Killing time on the links at Bedminster, President Trump finds the moment to launch Twitter attacks against the beleaguered mayor of San Juan, accusing her of “weak leadership,” and Puerto Ricans of wanting “everything to be done for them” as tons of emergency aid languish on the docks.
MSNBC’s Katy Tur has said during an interview promoting her book Unbelievable that Trump supporters frequently spat the “c word” at her during campaign rallies. Whipped up by the candidate’s attacks against “fake news” and Tur personally, crowds became so belligerent that the TV network hired bodyguards to protect her. Once inside a Trump rally, ordinary, polite citizens in daily life, she notes, become “unchained. They can drop their everyday niceties. They can yell and scream and say things they’d never say out loud on the outside.”
In explaining the GOP’s push to pass its most recent attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, Sen. Chuck Grassley told reporters, “You know, I could maybe give you ten reasons why this bill shouldn’t be considered. But Republicans campaigned on this so often that you have a responsibility to carry out what you said in the campaign. That’s pretty much as much of a reason as the substance of the bill.” Never mind that just about every major medical association, the insurance industry, and at least five Republican governors came out against the bill, which the Brookings Institution estimated would deprive up to 32 million Americans of health care coverage.
Earlier this month, President Trump rescinded the DACA program, which legally recognized some 780,000 young people whose only crime was to have been brought into America as babies and toddlers.
There have been more than 1,500 mass shootings since 20 first graders were murdered by a mentally deranged young man at Sandy Hook five years ago, including the devastating attack in Las Vegas earlier this week. Yet Congress repealed an Obama-era rule barring gun sales to people with severe mental illness.
Has the GOP lost its heart?
“Somehow, one of our nation’s two great parties has become infected by an almost pathological mean-spiritedness, a contempt for…‘losers,’” Paul Krugman wrote in 2013. “If you’re an American, and you’re down on your luck, these people don’t want to help; they want to give you an extra kick.”
Americans’ sense of community has been giving way to a growing sense of selfishness. Mitt Romney’s telling remarks at a 2012 campaign fundraiser with fat cats about the “47 percent” of Americans who are “dependent upon government” encapsulates this mindset. And so does a resurgence of interest in pop iconoclast-philosopher Ayn Rand. A woman in the supermarket line struck up a conversation with me the other day. “Have you read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand?,” she asked. “She has all the answers for what ails our country.” A friend reports his millennial daughter is enraptured by Rand, as are a growing number of the young. Sales of her books have surged since Trump, a self-proclaimed Rand admirer, was elected. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, CIA director Mike Pompeo, and Speaker Paul Ryan are also self-admitted Rand fans—as are many of the callous conservatives that Trump has tapped to fill out his Cabinet.
Rand, who died in 1982, preached “the virtue of selfishness,” “egoism” and an extreme version of laissez-faire capitalism that has become popular with libertarians. Society, in her view, consists of a minority of talented winners, and broad masses of losers. And she rejected altruism as “immoral.” Historian Jennifer Burns describes Rand’s writings as a “gateway drug” to right-wing politics.
I believe much of the class rancor manifesting itself in meanspiritedness stems from growing wealth and income inequality. Trump’s “forgotten men and women” increasingly resent the elites that have monopolized wealth and power. Between 1979 and 2015, income of the top 1 percent surged over 156 percent. The average income of the bottom 90 percent of earners, on the other hand, has grown just 21 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And the Congressional Budget Office reports families in the top 10 percent of wealth distribution possess more than three-quarters of America’s total family wealth, while those in the 51st to 90th percentiles owned less than a quarter. The bottom half of Americans, meanwhile, own just one percent of the wealth pie.
President Trump’s sketchy tax reform plan would serve to shift yet more wealth and income to the very rich.
Plato wrote that a society with a huge socioeconomic gap, in which the rich become richer at the expense of the rest, eventually leads to revolution. People rally around one man whom they view as their savior. They cede more powers to the charismatic leader, ultimately resulting in the loss of their freedoms and end of democracy.
I previously wrote that the United States may be “sliding into a morass of political paralysis and civil strife that resembles Weimar Germany.” Could we be on a path to the revolution that Plato talked about and which led to Hitlerism in Germany?
Our political leadership is clearly wanting with both Congress and the president out-competing themselves for utter fecklessness. John Adams saw this in his day: “If worthless men are sometimes at the head of affairs, it is, I believe, because worthless men are at the tail and the middle.” With such conditions, he warned, “remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Now maybe it’s our turn to self-destruct.
Or maybe not. Those of us who experienced the race riots, Vietnam War demonstrations, stagflation, assassinations and political scandals of the 1960s and 1970s sometimes feared the American experiment had run its course. But we came out of it. Many attribute much of the national recovery to the steady and sunny leadership of Ronald Reagan. Congressional leaders at that time, however, also deserve credit for coming together to address the country’s problems in a bipartisan manner. If we are to pull out of the extremely divisive times were are in now and get over the collective psychosis that is gripping the nation, sound, bipartisan leadership is again required. Unfortunately, this will not be possible until the current occupant of the White House and his party have a heart again.