In Memoriam: Wolfgang Natter, May 22, 1955-April 29, 2018

My friend and former colleague Wolfgang Natter died suddenly on April 29th. He was serving as Vice President of Academic Affairs at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota at his passing. I came to know him and to work closely with him when he served as Professor of Political Science and Founding Director of the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) Ph.D. program here at Virginia Tech from 2005-2010. We shared many interests, including an abiding belief that theory matters and that interdisciplinary inquiry and capacity represent the sine qua non of efforts to address society’s stickiest and most elemental challenges. Indeed, he led a successful effort to develop a forward-looking and deeply thoughtful curriculum for ASPECT that sought to ensure that students completing the degree would graduate equipped with the intellectual and personal capabilities to address just such concerns. That, of course, was no mean feat. But Wolfgang never doubted it would come to fruition and he believed just as deeply in the students selected for the new program. He was, as all of those who participated in ASPECT under his direction would attest, genuinely concerned that each of them be given every opportunity to succeed, and he worked assiduously and unselfishly to ensure that result. There are individuals whose appearance attracts the attention of their peers. Others obtain standing as a result of their charisma. Still others attain admiration by force of integrity and character. I employ these examples to highlight the fact that Wolfgang garnered respect and attention as a deeply learned person of boundless energy, compassion and curiosity. He was ardent about ideas and about their portent for making meaning in the world, and he was just as devoted to helping others realize how far their curiosity and intellectual and emotional imaginations could carry them. My sense always was that it was this zeal coupled with his kindness and intellectual capacity that drew individuals to him. He shared insights freely and was always ready to consider a new idea or to recast an argument or, indeed, his own perspective, when persuaded such was appropriate. In short, his persona was magnetic and his presence palpable.

To these characteristics, Wolfgang added an impish wit and a mischievous streak and smile that were consistently winning and thoroughly genuine. He laughed easily and whatever the stresses of this life, he never once lost sight of the joys it represented. These attributes made him great fun to be around. One never knew what sly remark, thoughtful comment or subtle observation might come next. He possessed a winning personality in every sense of that phrase.

Today, many intellectuals work diligently to command a limited repertoire of knowledge. Wolfgang was never so content. His interests and perspective were both broad and deep and these enabled him to interact thoughtfully with geographers, political scientists, historians and religion scholars, among others, with ease and self-evident confidence. To these capacities, Wolfgang added a lively interest in ensuring that all could grasp how theory could inform their daily worlds, whatever their professional vocation or academic discipline, a refreshing and complex orientation in a polity that so consistently prizes the applied.

In sum, Wolfgang was a thoughtful and gifted intellectual with a drive to understand how ideas could shape the world in a society that too often fails to acknowledge such abilities and passions, an individual of immense gifts who shared his capacities and curiosity unselfishly and with an eye to the needs of those with whom he worked, and a person of great kindness, humility and abiding empathy. I will not soon forget his good humor, bright smile and openness to the world. It is somehow bracing that one like Wolfgang could work and succeed in today’s academy, and for that reason, among so many others, it is all the more sad that he has gone from us so soon.


“Seeking What No Other Man has Found or can Find”

I had coffee recently with an old friend and our discussion soon turned to the dangers now facing our Republic and other democracies around the world. As we shared our concerns, we both observed that while surely profound, those challenges were hardly new. Nor, were they unpredictable. Rather, they ultimately had their roots in human behavior and complexity. As melancholy a notion as it may be, human beings have always been predatory and unfathomably cruel, even as they have always simultaneously been capable of the most sublime beauty and kindness. Leaders likewise across human history have practiced and appealed to these different elements of human possibility to curry favor and acquire and maintain power in regimes of virtually every description. Some—tyrants and demagogues—have appealed to the worst in human kind. Others have sought to appeal to humanity’s highest possibilities and to realize what those could bring for social justice and freedom. Later that day, I began reading a volume that quoted Henry David Thoreau’s comments on the “Chatham Men,” denizens of that harbor community on Cape Cod. These were mariners who had made it their life’s work to profit from those who had perished at sea in the powerful storms off the Cape by dragging for the anchors those unfortunate seafarers had lost. As he watched one such sloop and crew working from the shore, Thoreau observed:

She had her boats out at the work while she shuffled about on various tacks, and when, anything was found, drew up to hoist it onboard, It is a singular employment, at which men are regularly hired and paid for their industry, to hunt to-day in pleasant weather for anchors which have been lost, -the sunken faith and hope of mariners, to which they trusted in vain.[1]

As he reflected on all he saw unfolding that day, Thoreau rejected such efforts both as physically manifest and as a metaphor for how to lead one’s life or proceed in one’s profession:

But that is not treasure for us which another man has lost; rather it is for us to seek what no other man has found or can find,¾not be Chatham men, dragging for anchors.[2]

By analogy, Americans today confront just the choice to which Thoreau pointed.  They can descend to the most base and cruel elements in their natures and seek to profit from the pain and suffering of others. Indeed, they may cause such conditions for others by depriving them of their dignity, rights and standing. Yet, as Thoreau well knew, history suggests that the costs of taking such actions to assuage fears and feed personal power cravings can be unfathomable. The 20th century alone saw the Holocaust and Stalin’s systematic extermination of millions in Russia during his rule, among many other examples. Try as one may, it is difficult not to view citizens in the United States who would support torture and the deprivation of others’ rights on the basis of their skin color, immigration status or other characteristic, for example, as descending to the malignancy that inheres in their natures. Profound difficulties for self-governance and human and civil rights arise when elected and would-be leaders curry such inclinations and citizens respond in undisciplined ways, usually borne of the omni-present triad of fear, hatred and ignorance. In Thoreau’s terms, these represent modern examples of what others have lost and not of what might be imagined or sought. Not surprisingly, these stands have routinely been embraced by demagogues around the world, including our current President. That fact should surprise no one.

Indeed, leadership as the equivalent of dragging for anchors finds those practicing it appealing to the worst in their constituents and preying on those instincts to secure support and a crude legitimacy. The costs of such actions are well known and surpassingly sad as they routinely result in death, deprivation of freedoms and socially approved ostracization and calumny. The results are likewise predictably anti-democratic and dehumanizing for those so attacked. There are alternative ways by which to exercise public leadership and American history has offered many individuals offering those, including George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Lucy Stone, Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and countless others.

This spring our nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of two of its most gifted modern leaders, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. These were individuals who looked ahead to “find what no other man has found or could find” in Thoreau’s terms, and who appealed to the better “angels” in the natures of Americans. Each eschewed hatred and violence and both offered compelling visions of a democratic society characterized by mutual empathy and a shared quest for the realization of social justice.

I quoted Kennedy’s legendary speech in Indianapolis, Indiana on learning of King’s death in April 1968 in the January 22, 2018 Soundings. He warned presciently in his remarks on that terrible night of potential social division and violence and called instead for comity and justice:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. ...

And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.[3]

In what many scholars regard as his most powerful and profound speech on democratic governance, given at the University of Cape Town in South Africa on June 6, 1966, Kennedy declared:

And most important of all, all of the panoply of government power has been committed to the goal of equality before the law, as we are now committing ourselves to the achievement of equal opportunity in fact. We must recognize the full human equality of all of our people before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this, not because it is economically advantageous, although it is; not because the laws of God command it, although they do; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.[4]

Kennedy looked forward and asked his audience and Americans to reach out to one another to find their shared destiny amidst their heterogeneity. He appealed to the highest in his listeners’ natures.

King similarly appealed to the best in those he sought to lead by routinely asking them to practice nonviolence and to work for equality and justice for all. On accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace on December 10, 1964, King observed:

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down other-centered men can build up.[5]

These two leaders saw the virtues in Americans and sought to realize a vision of a society characterized by hope and equal rights. They worked to create a future that ensured the rights of all, even as both were deeply aware of how difficult that challenge would be to attain. They asked more of the nation’s citizens than a descent into cruelty, hatred and bigotry¾the touchstone of our President today¾and believed just as deeply that the citizenry could respond. The lessons that King and Kennedy taught are apparently simple, but their plainness hid grace and a complex and boundless passion in pursuit of justice for all. Americans now confront a choice concerning the people and nation they wish to be. King and Kennedy called for freedom and equality, despite the Sisyphean character of efforts to achieve those goals in the face of the passions and smallness of all human beings. One may hope citizens will realize how vital that possibility remains and how deeply it merits pursuit, and then will choose wisely in the coming electoral cycle.



[1] Thoreau, Henry David. Cape Cod (arranged with notes by D.C. Lunt). New Haven: College and University Press, 1951, pp.160-161.

[2] Thoreau, Cape Cod, pp. 160-161.

[3] Kennedy, Robert F. “Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968, American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches,  Accessed April 14, 2018.

[4] Kennedy, Robert F. “Day of Affirmation Address at Cape Town University,” June 6, 1966, American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches, Accessed April 14, 2018.

[5] King, Martin Luther Jr., Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Nobel Peace Prize 1964 Acceptance Speech,” December 10, 1964, Nobel Prize.Org. Accessed 14, 2018.

