President Obama hit the national stage in 2004 with a Convention speech where he famously said, “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats.” He rejected the notion of such a division, insisting that we are one United States. He could not have been more wrong. United we are not. Red and blue we are not either. Nearly 8 years after his Presidency began, we are more divided than ever. The divide is not red and blue, but rather the angry versus the non-angry. And right now, the vast majority is angry.
The GOP is splintering before our eyes as billionaire reality show star and property mogul Donald Trump has soared ahead with a carnival like mixture of nationalism and populism, marinated into a chunky stew called Trumpism. The central tenet of Trumpism is Trump, as the symbol of power, wealth, popularity, and Charlie Sheeneque -- winning. People love a winner, and they love winners who answer to no one. The catalyst for Trumpism is anger. And those who think it is merely the primal rage of the unwashed fail to understand its roots, and why some Americans are flocking to it. Trumpism springs from nationalism and populism. It is fueled by broken republican promises of limited government. It is fertilized by lost jobs to overseas markets, and it is nurtured by a dying American dream. That death, as Trumpers see it, comes from unchecked illegal immigration, corporate cronyism, and unfair trade agreements. Trumpism is an anger marked by those who pay more to a broken system, and have less for their families. They want someone with the strength to fix it. Trumpism represents just one Angry America.
Angst and debt-ridden millennials saddled with massive student loans, no jobs, and no access to the America dream are mad too. They want all the goodies their parents had and more. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, heirs to the former Democratic Party, have told these kids that the American dream is a birthright … rather than an opportunity. In fact, everything they want, they are told, is a “right.” These angry followers have been promised an equal outcome. They are told that in a fair, just America, they should get their fair share. They want free healthcare, free college, and free birth control. They want safe spaces where no one can hurt their feelings with dangerous ideas and ideals. What they don’t have, they are certain has been stolen from them. Their anger is not at government for its largess, but rather for its failure to deliver unto them the goods of their neighbors for their own use. The recipe for their anger is classic classism, with a pinch of alleged inequality and intolerance. Inequality they believe is a government failure to be fixed by more government. Intolerance to them is any ideal inconsistent with their own. The imaginary world of socialism where incentives don’t matter and failure is someone else’s fault drives these angry Americans.
For those not feeling the burden of the new American economy, or not facing a weak job market with declining pay and student loans balances greater than mortgages, they can’t figure out why everyone is so damn mad. Thus, the political cycle is a complete mystery to some suburbanites or those in the upper-crust of society where each night’s dinner is delivery or an Uber ride away. In enclaves where the content live, everyone is happy and doing as well as everyone else … and they wonder … what’s all the fuss? It’s a big country, and no matter what your government says about unemployment statistics, they are lying about the state of our economy. The anger you see on both sides is proof of that. If America really had an unemployment rate under 5%, we would not be on the verge of societal breakdown and political revolution.
The two party system and its crony capitalist friends have unleashed a monster, fueling an angry America with two competing visions. One vision is of a country where big government, immigrants, and socialists are hijacking the American dream. The second vision is one where white privilege, racists, and corporatists are suppressing opportunity and hoarding common goods. The sides are fueled by emotion, and their adherents are connected to each other and millions of like-minded malcontents who share their flawed, incomplete, and at times dangerously false ideals. The truth lies between these visions, and the anger of a dying economy and crumbling empire does not encourage much needed truth and introspection.
Whatever future the United States might have in being an economic superpower is tied first and foremost to being united in the common principles that fueled our original success. We hear very little about important ideas such as liberty, freedom, and independence in this election. Anger has overshadowed optimism. Envy has replaced respect, and blame has supplanted responsibility in our society. This union would long ago have perished from this earth if its slogan had been, “Give me other peoples’ stuff, or give me death.” It likewise would have suffered a similar dark destiny had the slogan been, “Screw your poor, your tired, and your huddled masses yearning to be free, I got mine.”
President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your Country.” What we can do for our country today, no matter your ideology or political stripe is to embrace civility, decency, honesty, integrity, optimism, and competence. Demand it of ourselves and require it of our political leadership … irrespective of party. We can likewise return to the founding principles of this great republic: freedom, liberty, self-reliance, and self-governance … by, of and for the people. That will diffuse the anger. If we don’t embrace liberty and civility, Reagan’s shining city on a hill will soon be an urban legend in a society where anger rules.