America is only as strong as the resolve of its citizenry to uphold its own standards. Recent events stand as self-evident truth that a critical mass of American citizens have simply given up. And because their resolve is weak our nation is weak. America has a glass jaw and COVID-19 has smashed it into a million pieces with just one punch- a punch that we saw coming miles away months in advance.
The truth about the American citizenry has been exposed: we lack the strength to face down a legitimate national crisis with the unified purpose that defines a superpower. Of course every nation has weak or unfaithful citizens but their ranks are generally far too thin for them to seize the controls of power. But in America today (thanks entirely to the Electoral College) just enough have surrendered their birthright as citizens and have consented to live as subjects of this president.
And their surrender has compromised our entire system and jeopardized us all. Under the simplest definition, citizens hold their government accountable for how it serves them. Subjects, on the other hand, have neither the power nor the inclination to do so. It took a political figure who was flambouyant and flagrant about his desire to rule the country rather than to serve its citizens for that sad reality to come into focus. A great many of us- and I define “us” quite loosely here- have proven to be far more comfortable being ruled because they are unburdened by the responsiblities of active and engaged citizenship. Being a subject is just so much easier. Being a real citizen- especially an American citizen- requires the will to fight and the skill to win because there will always be a fight to take on. Why is that? Because the spoils of victory for conquering America far exceed the gains that can be found anywhere else in the world. So bad actors will always be laying in wait.
The sorry truth is that when Trump got away with hiding his tax returns from the public and made it into the White House anyway the game was already over. The citizenship surrender was complete right then and there. His refusal to turn over his tax returns in this era of complex finance and presidential politics was unheard of. This was not just a red flag. This was a red flag dripping with human blood engulfed in flames. The political ritual of a candidate handing over official financial records is supposed to function as an expression of transparency and good faith dealing with the American public. Instead, it became the proof he needed that he could get away with any lie he needed to tell if he stuck to it strong enough and long enough. It was proof that enough people in enough places in the country would fall in line for him no matter what he did. These people were going to ride with him no matter what norms he smashed or riches he grabbed because he was their cultural representative.
And as many of our leading scholars have pointed out in books and lectures over the last two years, it was (and is) cultural identity that matters in elections- not politics or competence. (Big ups to Ezra Klein.)
As dumb as we like to think Trump is, he was crafty enough to figure out that policy positions were virtually irrelevant so long as he was functioning as the spirit animal for red-state America despite his blue-blood background. Even better, Trump discovered that expertise could become an expletive to exploit the “otherness” that drives insecure white folks into delirium. People that actually knew facts and had formally studied history or science or law or economics or public policy or especially journalism were the snobby elitist “others” who were NOT to be trusted. And that is quite convenient because those also happen to be the people most capable of calling out his ignorance, deception and incompetence.
Trump never did master the art of the deal, but he did master the art of obfuscation- exposing the reality that to most Americans expertise is purely a matter of optics and stagecraft. Facts and truth have become offshoots of beauty: they are in the eye of the beholder. Somewhere along his way Trump discovered that the only true talent he has ever had is media manipulation. And he was opportunistic enough to finally run for the big chair in a moment when media manipulation was the talent that mattered above all others. Whether by ‘bots’ or ‘spooks’ or hook or crook, political arguments and agendas are now formed and set on the unregulated, unaccountable, unstoppable and insatiable cultural and financial behemouth of social media. Twitter especially has been Trump’s magic carpet ride to and through this bizarre presidency.
And now- because it is magical after all- Trump loyalists will not see the deaths of thousands and thousands of their fellow citizens of COVID-19 as a hard cold consequence of poor governance. They will see it as a clever disappearing act; another hoax perpetrated by the “others.” Citizens do not behave this way. Subjects do. And America was not designed for subjects to have a say in how the government operates. This nation was founded on the premise that voting citizens would jealously guard their own powers and interests by holding elected officials fully accountable for their performance in service to them. Therefor, Trump loyalists are betraying the “Founding Fathers” for which they claim to hold such great affection and undying reverance.
To be clear, I do not revere the founders of this nation. And I actively discourage anyone else from doing so. As a general proposition, reverence compromises one’s judgment and capacity to build upon work that has been done in the past. As a specific proposition, reverence for the founders of this nation means revering men who considered more than 70% of today’s adult American citizens unfit to vote in elections by virtue of their race or their gender. If that does not strike a note of discord in your mind, you are formally on notice that you are a part of America’s problem and not a part of any solution it needs to survive and thrive in the future.
In this space, when it comes to evaluating the legacy of the founders, recognition and respect are more than sufficient. Recognizing and respecting what they accomplished does not require reverence. It only requires a review of the record and an assessment of where we stand currently. And for the record, the disaster that we are living through today is not based on engineering flaws, it is based on operation error of the current cast and crew running the machinery.
American citizenship was built to be a designation that carried powers and privileges that were the envy of people everywhere else in the world. Yes, there were deep and fatal flaws in our original design and in the designers themselves. But American citizens vested with the power to vote were never expected to behave like mindless minions serving a master. Forming a “more perfect union” demanded that the framework for authentic and legitimate greatness was built into the smallest operating cog in the entire political machine. That cog was the voting citizen. And legitimate greatness was indeed built into it. And now those of us who have not surrendered our power are called upon to use it.
Notwithstanding the protestestations of revisionist historians and racial fatalists, the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency in 2008 was proof that the framework for greatness was there in the very beginning. Subsequent generations invested the blood, sweat, toil and tears necessary to build on it. In the midst of a raging crisis, American citizens stood up for progress and change in 2008 by electing an exceptional man- one who would not even have been recognized as fully human when the country was founded.
Citizens had the power to change the course of country and we used it loudly and proudly. For better or worse, that is how the system was designed to work. American citizens must now stand up just to defend and preserve the status of citizenship itself. We must accept the fact that those who have pledged loyalty to Trump are as committed to him as the subjects of any monarch, despot or dictator anywhere else in the world. And our political war is against them, not against the master they serve. In November, we have to show up to beat THEM not to beat HIM. Because without subjects, a monarch, despot or dictator is nothing. But if we surrender our citizenship then WE are nothing.