Reassembling America’s fragments

Concept, american flag on cracked background
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Learning to tell polite lies is part of the socialization process for young people. It is part of what keeps us all from going at each other’s throats.

In her between-song patter at a concert years ago at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre, Broadway star Laura Benanti talked about her beloved late uncle Robert Wonneberger, who had been a popular soloist in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. One of the skills she had learned from him, she said, was how to praise people when you didn’t really think they were very good. This got appreciative laughter from the audience.

Most people take these social niceties for granted. America’s 45th president, who could be our 47th, is not one of them. He was persona non grata among the social elite in New York because of his gracelessness and craziness.

He cannot fake it. He is a sociopath.

Mind you, some of us are better at faking it than others. But most of us do passably well most of the time, because we make the effort. It never occurs to Trump to make such an effort.

It is not simply that Trump is a son of wealth. I have gotten to know many wealthy people over the years, and most of them practice the normal social graces. Trump, however, thinks rules, laws and the Constitution don’t apply to him. His attitude was never a surprise given his notorious habit of refusing to pay contractors and leaving restaurants without paying his bill.

Trump is all about himself, and feels entitled to have others cater to him. His rabble rewards him for this. The foreign leaders he admires are all dictators. During his first presidential term, he attacked the diplomatic corps and NATO. He sought to undermine our civil service, and used the DOJ as his private crew of mob lawyers. He has made it clear that his demolition would resume on day one of a second term.

Hillary Clinton warned us in 2016 of the threat Trump posed. She won the popular vote, but could not overcome the Republican advantage in the Electoral College. The question is, can any unifying figure emerge in an era of disinformation?

Speaking of which, it is tempting to revel in fabulist Rudy Giuliani being indicted on racketeering charges after leading RICO prosecutions early in his own career. We do well to note, however, that the jailed mobsters laughing at his plight are also fans of Trump.

Chris Christie, whose chances of claiming the Republican nomination are virtually nil, speaks of wanting a government that does big things again. Set aside Republicans’ old mantra about small government and low taxes, which contradicts him. Christie’s partisan ambitions prevent him from respecting the big things done by President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats in the previous Congress, including on infrastructure, climate change and decreasing insulin costs. Small things are the likelier harvest of today’s scorched-earth politics.

At this point, it hardly matters who the Republican nominee will be. The GOP’s culture-war toxicity will only be defeated by consuming itself.

Unresponsive government is aided and abetted by those on the left for whom anything short of their idea of perfection merits contempt, thus justifying third-party candidates who only help — and often are funded by — the GOP. The greatest form of voter suppression is apathy that causes people to sit out the fight for our future.

Here in Arraignment Summer, things remain up in the air. The GOP could crash and burn. On the other hand, liberals and progressives could open a path to Republican victory by their usual internecine sniping.

The accountability represented by Trump’s indictment on 91 counts across four cases is salutary but insufficient. We must work to build — or rebuild — a public square with space to cooperate across our differences. But how do we do that?

Sooner or later, Donald and Rudy and Hillary and Joe will recede into the past. America’s future depends less on personalities or programs than on our willingness to see one another as more than enemies to be literally or virtually zapped.

Ultimately, we cannot get around our diversity as a people. Monopolizing power by demonizing and disenfranchising those who are different from us is a dead end. To privilege political bomb-throwing risks turning the Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.

We need to mine our struggles for stories that connect rather than poison us. Even the shivers from a cautionary tale are better than touring the ruins of a republic.

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