Thursday, March 31, 2016

Making America Great Again, Again

As a rabbi, I am barred by custom (and IRS regulation, in that I serve a not-for-profit charitable organization) from endorsing candidates for public office. This is something I scrupulously observe both because losing its tax-exempt status would be a catastrophe for Shelter Rock and also because I agree with the basic principle behind the rule and feel that a house of worship should indeed be above the political fray and thus able fully to welcome would-be worshipers and potential members of all political stripes and persuasion. That ability would be seriously compromised if it were overtly to be identified with one political party or with one specific candidate for office, and that’s why I think the rule is reasonable. But, all that being the case, I was all the more surprised last week when some responded to what I wrote about my experiences at AIPAC by asking if my words were a veiled effort publicly to endorse Donald Trump for office. To say the very least, that was not even remotely what I meant to say.

Nor is it what I said. What impressed me and impresses me still, on the other hand, was the way the man was able to command the full attention of the 18,000 people in the Staples Center in a way none of the other candidates—not John Kasich or Ted Cruz, but also, speaking frankly, also not Hillary Clinton—was able to manage. What he said, as noted, was bizarre—a strange pastiche of misinformation about the current administration’s record, childishly formulated insults directed openly and unambiguously at President Obama, and shameless pandering to the crowd…and all of that came to us lathered over with the kind of idiosyncratic strut and swagger that has come to be identified with the Trump campaign in general and in particular with the candidate’s oratory. It was not precisely an inspiring performance, but it was a riveting one. I wish you could all have been there to experience it with me. You might have found it horrifying, but you would surely also have found it arresting. Clearly, skill as a public speaker is not much of a qualification for national office. Some of history’s most horrific demagogues had that same ability to mesmerize with their oratory, after all. But so also have some of our greatest leaders. It’s a gift, to be sure. But it’s hardly a virtue.

Having said all that, I’d like to return to the question of Donald Trump’s candidacy this week and write about the slogan that seems to me to be at the heart of the matter. “Make American Great Again!” isn’t an original Trumpism: Ronald Reagan used it to great success during the 1980 presidential campaign and others have used it since. For an amusing take-down of Trump’s claim to have authored the slogan, you can click here to see Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article on the topic. But the slogan itself isn’t amusing at all, and for several reasons. Firstly, it seems to encapsulate the emotional/ideational platform on which vast numbers of Donald Trump’s supporters are standing and so deserves to be taken seriously by any who would explain the candidate’s success to date. Secondly, and perhaps even more to the point, the words “Make America Great Again!” seem to embody the candidate’s own sense of what his campaign is really about, the core concept regarding which the rest of the man’s rhetoric is mere elucidation and elaboration. And, finally, the slogan deserves our attention because its corollary assumptions—that American was once great but no longer is, that America can return to greatness by electing the right president, and that if Americans fail to restore their nation to its former glory then they will have no one to blame but themselves—are principles that could animate presidential policy and even Congressional legislation in the future in a way that could dramatically alter our sense of national purpose and our understanding of our own national destiny. And given even the possibility of a Trump administration, this is something all Americans should take seriously and thoughtfully.

The slogan itself may date back to 1979 or so, but the notion it encapsulates—that America must seize its greatness, not just hope for it—is dramatically older and has animated many different chapters in American history.  Nor is the underlying notion that even illegality should not be allowed to trump (sorry) the pursuit of our national destiny foreign to our national ethos: every single one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence was guilty of treason, yet we lionize them today as the fathers of our nation and consider their sedition not only virtuous but gloriously so. That may well be justified—as a patriot, I believe it is entirely justified—but thinking so puts us on relatively thin ice as we ponder the obvious question that that belief brings in its wake: how far from the secure terrain of decency and morality—and legality—may national leaders legitimately stray in pursuit of national destiny? That is the real question that should underlie our national response to much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Or perhaps we should ask that same question using even more pointed language by asking if, in the final analysis, anything at all can be deemed illegitimate or immoral if it brings us closer to national greatness? When people carp about the morality or legality of this or that remark that Trump has made regarding the policies he would pursue if elected, that is really the question that rests at the core of the matter. Surely, at least for the most part, his detractors feel that immoral or illegal deeds cannot be sanctioned even if they benefit the nation in other ways. But his supporters seem to feel, if I interpret their mood correctly, that by acting forcefully and unilaterally in our own national interests we simultaneously acquire the right not to care about whatever collateral damage to our nation’s reputation or moral standing in the world our actions could possibly bring about in their bold, buccaneer-style wake. That, to me is the core issue in play as the campaign—and particularly the campaign for the Republican nomination, unfolds.

