas­sion al­ways strained, the pur­suit of prosperity, freedom and be­long­ing is an end­less bat­tle, an en­ter­prise in equal mea­sures ex­haust­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing.


A pop­ulist like Pres­i­dent Trump isn’t unprecedented in Amer­ica, Jon Meacham writes — nor are the pas­sion­ate re­ac­tions to him. “What counts,” he writes, “is not just the char­ac­ter of the in­di­vid­ual at the top, but the char­ac­ter of the coun­try.”

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