Revisiting the Foundations of Democratic Self-Governance

Virginia Tech (VT) President Tim Sands shared a thoughtful letter with the faculty, staff and students of the institution he leads on March 30, 2018. His comments concerned an incident earlier in that week involving racial bias and discrimination among members of one of the University’s athletic teams. For my purposes here, the specifics of the scenario are less significant than Sands’ response to it and what the matter says more generally about the state of American society and politics today:

While we discuss and debate the intent, the context, and the remorse expressed by the students involved, we would be missing an opportunity if we did not accept the reality that this incident is not an isolated one at Virginia Tech, in our communities, or in our country. …

We cannot practice Ut Prosim [“That I May Serve”] without empathy, and we cannot develop empathy without curiosity and a commitment to learning more about the lived experience of others every day.[1]

            Coincidentally, just two days before, Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, highlighted President Donald Trump’s pattern of appointments and daily role in assaulting long-honored values and norms in our nation’s politics. He noted that Trump had recently nominated his personal physician, Ronny L. Jackson, to head the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, knowing well that his choice possessed no managerial experience of any sort. He suggested that the President:

… is acting as if his job were to run up ratings for his TV show, not to make actual policies. … Yet America still needs to be governed, and Trump’s lack of seriousness has consequences. … Another consequence is that if and when America needs real leadership, there will be nobody home.

So far, the Trump era has been almost free from crises Trump didn’t generate himself. One of the few such events demanding an effective response was Hurricane Maria—and the response was disastrously inadequate.[2]

            These examples each reflect two broader tendencies in American society. Trump has brought these together and represents their apotheosis to date as he has sought to exploit them for political mobilization and power. The first example, evidenced in the Virginia Tech incident, relates to this nation’s long festering difficulty in ensuring equal rights under the law and in practice for Native Americans, women and for the vulnerable in its midst, including, among others, non-white citizens and residents, individuals with disabilities of all sorts, including those with mental illness, and finally, those whose lone social “offense” is relative poverty. Assuring human and civil rights and freedom for these individuals requires that society treat them with dignity and respect. Yet, contrary to this imperative, Trump has exploited the relative ignorance, innate potential for cruelty and the fears of a share of the population and used their willingness to other and discriminate against those different than themselves as his primary political mobilization strategy. Thus, he sought to discredit and humiliate his opponent in the 2016 election because she was female, has routinely lied about immigrants and refugees as threats to the nation, has falsely demeaned African Americans and Hispanics repeatedly and has even gone so far as publicly to debase athletes of color who have dared disagree with his demagoguery. This behavior has broken all long-standing norms of presidential and civil behavior even as it has implicated the President personally and repeatedly in lying to the general public concerning those he has maligned. It has found him continually fanning the flames of racial and other discriminatory behaviors among Americans willing to listen to such lies. Perhaps the most obvious example of this stance on Trump’s part occurred last summer when he suggested that Neo-Nazi sympathizers and white supremacists were the moral and ethical equivalent of those protesting their behavior in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When called to account for his dismissive attitude toward human and civil rights and for his mendacity, Trump has claimed that those who question his claims are criticizing him for partisan purposes and offering “Fake News.” The more egregious his paeans to racist or discriminatory behavior or his lies, the more quickly and loudly he has denounced those who might tell the public the truth, even when those individuals expressing concern are officials in his own administration or elected Congressional leaders of his own party. Trump cannot be held individually responsible for the VT episode, or for the uptick in hate crimes and incidents of discrimination in the United States during his presidency. Nor is he personally accountable for the fact that many have chosen to believe his nonsense concerning minorities and refugees and immigrants, but he has surely made it easier for those peddling the hate and lies that underlie these examples to believe that it is reasonable so to behave, since the President daily advances such rhetoric and claims. More, he has refused to repudiate those practicing still worse behaviors, and instead has daily encouraged just such comportment in his efforts to mobilize citizens on the basis of ignorance, fear and willingness to other and hate.

Even as he has peddled animus, Trump has also appealed to voters with superficial and empty binaries and promises. For Trump, immigrants are rapists and criminals and the nation’s cities are aflame and experiencing high levels of crime, even though these assertions are simply fantasies. Likewise, in Trump’s version of reality, trade agreements are pernicious lies costing Americans’ jobs and the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is the essence of courageous leadership. Every one of these claims is outrageous and misleads and simplifies reality, even as it offers superficial binaries and scapegoats for complex social challenges. Trump was once the attraction on a reality show that featured him following carefully orchestrated scripts to “fire” individuals who fell short of his supposed entrepreneurial standards. As Krugman suggested, Trump has behaved in office as if he were still appearing weekly on that television series by appealing to voters’ basic desire for easy explanations of complex phenomena. But, as Krugman also observed, Trump’s failure to address reality with his falsely constructed Cosmos misleads citizens, even as it daily creates a new array of social problems of its own.

To the extent that Trump is able to persuade Americans of his cartoonish and contorted vision, he encourages them to hate and to simplify reality in ways that lead to superficial and distorted policies and to adopt behaviors that undermine the possibility for democratic deliberation. President Sands argued rightly that the appropriate response to the VT incident is increased probity, empathy and respect for other individuals, irrespective of their characteristics. In contrast, Trump’s mobilization strategy prompts those who believe his caricatures to adopt his anti-intellectual stance and his contempt for compassion. Nevertheless, both prudent consideration and understanding are essential for democratic possibility in a diverse democratic society. As Sands also remarked, both of these requisites of self-governance depend on individuals reflexively grasping their significance and practicing them daily: “Let us use this moment to confront our own biases, cultural misperceptions, fears, and aggressions.”[3] In the name of power and his personal narcissism, Trump daily attacks the fundaments of self-governance in American society. Sands’ warning and call to practice empathy and to learn more about those with whom we live could not be more timely for the University community he leads and for the broader society of which it is a part.


[1] Sands, Timothy. “A Statement from President Tim Sands,” March 30, 2018, Accessed March 31, 2018.

[2] Krugman, Paul. “Is it Policy, or Just Reality TV?” The New York Times, March 29, 2018,  Accessed March 29, 2018.

[3] Sands, Timothy. “A Statement from President Tim Sands.”

Of Democratic Greatness and Infamy

Gary Oldman recently received an Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual awards ceremony for his 2017 portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. The film depicts Churchill as he began his tenure as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister in 1940 and focused partly on his political battles with those seeking to avoid conflict at virtually any price. But perhaps principally, the film shown a spotlight on his determination, humanity and greatness. While much else might be said of the movie, it surely captured a democratic leader and state at a moment of gathering resolve in the face of the menace and might of human darkness and tyranny as embodied by the Third Reich. While viewing the film, I found myself considering its implications for today’s American political situation in which a demagogic Donald Trump, awash in allegations of personal corruption and purveying vague, hate and lie-filled rhetoric at every turn, nonetheless has maintained the support of the bulk of his political party and millions of Americans. These individuals have accepted and rationalized his assaults on personal and civic virtue and democratic norms as “fake news” or the product of supposed partisan enemies who should be “locked-up” for false fantastical misdeeds.  Given this continuing domestic reality, it is interesting to compare Trump’s stances and actions to those of Churchill, as the English leader embarked on his role as a signally important world figure in the battle to overcome the Nazi threat to civilization. As many historians have argued, and as the Darkest Hour memorably recounts, while hardly flawless, Churchill rightly has a secure place in the pantheon of great leaders and defenders of the power and possibility of human freedom.

To gain his footing and lead his nation in its time of peril, Churchill had first to confront many members of his party who sought to avoid conflict, including the dying and disgraced Neville Chamberlain, still the chair of the new prime minister’s party. Chamberlain and others in Churchill’s War Cabinet and coalition were prepared to do whatever was necessary to undercut Churchill, whom they feared might mobilize Great Britain to seek to defend its borders, rather than negotiate terms with Germany. Their stance required that Churchill not only find ways and means to fight the tyranny at his nation’s doorstep, but also simultaneously address successfully those willing to rationalize that Adolf Hitler, the megalomaniac who had created that situation, could now readily be appeased.

By comparison, in Trump, the United States has a President and political party (the GOP) prepared not only to accept documented Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 national American election, but also to celebrate their architect, the autocratic tyrant Vladimir Putin, as a model leader. Trump has likewise lionized skinheads and racists and engaged in coy anti-Semitic rhetoric to mobilize those sharing such nativistic and racist views to his banner. In these polarizing stands he has behaved very unlike Churchill who sought to unite a disparate people to defend their nation with little to promise them except, “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,”[1] as he stated in his maiden speech as Prime Minister to Parliament on May 13, 1940. In contrast to this tough-minded call to principled moral courage, Trump has behaved as a spoiled child and unreservedly criticized all who might question him. More, as many other past demagogues in history, Trump has promised his supporters he will ensure them employment by vilifying immigrants and refugees. He has also assured his followers that withdrawing from international agreements designed to protect them from environmental degradation, or to provide stable global commerce and secure against corruption, will provide solace for their fears of continuing economic and social change. All of these claims are lies, and each has appealed to the worst in the natures of the audiences Trump has targeted.

Churchill worked to mobilize the citizens of the United Kingdom to counter tyranny and he did so by telling them truthfully that their choices and the days before them would be deeply difficult. In contrast, Trump has lied to his supporters repeatedly and promised that solipsism and cruel avarice are all that can or should matter in their lives. Churchill rallied his nation on the basis of the values and principles their imperfect nation nonetheless stood for: freedom of speech and of the press and the rule of law. In an almost unspeakable paradox, very like those Churchill sought to rally his nation around shared purpose and comity to confront, Trump has routinely called on humans’ capacity for hatred, cruelty, avarice and smallness. He has argued that Americans expressing their views in protests should be imprisoned, has constantly attacked the press as purveyors of “fake news” when those institutions point out his lies and persistent mockery of democratic values. He has dubbed himself “above the law” and has terrorized his Attorney General for not ensuring that he and his campaign operatives were protected from investigation for apparent corruption and wrongdoing.

