“America is great because she is good,” according to a quote generally attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville. “If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Hillary Clinton alluded to these words in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. “And in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn’t get: that America is great – because America is good”
Before Hillary, Bill Clinton quoted them almost verbatim in 1994, and before him Dwight Eisenhower used the line in a 1952 speech.
It’s an appealing idea. Greatness is founded on goodness. De Tocqueville probably didn’t actually say it, but that doesn’t matter.
You are good, aren’t you? How many of the people you know personally are not good people? How many of them were once good people, but now are not good people.
In order to understand how Donald Trump’s followers can embrace the “Make America Great Again” slogan and the man behind it, you have to understand the way in which we have come to see the concept of goodness in two very different ways in America today.
For Trump and his followers, America cannot be good. It cannot be great. Not now. Not after all they believe America has done to degrade itself.
During the Democratic National Convention, William Barber, a pastor and member of the National Board of the NAACP said, “I say to you tonight, some issues are not left versus right, they are right versus wrong. We need to embrace our deepest moral values and push for a revival at the heart of our democracy.”
We need to “embrace our deepest moral values.”
Unfortunately, Americans no longer share a common concept of moral values. Moral values are as deeply felt as ever, perhaps more-so, but they are not universally shared.
George Lakoff is a “cognitive linguist” and professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He recently published an important article in which he explains the “Trump phenomena” by looking at the central metaphors of our society. We all understand that language is important, but it sometimes takes an expert to show us just HOW important it is.
Lakoff points out that the central metaphor for understanding the nation is the family. “We have founding fathers. We send our sons and daughters to war. We have homeland security.” (1) He goes on to point out that we have two very different types of family models in this country today. He calls one type the “Strict Father” family and the other the “Nurturant Parent” family. One is essentially the conservative model and the other is the liberal model.
In the Strict Father model, the male father figure is the ultimate authority. He decides what is right and what is wrong (what is moral and what is not) and there can be no argument. There is a moral hierarchy inherent in this model. God first, then man. Man in this case being the father figure and moral authority. When children misbehave they are punished, physically, much like God will punish sinners, so that they learn proper behavior, become internally strong, and prosper in the world. If they learn that behavior, they become deserving of the father’s love and respect. If they do not, they have, through their own fault, become undeserving, will not prosper in the world at large, and are not as morally righteous as those who learned their lessons.
In this worldview the poor are lower on the moral hierarchy because they earned that position by not learning the lessons taught by the “strict father.” They are undeserving.
In this moral hierarchy Christians are higher than all other religions; whites are higher than people of color; the rich are higher than the poor; men are higher than women; and straights are higher than gays. Those lower on the moral hierarchy are there because they deserve to be there. Those higher on the moral ladder earned that position by internalizing the lessons their strict fathers taught them.
Here, if you win, it’s because you deserved to win. And winning is everything. Everything is personalized.
At the extreme, this is how you morally justify showing disrespect for a Medal of Honor winner who gave his life for his country. He wasn’t white. He wasn’t Christian. He really wasn’t American– he was just an immigrant posing as an American. And just as importantly, men who get killed aren’t winners. Real heroes live to brag about it. Real heroes don’t get shot down. Real heroes don’t get blown up.
We need to “embrace our deepest moral values,” says Barber.
The moral hierarchy of the authoritarian father type of family is a deeply held and almost sacred belief. It has roots in religion as well as cultural roots that go back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
For a long time in America it was possible for the authoritarian father family model to coexist with the “Nurturant Parent family” model because the latter did not pose an existential threat to the former. There was friction, but it was manageable.
Since the 60’s, however, this country has changed in major ways.
It started with the civil rights movement. Civil rights not only precipitated an exodus of southern Democrats to the Republican Party, but it signaled a shift in the way America saw and treated its black population. For the conservative, Strict Father family model it caused real confusion and anger. To allow blacks to be seen as equal to whites was not a political or economic issue; it ran contrary to that deeply ingrained moral hierarchy. It was immoral. It was not good. And when “America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
It was Lyndon Johnson, a Democratic President, who presided over the changes in our laws which began to allow blacks the advances which were so detestable. Democrats – not good. Government – not good. No greatness can come from this.
What has followed has been an almost uninterrupted march toward destroying the moral hierarchy of the conservative family model. Latino populations have risen. Asian and Middle Eastern populations are rising. The influx of “inferior people” is a direct threat to the moral well-being of many. It isn’t intellectual. It’s visceral.
More recently the elevation of the LGBT population to mainstream status completely disoriented the conservative mindset. State legislatures began passing absurd laws that will take the courts years to sort through.
But the “last straw,” the ultimate blow to whatever chance the conservative mindset had to co-exist with the rest of the country, was the election of a black president. Combined with all of the other changes, THAT drove them to complete irrationality.
It now appears that the more liberal mindset is capable of posing an existential threat to the moral hierarchy of conservatives, and they are in a last ditch effort to keep that from happening.
Trump saw that. He saw the opportunity to leverage that for personal gain.
For Trump and his followers, America lost its “greatness” when it betrayed the “Strict Father family” moral worldview. For them, America cannot be great when blacks are equal to whites. America will never be great when gay men can embrace in public and marry as they please and raise children together to pass on their immoral family values.
America cannot be great when we allow millions of inferior people to cross our borders and live beside us where they might influence our children, where they might prove that they are just as intelligent, just as hard-working, and just as productive as a white, God-fearing, conservative man.
America cannot be great when women have been elevated to equals, when they get equal pay for equal work, and especially when they can become president.
America cannot be great when we give the Medal of Honor to Muslims.
And America could never, never be great with a black president.
We must, therefore, “Make America Great Again.”
This is not “institutional racism.” This is deeply ingrained American racism.
These are the “deepest moral values” of a large segment of the population.
There is far more at stake in this election than who sits in the White House or even who sits on the Supreme Court.
This is a battle for what sort of values will shape our nation going forward.
It’s not about winning. It’s about living. It’s about living in a world where we can feel good about who we are.
Do we really embrace the idea set out in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal?” or is that a platitude we haul out on special occasions, dressed up in Sunday finery, to impress the rubes.
And by “all men” do we mean just men, or do we actually extend the idea to women as well?
Is being a patriot reserved for old white Christian men waving flags on political podiums, or do we understand that sacrifice is not a matter of color; it is not a matter of religion; it is not a matter of rich or poor or gay or straight.
A Muslim life given to protect this country is a life as valuable as any other life. The life of a man who loves another man or a woman who loves another woman is still a life, and there is no moral authority to place one above another.
“When America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
But the “goodness” of America is not to be found in the frightened death-rattle of the Republican conservatives. The goodness of America will be found in those who are willing to stand up and say that we will not tolerate American racism and bigotry any longer. The goodness of America will be found in those who work for equality, not just talk about it.
The goodness in America will be found in those who refuse to accept any longer the notion that because you won, you deserved to win, or that because you are rich you are better than the rest of the nation.
The goodness in America will be found by not ignoring the past, but by embracing and learning from it.
The goodness in America will be decided by those who realize that “those who say so little about what God said so much, and so much about what God says so little,”(2) are not representative of the true Christian faith any more than the ISIL terrorists are representative of Islam.
The goodness of America will be decided by its people.
In fewer than 100 days.
Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon
How we got to This Point Part I can be found here.