The personality I’d like to discuss in this context, however, is not Donald Trump, but one of our greatest and worst presidents, Andrew Jackson. To most of us, he’s the man on the twenty-dollar bill. But to me he is the nineteenth century forerunner of the notion that no policy, no matter how harsh, illegal, or immoral, should be rejected if it serves our nation’s interests.

Our seventh president believed that our national destiny could not be pursued without enforcing a brutal policy of forced ethnic cleansing that would more or less rid the southeastern quadrant of our nation of its aboriginal inhabitants. And, indeed, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was first proposed a year earlier by Jackson himself and then signed into law by himself on May 28 of that year after it was passed both by the House and the Senate. To many, it must have sounded almost benign: the Indians, vastly outnumbered and widely considered morally and culturally inferior to the white citizenry of the states they inhabited, would be removed to lands further to the west where they could flourish unencumbered by the expectations or wishes of others. But that was not how things turned out and was probably never the real plan anyway as the notion of voluntary relocation soon gave way to a series of forced “relocations” of members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations from their own ancestral homelands to land west of the Mississippi then formally designated as Indian territory and today mostly located in Oklahoma. 

The name “Trail of Tears” eventually attached itself to the operation, and it was more than justified. The removal was by foot and wagon, obviously. Tens of thousands died. Even those who survived the trek westward suffered miserably from exposure, starvation, and disease. Existent treaties with most of the tribes affected were simply ignored. The cruelty of the operation was, in a world that had yet to experience the Nazis’ death marches, unimaginable and unprecedented.  When the Seminoles attempted to go to war with the federal government to prevent their banishment from Florida, a conflict known to historians as the Second Seminole War, the results were as bloody as they were predictable: the Seminoles lost. Thousands were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma. Those who stayed behind were forced onto reservations, but even that system didn’t last and the third and final Seminole War of 1855-1858 led to the eventual end of a meaningful Seminole presence in Florida. It was not our nation’s finest hour. Mostly, we ignore this part of our past: none of this is mentioned on the website detailing the accomplishments of our American presidents. (To take a look, click here.) It is, however, a cornerstone idea of the Broadway hit, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which won the Tony award for Best Musical Book in 2011, but in a peculiarly benign way that somehow identifies Jackson’s Indian policy with his desire to bring political power to the people by wresting it from the hands of the elite.

There’s lots more to say about Andrew Jackson. His so-called Bank War against the Second Bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve of its day, led directly to the Panic of 1837 that instigated a five-year depression that was probably the worst in our nation’s history before 1929. (Fortunately for Jackson, Martin Van Buren was well ensconced in the White House by the time things got truly grim and was thus obliged to bear the brunt of the national misery his predecessor’s policies had priorly induced.) But it was Jackson’s pursuit of what he perceived of as our nation’s destiny without regard to the treaties he had to break, the agreements he had to ignore, the misery he had to induce, or the deaths for which he had to bear ultimate responsibility—it’s that level of commitment to his personal vision of our nation’s greatness regardless of what the pursuit of that goal might entail that brings him to mind as I listen to Donald Trump promulgating many of his policies, and particularly regarding foreign affairs.

At the end of the Broadway show, the cast gathers to note that some hail Andrew Jackson as one of our greatest presidents but others damn him as the American Hitler. Those are strong terms, intended more to shock than to shed light on the man’s legacy. To compare Jackson to Hitler is as over-the-top as the parallel comparison to Trump that I’ve noticed lately on a dozen hostile websites. But what Jackson and Trump do have in common is their willingness to step over whatever boundaries it takes to pursue the greatness for which they perceived and perceive our nation to be destined. To argue that the greatness of our nation rests in its fidelity to the rule of law and to its willingness always to honor its commitments both to our allies and our citizenry would not impress either of them. But it impresses me…and when I think of America’s greatness, it is precisely in those terms that I think of it. Ours is a remarkable nation and I too believe that our nation is destined for true greatness. In my own conception, however, that greatness will be a function of the degree to which we remain true to the core values of our American republic, not the degree to which we are prepared to repudiate them to achieve some greater goal we see glittering off somewhere in the distance and cannot think of how to attain in any other way. 

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