As far as rhetoric is concerned, Churchill spoke with ringing clarity and unparalleled grace of the dangers to freedom posed by the Axis powers, and of the value of democratic governance they threatened. Here is an excerpt from his speech of June 18, 1940 as England stood alone in Europe against the coming onslaught of the Wehrmacht:

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’[2]

The United States does not have a tyrant’s armies at its doorstep, but it nonetheless  confronts a peril of its own making. The country is today endangered by the choice of a share of its citizens to support its president as he lurches from one hate-inflected speech and stance to another and persists in daily rhetorical barrages that undercut the nation’s most vital principles and norms. Economist and commentator Paul Krugman has lately christened Trump’s approach to the world as one of “belligerent ignorance,” an apt descriptor of his continuing uninformed bellicosity, which rests foremost in a willingness to despise, to belittle and to other those who dare disagree with him.[3] The Republican party has aligned around its titular demagogic leader and the nation now confronts a possible usurpation of its most precious values by a share of its own leaders and citizens. This is an onslaught predicated ultimately on fear, hatred and ignorance, a powerful multipronged weapon aimed squarely at freedom and hope for self-governance. No Wehrmacht imminently threatens the shores or skies of the United States. Instead, and very like another threat to England that Churchill confronted in 1940, many U.S. leaders are now willing to rationalize evil in their pursuit of power, ideology or spoils. The danger for freedom and self-governance is obvious and palpable. It remains to be seen whether an American leader as determined as Churchill proved will emerge to lead their fellow citizens to confront that peril.



[1] Churchill, Winston. “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat Speech,” May 13, 1940, ThoughtCo., Accessed March 11, 2018.

[2] Churchill, Winston. “Their Finest Hour,” June 18, 1940, International Churchill Society, In  Accessed March 12, 2018.

[3] Krugman, Paul. “Oh, What a Trumpy Trade War!” The New York Times, March 8, 2018, Accessed March 8, 2018.

Mobilizing Rhetoric as Emblem of Enervating Democratic Capacity

In my last Soundings commentary, I argued the following:

Cognitive empathy requires deep personal consideration and reflection concerning who one is and what one believes, as well as considered regard for how and why others may live and evidence different values than your own. It demands imagination, perception and sensitivity of a sort grounded in continuing reflection on the human experience. That requirement, in turn, necessitates developing the highest order forms of communication and reasoning both to practice it and to bridge differences among those with whom one is relating. …

More, one cannot so serve and unleash the agential possibility latent in all individuals with whom one might relate and with whom one might serve, if one fears difference or lacks the analytical wherewithal and emotional maturity born of continuing reflection on one’s own and humankind’s strengths and frailties. Cognitive empathy demands a deep rootedness in what joins human beings a well as a considered awareness of humankind’s propensity for both good and evil, justice and injustice. It also demands the capacity to analyze knotty social problems that are likely to evidence all of those propensities and others at once, especially as those relate to self-governance challenges.[1]

These contentions and four other themes I have highlighted in recent essays—the role of fear, “othering,” absolutism and anti-communitarianism in today’s mobilization politics—came to mind as I read President Donald Trump’s remarks at the February 23 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) near Washington, D.C. Each of these concerns alone, and certainly all of them taken together, serve only to weaken and undermine democratic proclivities among those who accept them. In so doing and in the longer pull, they also work to diminish our nation’s capacity for self-governance.

Trump employed all of these negative tropes in his CPAC remarks. Consider, for example, his use of the fable of the woman and the ungrateful serpent as a metaphor for how immigrants and refugees who come to the United States treat citizens of this country. Here is Trump’s version of the tale and the conclusions he drew from it in his speech:

On her way to work one morning, down the path along the lake, a tenderhearted woman saw a poor, half-hearted, frozen snake.  His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew. 'Poor thing,' she cried, 'I'll take you in, and I'll take care of you.'

'Take me in, oh, tender woman.  Take me in, for Heaven's sake.  Take me in, oh, tender woman,' sighed the vicious snake.

She wrapped him up all cozy in a comforter of silk, and laid him by her fireside with some honey and some milk.  She hurried home from work that night, and as soon as she arrived, she found that pretty snake she'd taken in had been revived.

'Take me in, oh, tender woman.  Take me in for Heaven's sake.  Take me in, oh, tender woman,' sighed the vicious snake.

She clutched him to her bosom, 'You're so beautiful,' she cried.  But if I hadn't brought you in by now, surely you would have died.'

She stroked his pretty skin again, and kissed and held him tight.  But instead of saying thank you, that snake gave her a vicious bite.

'Take me in, oh, tender woman.  Take me in for Heaven's sake.  Take me in, oh, tender woman,' sighed the vicious snake.

'I saved you,' cried the woman.  'And you've bitten me. Heaven's why?  You know your bite is poisonous, and now I'm going to die.'

'Oh, shut up, silly woman,' said the reptile with a grin.  'You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.'"  (Applause.)

And that's what we're doing with our country, folks.  We're letting people in, and it's going to be a lot of trouble.  It's only getting worse.  But we're giving you protection like never before.  Our law enforcement is doing a better job than we've ever done before.  And we love our country.  And we're going to take care of our country.  Okay?  We're going to take care of our country.  (Applause.)[2]

This rhetoric is sweeping, absolute, factually inaccurate and designed to elicit fear. Trump used the story to ask his audience to hate a group of people on the basis of deceitfully ascribed characteristics, and he went still further to contend that those listening to him should loathe such individuals on the basis of fear.  More subtly, this sort of speech attacks the idea of community by singling out specific groups for opprobrium and arguing that one cannot trust those “others.” I need not belabor here the irony that Trump’s mother, grandfather and two of his three wives were immigrants to this nation.

It also seems clear that Trump’s absolutism and false claims of certainty give members of his audience who wish to believe his assertions a way to make sense of the swiftly changing economic and social realities the United States now confronts, and to become comfortable with blaming specific groups for them. In this sense, Trump’s speech was profoundly anti-democratic. That is, his comments undermined claims of common humanity by degrading and dehumanizing targeted individuals and groups. One cannot “be like us,” Trump told his audience through his use of the fable, and yet “kill” us for our empathy. This sort of rhetoric encourages reckless and wanton cruelty on the basis of imagined and fantastical slights, even as it explicitly characterizes empathy as the province of suckers.

Trump’s CPAC rhetoric concerning the Parkland, Florida school shootings, in which a deranged individual used an assault-style rifle to murder 17 students and staff members, was similar in character. The President called for arming teachers with concealed weapons and “hardening” schools as a potential solution to the periodic mass killings happening in the nation’s educational institutions (a phenomenon unique to the United States):

It's time to make our schools a much harder target for attackers.  We don't want them in our schools.  (Applause.)  We don't want them.

When we declare our schools to be gun-free zones, it just puts our students in far more danger.  (Applause.)  Far more danger.  Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches and people that work in those buildings; people that were in the Marines for 20 years and retired; people in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Coast Guard; people that are adept—adept with weaponry and with guns—they teach.  I mean, I don't want to have 100 guards standing with rifles all over the school.  You do a concealed carry permit.  (Applause.)

And this would be a major deterrent because these people are inherently cowards.  If they thought—like, if this guy thought that other people would be shooting bullets back at him, he wouldn't have gone to that school.  He wouldn't have gone there.  It's a gun-free zone.  It says, this is a gun-free zone; please check your guns way far away.  And what happens is they feel safe.  There's nobody going to come at them. …

But I also want to protect—we need a hardened site.  It has to be hardened.  It can't be soft.  Because they'll sneak in through a window, they'll sneak in some way.  And, again, you're standing there totally unprotected.[3]

As Trump defined it, the “problem” of frequent mass shootings in the United States is not that individuals, including teenagers, can easily acquire assault-style rifles and other powerful guns, but that teachers are unarmed when individuals attack them with such weapons. Trump did not mention the role of the police, who represent and work to protect communities, nor did he suggest that government more generally had a role to play in preventing the possibility of such violence, except to permit teachers to carry concealed weapons. Trump also did not treat the role of law in creating the nation’s mass murder culture. State and federal lawmakers, after all, have crafted the statutes that have allowed mentally ill individuals and criminals such easy access to guns in this country.

Instead, he framed the issue as one of fearing the murderous among us and individually protecting ourselves from them. The implicit vision of society Trump presented was of a mythical Wild West run amok. This binary simplification undermines awareness of the need for cognitive empathy concerning how to balance the role of citizen rights to own weapons and society’s right to reside in peace. The latter requires a conception of community not present in Trump’s vision, which addresses the concern only from the standpoint of individuals. Trump’s formulation was devoid of any intimation that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, the state of Florida or the nation shape and are shaped by their inhabitants. Trump’s remarks lacked any sense those communities have rightful and profoundly significant roles to play in their participants’ lives.

Trump also called for efforts to “target harden” schools in order to prevent preying criminal elements from entering them or killing or maiming others once within. That is, far from calling for schools to be gun-free zones, Trump suggested they become heavily armed, securitized, weapons laden and fear-filled locations. It seems more than counter intuitive to imagine that such action would constitute a “safer” environment for school-age children.

Trump’s speech evoked a well-established pattern of mobilizing voters on the basis of fear, as individuals alone, in the name of phantom absolutist problems and responses and against stereotyped and “othered” persons and groups. As long as Trump, and other GOP leaders particularly, can galvanize voters on the basis of these profoundly anti-democratic means, we may expect citizen capacity for cognitive empathy and community-based action to continue to decline. To the extent such occurs, we may also expect the nation’s capacity for self-governance and its companion capability to maintain its citizens’ human and civil rights to deteriorate.



[1] Stephenson, Max, Jr., “On ‘Changemakers,’ Education and Democratic Self-Governance,” Soundings, February 19, 2018,, Accessed February 25, 2018.

[2] Lord, Debbie. “Full Transcript: Read Donald Trump’s Remarks at CPAC,” The Atlanta Constitution, February 24, 2018, Accessed February 24, 2018.

[3] Lord. “Full Transcript.”

On ‘Changemakers,’ Education and Democratic Self-Governance

New York Times writer Frank Bruni began his February 10, 2018 column with the following observation:

What a herky-jerky mess our federal government is. What a bumbling klutz. It can’t manage health care. It can’t master infrastructure.  It can’t fund itself for more than tiny increments of time. It can barely stay open. It shut down briefly on Friday for the second time in three weeks. Maybe it should just stay closed for good.[1]

While this argument certainly captures the reader’s attention, it is far too sweeping, even as an opening statement There is no reason to suppose that government has suddenly broken or to adopt long-time Republican assertions that democratic governance has little or no place in our political economy, as Bruni seemed to do here. Instead, one must point to the choice by a share of our elected officials—particularly, though not exclusively GOP partisans—not to govern, or to govern with a corrosive and increasing cynicism aimed at manipulating the body politic for electoral or material gain.

That is, the situation Bruni highlighted has nothing to do with the innate capacity of self-governance per se to function and has everything to do with elected officials choosing not to govern. One must also recall that a share of the citizenry has installed the officials perpetrating this ongoing scenario and has often repeatedly returned them to those positions of trust, albeit often representing terribly gerrymandered jurisdictions. Put differently, none of the woes to which Bruni pointed need to occur, as they are not inherent to self-governance. The extent they are occurring owes everything to leaders’ choices and their perception that hobbling democracy will be tolerated and will prove electorally beneficial and, for some at least, including the President, will be personally financially lucrative as well.

Bruni went on to observe that corporations are taking up some of the slack in domains, in education particularly, in which government has been faltering, very much in keeping with the Republican Party’s regnant ideology that only market institutions possess legitimacy in society,

In an effort to make sure that employees have up-to-the-minute technical skills—or are simply adept at critical thinking and creative problem solving—more companies have developed academies of their own. That’s likely to accelerate.[2]

This contention struck me as strange, too, as it was offered at a time when American educational institutions at all levels have never focused more intensively on preparing students for jobs and offering purportedly “practical” workforce-related curricula. Bruni offered this argument concerning corporate substitution as tens of thousands of parents are sending their children to colleges and universities each year demanding not that these institutions educate their youths for life, professions and citizenship, but that they focus instead on providing the students “saleable” skills for their first position. For the lion’s share of those young adults, that will be with a for-profit business.

More broadly, the neoliberal public philosophy underpinning the claims that have prompted parents to advise their children that philosophy, literature and religion-related classes, among others, are of no practical value, has long promoted the commodification of knowledge. That cultural demand is now being pressed ever more relentlessly on educational institutions by employers and families alike. And make no mistake, those organizations have responded. Learning now is tested by and oriented toward examination as never before, and lawmakers have for decades pressed schools at all scales to offer only curricula perceived as vocationally relevant. During this same period, public higher education has become ever more dependent on corporate contracts and related philanthropy as governments have disinvested in those institutions, prompting their leaders to become increasingly willing to respond to company claims to undertake specific initiatives and curricula.

Given this long-term reality, one now must ask whether the guidance of market ideologues and firms toward instrumental and commodified knowledge has been mistargeted. That is, reading Bruni, I found myself musing how, after decades of initiatives designed to ensure that education better serve the market, one could still find officials and corporate leaders suggesting that more of the same remained necessary. This strange situation leads one to wonder whether the promoted cure is, in fact, the source of the supposed malady.

Two days before Bruni published his essay, David Brooks, also a columnist for The New York Times, reported that he had interviewed Bill Drayton, who coined the term “social entrepreneur,” some decades ago. Brooks recounted that Drayton had recently suggested that the nation needed a differently equipped work force than it has been producing.  More precisely,

Drayton believes we’re in the middle of a necessary but painful historical transition. For millennia, most people’s lives had a certain pattern. You went to school to learn a trade or a skill—baking, farming or accounting. Then you could go into the work force and make a good living repeating the same skill over the course of your career. But these days machines can do pretty much anything that’s repetitive. The new world requires a different sort of person. Drayton calls this new sort of person a changemaker. Changemakers are people who can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action and then continually adapt as situations change.[3]

Brooks then argued that for individuals to play this role, they had to possess what I have       elsewhere called empathetic imagination, which Brooks, following Drayton, described as:

‘… cognitive empathy-based living for the good of all.’ Cognitive empathy is the ability to perceive how people are feeling in evolving circumstances. ‘For the good of all’ is the capacity to build teams. … Social transformation flows from personal transformation. You change the world when you hold up a new and more attractive way to live. And Drayton wants to make universal a quality many people don’t even see: agency.[4]

Two things stood out for me as I considered Brooks’ and Drayton’s contentions and compared those to the concern Bruni had raised. First, cognitive empathy requires deep personal consideration and reflection concerning who one is and what one believes, as well as considered regard for how and why others may live and evidence different values than your own. It demands imagination, perception and sensitivity of a sort grounded in continuing reflection on the human experience. That requirement, in turn, necessitates developing the highest order forms of communication and reasoning both to practice it and to bridge differences among those with whom one is relating. One cannot presume to serve the commons as Drayton’s would-be changemaker without an awareness and an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of one’s community, and a capacity to identify its concerns and how collective action might be harnessed to address them.

More, one cannot so serve and unleash the agential possibility latent in all individuals with whom one might relate and with whom one might serve, if one fears difference or lacks the analytical wherewithal and emotional maturity born of continuing reflection on one’s own and humankind’s strengths and frailties. Cognitive empathy demands a deep rootedness in what joins human beings a well as a considered awareness of humankind’s propensity for both good and evil, justice and injustice. It also demands the capacity to analyze knotty social problems that are likely to evidence all of those propensities and others at once, especially as those relate to self-governance challenges.

In short, if Drayton and Brooks are right, we need an educational system that encourages and elicits the empathy and cognitive imaginations of those engaged in it. Our nation needs curricula at all scales that encourage students to develop the intellectual wherewithal to address the human needs in their communities and that helps each understand the fundamental dignity that inheres in all with whom they might cooperate to realize their aims. And yet, for decades, many of our nation’s public officials have preached atomistic individualism and argued that curricula should serve the market. As officials have pressed these utilitarian claims, they have convinced many of their constituents that deeper knowledge, self-awareness and analytical capabilities are dross. But, the lesson of Bruni, Brooks and Drayton is that, far from rubbish, citizen acquisition of these capabilities constitute the population’s future as both a productive and democratically self-governing people.

The lesson here is that lawmakers must stop trivializing the complexity of the human experience and begin to demand afresh that educational institutions prepare Americans to participate in the market and self-governance as changemakers. Happily, it appears that these domains demand the same capabilities of the nation’s individuals. The question now is whether the majority of elected officials will demonstrate sufficient imagination and courage to press for their adoption as a foremost social and educational aspiration for all. Should they do so, it appears the “market” will embrace their effort. So, the issue now is whether they can overcome their own emotional fears and intellectual smallness to acknowledge this necessity, having worked for decades to delegitimize its centrality in the nation’s consciousness.



[1] Bruni, Frank, “Corporations will Inherit the Earth,” The New York Times, February 10, 2018, Accessed February 11, 2018.

[2] Bruni, “Corporations will Inherit the Earth.”

[3] Brooks, David, “Everyone a Changemaker,” The New York Times, February 8, 2018, Accessed February 8, 2018.

[4] Brooks, “Everyone a Changemaker.”

“Scraping off the Essence of Things”

The much-loved modern Irish lyrical poet and philosopher John O’Donohue died unexpectedly at 52 in January 2008. Prior to his passing, O’Donohue had been a frequent presence on RTÈ (Ireland’s National Television and Radio broadcaster) to discuss his work and to share his insights. The texts of a share of those conversations, often hosted by John Quinn, were collected by that journalist in a volume entitled Walking on the Pastures of Wonder in 2015. One segment saw the poet reflecting on fear:

      Fear is a force in human life that can turn that which is real, meaningful, warm, gentle and kind in your life into devastation and desert. It is a powerful force. …  It is the point at which wonder begins to consume itself and scrape off the essence of things. It begins to people realities with ghost figures. It makes the self feel vulnerable and it can take away loveliness from your experience and from your friendships, and even from your action and your work.[1]

I find it fascinating that O’Donohue argued that fear clouds perception and judgment and, more deeply, can consume the individual experiencing or embracing it as he or she finds their very core beliefs corroded by suspicion and willingness to imagine the worst about even that which is wondrous in their lives. Fear surely creates vulnerability, even as it fuels that emotion, and results in emptiness. It can likewise poison relationships and coarsen one’s view of even positive experiences. In short, fear can, and often does, occlude reality while leaving those held in its thrall empty, pained and willing to jettison even their most ardently held core beliefs and norms in its name.

O’Donohue shared an old Indian story to illustrate the effects of fear on human beings:

           The best story I know about fear is a story from India. It is several thousand years old, and it is a story about a man condemned to spend a night in a cell with a poisonous snake. If he made the slightest little stir, the snake was on top of him and he was dead. So, he stood in the corner of the cell, opposite where the snake was, and he was petrified. … As the first bars of light began to come into the cell at dawn, he began to make out the shape of the snake, and he was saying to himself, wasn’t I lucky that I never stirred. But when the full force of light came in with the dawn he noticed that it wasn’t a snake at all. It was an old rope.[2]

The philosopher commented that while this tale may seem banal, its moral was anything but hackneyed. Indeed, “… in a lot of the rooms in our minds, there are harmless old ropes thrown in corners, but when our fear begins to work on them, we convert them into monsters who hold us prisoner in the bleakest, most impoverished rooms of our hearts.”[3]

I want to argue that too many Americans are now living in desperate dread in the “most impoverished rooms of [their] hearts,” as O’Donohue memorably described that state.[4]   This situation was born in the early 1970s when, following the rapid economic growth of the 1960s that found the United States astride the world, the nation was shocked by an oil embargo and by unprecedented simultaneous high levels of unemployment and inflation, so-called “stagflation.” This scenario arose as the country underwent the Watergate scandal and continued to be deeply polarized by the conflict in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had exacerbated this social division in his campaigns in 1968 and 1972 by appealing to race and to a supposed “silent majority” willing to stand up against the claims of an undefined minority taking undue advantage of their good will. The abuse of social trust revealed by Watergate resulted in Nixon’s resignation in 1974 amidst enduring damage to the regime’s legitimacy.

In short, the early 1970s was a period of social disquiet, growing popular suspicion of American institutions and widespread division and conflict. Many citizens were shocked by the economic conditions they confronted and sought answers for the fears they experienced as a result. Ronald Reagan provided a simple explanation. The former actor and California governor suggested these difficulties were the fault of governance and democratic decision-making and could be “fixed” readily by sharply reducing the scope of government at all levels of society and by ever more thoroughly marketizing social decision-making. No matter that there was no empirical evidence for these claims, they soothed and offered a ready palliative for the fear millions now felt. Reagan handily won the presidency in 1980.

But while inflation and unemployment rates did slowly recede in the 1980s, many Americans nonetheless found themselves coping with unprecedented economic change, and the globalization resulting in those shifts quickened as the decade wore on. Indeed, many firms ceased operating in the United States altogether and moved their plants overseas to save on production and/or labor costs. These trends continued apace in the 1990s and paradoxically, Reagan’s Republican Party fought hard, on ideological grounds, to curtail or prevent public outlays to support Americans whose employment and livelihoods were adversely affected by those changes. This overall situation continued into the new millennium and was exacerbated by the terrorist attack in September 2001. Public disaffection with the George W. Bush administration slowly grew as the wars that president launched in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of that tragedy wore on without visible results and amidst continuing outcry that their originating rationale was baseless.

These long-term economic and political trends, exaggerated by the heightened fears wrought by the 2001 terrorist attack, found the United States body politic in a peculiarly vulnerable position as the 2008 Great Recession plunged the nation into an economic crisis without precedent in the post-World War II era. Once again, rather than support government action to address the economic calamity, the GOP fought hard to prevent first Bush and, thereafter, President Barack Obama from undertaking actions on a scale necessary to address fully the unemployment and dislocation wrought by the severe downturn. The Republican Party was now controlled by that faction of its membership that believed that governance and democratic choice-making were to be attacked at every turn and persistently described as illegitimate and deleterious forces.

This stance and the policy choices it occasioned deepened the suffering wrought by the downturn and extended its length for millions of Americans. More, as the nation began slowly to return to a more normal economic posture, growth occurred unevenly and overwhelmingly in the country’s metropolitan centers, leaving many areas hard hit by continuing globalization in a state of ongoing economic and social decline.[5] This combination of factors, heightened by decades of partisan efforts to attack the legitimacy of government and governance in society, found many citizens angry and deeply fearful as the 2016 national election approached. This situation was only strengthened by the reality that upwards of 80 percent of the wealth being created in the economy was now routinely captured by the nation’s richest 1 percent.[6]

These trends and the fear they have produced and sustained—some the product of ideology and others of long-term social and economic change—opened space for Donald Trump’s demagogic campaign in 2016 that argued that he could magically ameliorate these long-term shifts and set them right by force of his will. Trump coupled these claims with arguments that those suffering economically should blame people of color and refugees and immigrants for their woes. He won the presidential election in the Electoral College by a very small margin while losing the overall popular vote. In consequence, the nation now has an unpopular President who daily lies to the citizenry on matters large and small, just as often attacks central regime values and has systematically taken steps to provide still more wealth-making opportunities and taxation advantages to the most-well off in society. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast, the roughly one-third of the citizenry supporting Trump hail disproportionately from economically hard-hit areas and have been willing to rationalize his most outrageous policy choices, racist and nativist outbursts in the hope that he can deliver economic possibility. Put differently, in O’Donohue’s terms, in their deep state of fear, many Americans have turned to a charlatan who peddles hate, and even as they embrace his fantastical view of reality, they and their nation are continuously diminished by it. Those Americans, now paralyzed by fear and willing to abandon their birthright to self-governance to a blowhard demagogue, are like the Indian man in the story O’Donohue shared, cowering in the corner of his cell and just as deeply misled by that state. The question now is whether the citizens in our nation captive to their fears can experience the equivalent of the dawning the Indian man experienced that will permit them to see the true character and costs of their blindness. As the old saying goes, the clock is ticking.



[1] O’Donohue, John. Walking on the Pastures of Wonder, Dublin: Veritas Publications (2015), p.30.

[2] O’Donohue, pp. 31-32.

[3] O’Donohue, p. 32.

[4] O’Donohue, p. 32.

[5] Badger, Emily. “What Happens when the Richest U.S. Cities Turn to the World?” The New York Times, December 22, 2017, disconnect-megacities-go-global-but-lose-local-links.html?_r=0 Accessed January 18, 2018.

[6] Kottasová, Ivana. “The 1% Grabbed 82% of all Wealth Created in 2017,” CNN Money, January 22, 2018, Accessed January 26, 2018,

On Human Darkness and Democratic Possibility

Author and Nobel Prize recipient Elie Wiesel brought awareness to a reluctant world of the enormity of the horrors of the Holocaust. Before he died at 87 on July 2, 2016, he addressed the challenge he had set himself of preventing a recurrence of those events by repeatedly illustrating the depths of evil and depravity to which humans may stoop when fearful or power hungry or convinced of the inhumanity of those they are persecuting, or indeed, combinations of these factors. In his seminal book, Night, a searing account of his experience as a prisoner of the Nazi terror, Wiesel wrote of his initial awareness of the unfathomable darkness innate to humanity and of its consequences for him, as he described his arrival at Auschwitz as one of more than 100 individuals pressed into a cattle car:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never, shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.1


Wiesel survived the death camps in which he was imprisoned and, once freed, he dedicated his life to efforts to ensure that human beings would never again allow themselves to perpetrate such evil and cruelty. Despite his efforts and those of many others, modern demagogues in the decades since World War II have systematically and savagely “othered” groups—as Hitler had othered the Jews—within their nations’ populations to curry fear and favor, and to gain or maintain power. Such has occurred in Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Russia, Rwanda and Serbia, among other nations. These episodes cost millions their lives. Likewise, humankind’s capacity for malice and ignominy was on display during WWII in the United States with the internment of Japanese-Americans, and in the post-war years in the American south, with its frequent lynchings of African Americans and systematic efforts to deny them their civil and human rights.

These examples might be expanded, but they suggest that when free to choose their course, humans may choose horrific behaviors, especially when encouraged to adopt such acts by those they would call leaders. This fact simply underscores what philosophers since the ancient Greeks have known: People may evidence supreme altruism and goodness, but are also equally capable of their opposite. If one would give individuals freedom to make such choices then, as in democracies, one must also find ways to ensure that they are equipped with the capacities necessary to act virtuously and to choose leaders willing to ensure the rights of all those they serve, irrespective of their gender, race or other characteristics.

The United States Constitution sought to address this challenge in part with its Bill of Rights, but those principles alone cannot prevent their usurpation by a leader or citizenry, or both, persuaded to “other” some communities in its midst, and to persecute or demean those groups or deprive them of their rights. Only citizens and their leaders devoted to the common weal and calling upon the “better angels of their natures,” as Abraham Lincoln observed in his First Inaugural Address, may ensure the realization of those aims.2 Our polity now appears to be at a moment in which Americans must soon choose whether they wish to uphold the premises of their Constitution or instead watch as they are undermined. As people make that collective choice, they will also decide which trajectory of their natures they wish to embrace: that which allows them to continue together amidst their pluralism to forge a united nation, or that which tyrannizes some groups and, in so doing, costs all citizens their free society. This turning point has been both created and symbolized by President Donald Trump’s increasingly bold embrace of overt racism and systematic degradation of those who are not Caucasian, whether Americans or residents of other nations. The proximate question is of greatest moment for that minority of the nation’s populace supporting Trump and for his Party’s elites, the majority of whom have also continued to back Trump. The issue takes the guise of whether to excuse his ever more strident racism or to declare it and its purveyor unacceptable in the American polity.

We have arrived collectively at this moment as a nation in the wake of Trump claiming, baselessly, for several years, that then President Barack Obama was not an American citizen. That lie, which sent a message to Trump’s audience that a black man could not legitimately serve as President, was followed by racist comments aimed at Hispanics and immigrants as Trump began his presidential campaign. Once elected, Trump chose to embrace white nationalists and Neo-Nazis last summer after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia. In each case, as Trump has othered groups of Americans, he has appealed to his shrinking “base” of roughly a third of eligible voters by suggesting that they are innately superior and that those individuals he has singled out for derision were somehow responsible for any difficulties his supporters might be confronting.

Trump has chosen to add to this record of lies and calumny by demonizing and “othering” Haitians and Africans from “s**t hole countries” during immigration policy talks at the White House recently.3 That is, the President has moved from dog whistling to some white individuals, especially to men with high school or less educations, playing on their fears of demographic group population composition change, to offering explicitly racist comments that demonize and undercut specific groups within American and/or global society.4 Given the fact that the U.S. citizenry is comprised of individuals of different races, ethnicities, national origins and religious beliefs, Trump is denying reality with these remarks, even as he is refusing to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of those he attacks. That is the nub of the matter. Like many racists before him, Trump is asking his supporters to imagine that those he maligns are less than human, and certainly that those not born with white skin are “less than,” as a result of that fact.

In so doing, he has attempted to appeal to citizens’ (and humanity’s) worst tendencies. Trump has asked Americans to demean and hate entire classes of people who appear superficially different from themselves on one basis or another so as to assuage fears or address concerns that have nothing to do with those groups, and certainly were not caused by their attributes. Trump’s appeals to racism and to the worst in Americans should give all of this nation’s citizens pause and perhaps remind them that the history of this country has been characterized by the slow extension of civil and human rights to all of its residents, and it is that trajectory and those victories, hard won and unevenly realized as they may be, that Trump’s ugly demagoguery now seeks to undermine and place at risk.

Having said this, it is important to note that Trump is the most unpopular President in modern history and that he lost the popular vote in 2016 by more than 2.9 million votes. Millions of Americans disagree with his policies and pronouncements and millions more are working each day to overcome his most egregiously cruel remarks and policies. At the same time, his party, the GOP, is firmly in control of Congress and its leaders have steadfastly refused to criticize his actions, however outrageous, for fear of alienating the Republican voters supporting him and in the name of securing their own agendas. That silence cannot continue in light of the President’s most recent pronouncements and behavior.

On April 4 of this year, the United States will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. As we do, we will recall King’s work, as we recently did while celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King dedicated his life to securing full human and civil rights for African Americans and the poor in this nation. Trump has now openly attacked the ideas that King represented; that all human beings are created equal and equally free, and that all Americans should be given opportunities to succeed.

As we remember King during this moment of deep polarization in our polity, it might be well also to recall Robert Kennedy’s remarks in Indianapolis, Indiana to a largely poor and black audience when he learned of King’s death in 1968. Perhaps Kennedy’s vision of generosity, empathy and hope on that terrible night can help the nation chart a course forward out of its current self-imposed darkness. In any case, we may all hope that Republican congressional and party leaders and Trump’s most ardent supporters will reject his fresh appeal to racism in favor of a vision of the nation in all of its heterogeneity. Here is how Robert Kennedy framed the country’s challenge in the wake of King’s untimely death:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another; and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black. …

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past, but we—and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.5

Robert Kennedy trusted the American people to look forward with hope, openness and generosity. He called on the nation’s citizens to embrace their remarkable diversity and to find ways to harness their collective energy to move ahead as one people. Trump’s unconcealed smallness, malice and fearfulness directly contradict the American creed and its people’s drive to realize a better and more unified future. One may hope that Republican office-holders and officials will soon see the wisdom of that vision of America and demand that Trump change course or disavow him.


[1] Wiesel, Elie. Night, New York: Bantam Books, 1982, p.32.

2 Lincoln, Abraham, “Second Inaugural Address,” Fred Kaplan, ed., A New Birth of Freedom: Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln, London: The Folio Society, 2015, p. 331.

3 Davis, Julie Hirschfeld, Gay Stolberg and Thomas Kaplan, “Trump Alarms Lawmakers with Disparaging Words for Haiti and Africa,” The New York Times, January 11, 2018. Accessed January 11, 2018.

4 Weiner, Tim. One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016.

5 Kennedy, Robert F. “Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968, American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches, Accessed January 14, 2018.


Revisiting a Central Puzzle of Democracy and of Current U.S. Politics

One of the enduring enigmas of Donald Trump’s presidency is the strong support he continues to receive from white working-class voters who live in rural areas that have suffered catastrophic economic decline in recent decades as globalization has proceeded and the character of the United States economy has changed. Trump has enjoyed that following even as he has embraced policy positions and taken regulatory steps antithetical to the interests and welfare of those offering it. In any case, the evidence suggests that the nation’s thoroughly globalized knowledge-driven economy will continue to be based in its largest cities and that those urban centers are no longer tied tightly to the hinterland, as once they were, to produce the goods and services they create.[1] Meanwhile, a disproportionate share of Trump devotees resides in just such rural and non-urban areas. Today’s growing cities are connected to similar cities around the globe, and while the wealth they are creating is staggeringly large, those developing the innovations resulting in that income are not sharing it via co-production with Appalachia’s unemployed miners, or the struggling fishing-dependent families of Maine or the often-unemployed timber workers of the Northwest. Nor, are they providing it to many other hard-hit communities in the Midwest that have lost their traditional manufacturing economic base. As a result, a share of the citizens of those jurisdictions who have suffered swift negative economic change have all but lost hope and have become willing to resent the “elites” in the nation’s wealthy large cities and see those urban residents as depriving them of their livelihoods and viewing their declining way of life with condescension. Here is how an Associated Press reporter, Claire Galofaro, visiting Sandy Hook, a small (population 678) once thriving, but now economically reeling coal mining community in Eastern Kentucky, made this point and suggested its political implications recently:

Despite the President’s [Trump’s] dismal approval ratings and lethargic legislative achievements, he remains popular here in this small isolated county located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. … Trump doesn’t shoulder the blame [for their community’s continuing travails] because the allegiance to him is as emotional as it is economic. It means God, guns, patriotism. It means tearing down the political system that neglected them in favor of cities that feel a world away.[2]

This perspective suggests that Washington politicians and the denizens of large cities allowed devastating economic change to happen to this population and then sneered at those mired in its terrible effects. More, these rural citizens are willing to accept Donald Trump’s claims that elected officials and urban Americans adopted those shifts to reap profit for themselves and to help “others” (foreign powers, immigrants and people of color). Those individuals who buy into Trump’s assertions also believe that there are simple answers to the economic situation they find themselves confronting that Trump may realize by sheer force of will. Scapegoating cities as “cesspools,” as Trump and these followers have done, is not new to American politics; nor is the President’s xenophobia novel in United States history, nor, sadly, is his racism new. Each of these forms of appeal has nevertheless plainly struck a chord with many residents of these hard-hit communities.

These individuals continue vigorously to support a President embracing these ugly and false claims even as he has proposed eliminating the health care insurance support on which many of them depend, and has continued to work to undermine it when his effort to eliminate it failed. In addition, they follow a man who has proposed shuttering the national programs that have been crucial to such efforts as have occurred to generate alternative economies in their communities. More, many in this population support a chief executive who has lied to them consistently on matters large and small and who recently cheered his Party’s effort to enact a massive tax reduction that will disproportionately favor corporations and the nation’s most wealthy (the imagined evil doers Trump is supposedly otherwise combating) while adding more than $1 trillion to the country’s deficit during the next decade. And they cheer a leader whose party representatives have suggested that a large tax cut was important principally because GOP donors wanted it and had threatened not to continue to give to election campaigns if it did not occur. Finally, neither Trump nor his party have explained what they could actually do to “bring the old jobs back” in Appalachia and elsewhere, other than to scapegoat others for their loss, even as they propose depriving those affected of public support. Given these confounding facts, it is more than puzzling why anyone residing in these areas would believe Trump’s claims, let alone cleave to him emotionally as a beacon of hope.

Yet, according to recent national Gallup polling, roughly 37 percent of Americans support Trump.[3] It is clear that a solid share of those individuals believe his assertions and they see his narcissism and finger-pointing nativism and racism as bracing and confirmation that he is “fighting” for them, even as all empirical evidence suggests he is not. The puzzle, as Galofaro learned when visiting Kentucky, is discerning how this can be so. While I am sure some affected Americans desire simple explanations for what is occurring in their towns and/or are content to embrace xenophobia and racism as palliatives, I am equally certain that a share of Trump’s supporters are not simply racists or white nationalists. Rather, the President’s followers in places like Sandy Hook appear to be separating Trump from his expressed ideas and, indeed, from the GOP even as, ironically, he has embraced that Party’s ideological disposition to redistribute income upward and to reduce government support for their communities at a time they most require such assistance. Perhaps, as Galofaro found, the attachment for many is emotional and they want desperately to believe someone who promises magically to control global change and recreate the ways of life they once knew.

I suspect all of these “explanations” contain some truth. And I do not doubt that other rationales and rationalizations (a very different, but relevant point) may also be helpful as ways to understand these voters’ behavior. Lately, I have been reflecting on the power and character of political communication as a significant shaping factor in Trump’s support among the white working class in depressed communities. I do not mean to reference the by now well-known phenomenon of “narrow casting” or “echo chamber” communication, in which individuals may select such information outlets as they find accord with their ideological or other predispositions due to the explosion of sources of information and the availability of what are, in many cases, essentially propaganda outlets for specific groups and causes, including for Trump. This shift in the structure of mass communications is vitally important, but I want here instead to point to the critical role of an assumption or disposition that underpins all of human communication that British theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has highlighted.

Williams has suggested that freedom ultimately depends on the fact that another person gives you an opportunity to respond by listening to you, even when that individual is prepared only to disagree with you.[4] In plain terms, the fact that he or she is listening provides an opportunity for you to speak. Were they not offering you such consideration, your language literally could have no effect and no meaning. In this way, language creates space for democratic possibility through the antecedent condition of listening required for dialogic exchange. But this freedom is not absolute, as one’s speech must be recognizable and intelligible to the other if they are to listen meaningfully. That is, mutual human interdependence presupposes and demands a prior condition of intelligibility for all of its exchange. As theologian and political thinker John Courtney Murray remarked nearly 60 years ago,

… Barbarism likewise threatens when men cease to talk together according to reasonable laws. There are laws of argument, the observance of which is imperative if discourse is to be civilized. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when the parties to the conversation cease to listen to one another, or hear only what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories… When things like this happen, men cannot be locked together in argument. Conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of dialog.[5]

That is, if the “other” in this metaphoric conversation does not or cannot countenance your communication on the basis of a prior acknowledgement of your right to offer it, the very possibility of freedom may enervate and turn, at its extremes, either into a hardened state of sullen silence or a cacophony of competing claimants shouting into an abyss. Either of these situations ends the possibility for human freedom, as it imagines that construct to be the result of an atomistic act, which it cannot be, as there must always be others with whom one must interact in society in order to be fully alive and fully human. Indeed, freedom may not exist without an acknowledgement that its realization depends on others. Even to imagine other possibilities is to depart from reality into fantasy and to mar the prospect for both freedom and democracy in so doing.

In short, as a share of Trump’s supporters adopt his arguments that “others” have willingly and knowingly placed them in their difficult economic straits, and forswear at the same time an inclination to acknowledge more complex or alternative explanations for the challenges they are experiencing, they relinquish the possibility of democracy itself. Even as today’s canalized news feeds this propensity among citizens, it is this step to refuse to recognize alternate lenses and views that imperils freedom. It is this disposition, too, that provides Trump leeway and capacity to attack freedom of speech and of the press and to lie repeatedly to his supporters concerning the purport of his and his party’s actions for their communities and daily lives.

Trump has argued that this proclivity among his followers cannot be changed, and that he could shoot someone on a central New York City street and his supporters would countenance his behavior. Perhaps, but if so, we are witnessing the death knell of the possibility of freedom itself among this segment of our nation’s population. To say this possibility is perversely ironic and paradoxical is to understate reality, as, for the most part, no portion of America’s citizenry is more beleaguered, more innocent of the conditions that created their predicament or more desirous of serving the larger cause of their nation.

This analysis points up the central significance of the fact that, as Aristotle long ago argued, humans are innately social animals. It also underscores how misleading and problematic for freedom the modern capitalist and liberal idea that they are automatons can be. And it suggests the importance of leader intentionality for the health of democratic institutions. Given humanity’s propensity to desire simple narrative explanations for all that befalls it, elected leaders can seek to exploit that tendency and tap into the fear and emotion that crave such simplicities and provide succor to hate and to “othering.” Alternatively, they may seek to help those citizens understand their situations for what they are and address them as best they can as a people united in their shared desire for freedom. While intentionality is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to secure democratic freedom, attacking that social construct’s fundaments, as Trump continues to do, can only harm those moved by such arguments and impair our regime’s capacity to ensure it for all of our citizens. The sad and self-damaging predicament of Trump’s “base,” as his most ardent adherents are so often labeled, illustrates both the profundity of this democratic imperative and the difficulty of achieving it when elected leaders pursue power or self-aggrandizement or any other aim in lieu of a sincere search for the public weal.



[1] Badger, Emily. “What Happens when the Richest U.S. Cities Turn to the World?” The New York Times, December 22, 2017, Accessed December 22, 2017.

[2] Galofaro, Claire, “Base Maintains Connection with Trump,” The Roanoke Times, December 27, 2017, p. A-5, Accessed December 27, 2017.

[3] Gallup Organization, “Presidential Approval Ratings—Donald Trump,” Accessed December 30, 2017.

[4] Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2011, pp.1-14.

[5] Murray, John Courtney, “We Hold these Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, John Courtney Murray, 1960.” Harvard University: The Pluralism Project, Accessed December 30, 2017.

Fear and the Moral Imagination: The Oil and Water of Democratic Self-Governance

The current issue of the United States Holocaust Museum’s magazine, Memory & Action, features an article on the public outrage that arose in this country when early news of systematic Nazi persecution of Jews and other groups began to reach America in 1933.[1] Indeed, Rebecca Erbelding’s essay reports that “thousands of Americans attended anti-Nazi marches and rallies throughout the United States” (in at least 29 states) during that year.[2] One such rally in New York City on May 10, 1933 drew more than 100,000 citizens. But the outpouring of concern did not last and was not reflected in official government policy. A new exhibition opening in 2018 at the Museum will detail both the nation’s initial popular reaction to the growing evil in Germany and the reasons why historians believe it withered. That fact has left the United States with the agonizing question of whether the movement’s continuation might have made any difference in diminishing or perhaps even forestalling the horror that followed. While the exhibit will provide a fuller portrait of how and why the early furor concerning Nazi persecutions arose and evanesced in the United States, Erbelding provided two notable related explanations in her article,

Americans in 1933 were deeply afraid. They were afraid of being dragged into international conflicts: in the 1930s, Congress passed neutrality laws with overwhelming bipartisan support, proclaiming that the United States would remain isolated. … Many Americans also were afraid of anyone they perceived as different or foreign and many considered nonwhites as inferior. Throughout the 1930s, Congress could not pass an anti-lynching bill, Jim Crow laws (and customs) reigned in many parts of the country; and Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American citizens were forcibly deported from California.[3]

I found this argument especially striking given that just days ago the Trump administration announced it would forcibly require 59,000 Haitians previously allowed entry to the United States on humanitarian grounds to return to their hurricane devastated and deeply impoverished native country within the next 18 months. Stripped to its essentials, the “grounds” for this policy shift rest on an unfounded and unimaginative fear of “others” who do not look like the overwhelming share of President Donald Trump’s supporters. Trump’s action, in short, seems designed to exploit the basest of his supporters’ instincts and fears concerning social change and alterity. In another echo of 1933, the President has also sought to withdraw from an array of previous national commitments, including the Paris Climate Accord and the Transpacific Partnership. He has sought to justify these anti-internationalist steps as “putting American interests first.” At bottom, in fact, they reflect an isolationist fear of international engagement.

On the same day that I came across the Memory & Action piece, I read a devastating negative review by the distinguished theological thinker, David Bentley Hart, of a new book whose authors had sought to produce a volume justifying the death penalty on the basis of Christian teaching.[4] According to Hart, their effort did not succeed on any level. Notably, among Hart’s many concerns was this one:

Among principled opponents of the death penalty, very few could be accused of nurturing any tender illusions regarding the deeds or characters of violent criminals. Moreover, whenever one party to a debate dismisses the ethical concerns of the other side [as this volume’s authors did] as ‘sentimental,’ it is usually an indication of the former’s inferior moral imagination.[5]

Hart’s comment on the character of the argument and authors he was reviewing, coupled with awareness of the American experience in 1933 and Trump’s behavior today, points to a deeper reality: Abstract and absolutist claims, often predicated on raw fear, that seek to eradicate the possibility of a mutuality arising from shared humanity are the enemy of the moral imagination, that fabric of norms and values that joins citizens together and on which democratic self-governance ultimately rests. Here is how Edmund Burke, the architect of the idea of the moral imagination, described the concept in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion. … On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern, which each individual may find in them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left behind which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth.[6]

Today, it appears that Trump daily seeks foremost to appeal to his supporters’ fears of social and economic change as well as their willingness to scapegoat and discriminate against specific groups to “explain” and allay those concerns. The president has used economic and social anxieties and animosity to justify his attacks on the nation’s principal institutions and capacity for individual and collective moral imagination.

To be sure, Trump’s consistent willingness to exploit a share of the citizenry’s fears and prejudices for political gain—that is, to work actively to cloud and truncate Americans’ potential for moral imagination by appealing to their darkest concerns and ugliest proclivities—highlights his own dearth of that capacity. Nonetheless, the president’s smallness and cruelty do not explain why many would choose to respond favorably to his attacks on others in American society on the basis of their perceived differences. Put differently, fear need not lead to scapegoating and hate mongering, but it clearly has in the current circumstance, and it did so during the Great Depression years as well. Moreover, as Burke realized, those who are made symbols or objects of fear and loathing need bear no relation to the problems they are said to represent. Instead, they are persecuted because it is alluring and easy for leaders and some citizens to maltreat “othered” and often powerless individuals to help make false and simple sense of their own roiling worlds.

This discussion suggests that a central question confronting our polity today, now headed by a leader disposed to attack the bonds that join Americans amongst themselves and with the world, is where those desiring to stop such empty assaults may find leaders able to offer a different vision of the nation, one that stresses and nurtures those ties. Trump has shown he is prepared to violate human rights and vitiate civic connections alike as he pursues opportunities to feed the anger of his base of supporters. A key challenge for the polity now is whether other Republican leaders who recognize the danger that othering and fear-filled discriminatory behavior represent can bring an alternative vision for the nation forward and press it effectively within the Party and beyond. So far, at least, few elected officials in Trump’s party appear willing to play such a role.  Assuming those individuals cannot or will not do so, the responsibility will lie with Democratic Party leaders to identify individuals who can describe the peril now at hand for the country and chart steps to address it in a way compelling to the majority of the nation’s citizenry. Whatever their origins or partisan cast, the nation now urgently needs public leaders with moral imagination to help the country regain its balance and perspective and to ensure its prospects for continued self-governance.  The risk to the Republic is too high to allow the present situation to continue unchecked.


[1] Erbelding, Rebecca, “1933: How did Americans React?” Memory and Action, (Fall 2017), Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, p. 16.

[2] Erbelding, p. 16.

[3] Erbelding, p.15.

[4] Hart, David Bentley, “Christians & the Death Penalty: There is no Patron Saint of Executioners,” Commonweal, (December 1, 2017), pp. 16-21.

[5] Hart, p.16.

[6] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France, (Garden City New York: Anchor Books, 1973), pp.90-91.


Note to Readers: This essay marks a milestone, as it is the 250th Soundings—the column first appeared on January 17, 2010. Thank you to all who have encouraged me to write these commentaries and who have offered their comments, positive and negative, concerning my efforts. I am very much in your debt. The next Soundings will appear on January 8, 2018. Happy Holidays to all! MOS


Reflections on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at Thanksgiving

When I was a child one rite of passage for all students attending my elementary school involved memorizing and reciting President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I have since learned that this requirement was not unique to my experience. Indeed, I have read many accounts of others who recall undertaking it. In fact, my brother, four years my senior, also studied and publicly recited the speech. I remember watching and listening to him as he prepared to do so. Here is the full text of Lincoln’s unforgettable remarks as he dedicated the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 on the site of that terrible Civil War battle:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[1]

I want to focus on two phrases in Lincoln’s speech and compare their meaning and portent to our present national governance conversation as our country prepares to celebrate its Thanksgiving holiday. Lincoln began his address by suggesting that the United States was founded on the proposition that all people are created equal. By comparison, our current historical moment finds the President of the United States daily excoriating one individual or group or another as unequal and unworthy, in his ongoing efforts to polarize the population and provide grist for the sense of anger and sense of grievance so evident among his core supporters. He has attacked the grieving widows of combat veterans, African Americans as a class and as individuals, war heroes who endured torture for their country and so on. For Trump, whatever is up is down so long as he can divide and rouse anger among his followers by pressing a claim. More deeply, in all of these choices, the President has daily fundamentally and repeatedly repudiated Lincoln’s argument that the American nation was founded on the basis of human dignity and equality. Trump has done so most obviously perhaps by refusing to condemn the white nationalist hate mongers in Charlottesville, Virginia this past summer. Instead, he declared them morally equivalent to those who opposed them. The Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan devotees and white supremacists who marched down the Lawn of the University of Virginia brandishing torches and chanting Anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant slogans represent a cancer on the body politic and a force for hate and disunity. Nonetheless, Trump degraded himself and the country by refusing to uphold the national premise that all people are created equal that Lincoln had so eloquently articulated in his speech at Gettysburg.

Lincoln also contended that the nation could best honor the thousands who died on that battlefield by rededicating itself to individual freedom and rights and to a nation that would and could continue to uphold those for all. In contrast, in his first 300 days in office, Trump has scapegoated specific groups in society and called actively and repeatedly for a diminution of their rights and for usurpation of the Constitution and its underlying principles of freedom of speech and the press. As noted above, Trump’s targets for hate have included immigrants, African Americans and countless other citizens whose voting rights he has vigorously sought to impair or diminish in practice. He has also sought to treat transgendered troops serving honorably in the military as undeserving of full citizenship rights and more. Far from seeking to press a message of unity predicated on the extension and protection of rights for all Americans as a matter of principle, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity or any other characteristic, Trump has sought instead to defame and demean portions of the population. He has done so in the name of a vicious and vacuous partisanship and under the cover of a specious claim of a stance of anti-political correctness. His often far-fetched and hypocritical stands constitute invitations for Americans to tear down the edifice of common political rights and shared governance responsibility to which Lincoln referred so memorably.

Trump’s presidency represents a test of whether the American people are any longer capable of self-governance. Lincoln argued that those who died at Gettysburg could best be venerated by ensuring that the democratic regime for which they had fought and died endured. He was also clear that only the nation’s self-governing populace could ensure that result and that that possibility would constitute a major ongoing challenge. Today, roughly 37 percent of Americans continue to be held in thrall by Trump’s demagoguery and in turn are holding the nation’s governing political party hostage to their stance.

It remains to be seen whether this share of the citizenry can be roused from their peculiar species of torpor or whether the nation will ultimately see the final degradation of the institutions for which so many fell at Gettysburg. Lincoln saw the cataclysm of the Civil War as the ultimate test of our mettle as a people, but perhaps that was not so. Today, we are witnessing a far more insidious assault on self-governance and the nation as a share of the population seems willing voluntarily to cede their birthright of citizenship and freedom in support of an immoral and hate filled demagoguery. The current conflict concerning the future of the American experiment is not being waged by military forces, but in the hearts and minds, particularly, of just over a third of the body politic. One must hope the outcome of this contest will ultimately favor freedom, but current trends are hardly auspicious.

I could never have imagined as a child that I would be writing these words and referring to Lincoln’s profound declaration in the hope of awakening some small number to the danger now befalling their polity. As I do so, I remain forever grateful to the teacher who required that I begin to grapple with the fragile underpinnings of our shared democracy by reflecting on Lincoln’s terse evocation of them so many years ago. Our country is nearing its commemoration of Thanksgiving as I write, first celebrated as an annual national holiday only a few days after Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg. The nation then remained riven and at war. One may hope that this special day set aside for thanks will this year help to mend the deep-seated anger and division again so palpable in the country.


[1] Lincoln, Abraham, The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Online, Accessed, November 17, 2017.

On Human Cruelty and Alterity

I learned recently that all of the lectionary-based Christian denominations active in the United States—which include Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans and Episcopalians, among others—shared the same Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus in the Bible, with their congregations during the October 28-29, 2017 weekend. Those in the assemblies heard the following:

Thus says the Lord:

‘You shall not molest or oppress an alien,

for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.

You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.

If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,

I will surely hear their cry.

My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword;

Then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.’[1]

Regardless of whether one believes in a Supreme Deity or in a God that will intervene in human affairs to kill individuals guilty of visiting wrongs on specific others, this passage is striking for what it suggests about human behavior. Most Biblical scholars now believe that portions of the Book of Exodus, including this one, were written in approximately 950 BCE. This suggests that approximately 3,000 years ago, the Israelites’ leaders saw it as necessary to inform their tribes that God’s certain vengeance supported a moral claim and social norm that individuals not discriminate against others in their midst on the basis of their origins or, more broadly, their alterity or “otherness.” Put differently, the passage reminds its readers that humans’ propensity to discriminate against the alien was sufficiently common that such behavior had become the subject of moral rebuke and admonition, to the point of promising death, were individuals found guilty of such actions.

Closer to home and in our time, President Donald Trump has, in his efforts to mobilize political support, made it an article of faith to attack the “alien” in the United States as a persistent threat to public security and as a constant economic predator. The President has called on Americans to fear strangers and to build walls against them, both real and metaphoric. More specifically, he has repeatedly demanded construction of a barrier along the U.S.-Mexican border to prevent unwanted “others” from entering this nation, called for an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy, sought to issue a ban on travel for individuals from a select list of “othered” nations, and halved the number of refugees to be admitted to the United States annually. He has not yet gained formal government consent for the first three of these items, but public opinion polls suggest that roughly a third of Americans support these stands on the basis of a shared fear and loathing of the groups Trump has attacked. They support the President’s claims in the abstract and on the basis of fear of difference, and they believe such individuals are somehow depriving them of economic goods (through taxation) or opportunity (by “taking” jobs they otherwise might be able to obtain) or both. There is no truth in the President’s assertions, but that fact has meant nothing to those supporters willing to embrace hatred and to abuse people they perceive as threateningly different from themselves. In that, those now supporting Trump’s contentions are no different from the individuals whom the author of the Exodus passage sought to exhort concerning the dangerousness of their behavior so long ago.

A closer examination of Trump’s policy arguments concerning refugees reveals their emptiness and points up the vapidity of his larger related assertions. The United States resettled 26,124 individual refugees in fiscal year 2015 and 84,994 such persons in 2016.[2] These numbers compare to a U.S. labor market containing 156,993,000 working individuals in June 2015 and 158,889,000 in June 2016.[3] The percentage of the national work force represented by refugees in either of these recent illustrative years was, quite literally, infinitesimal. Nonetheless, Trump has argued that this tiny group of individuals represents so great a threat to Americans’ physical and economic security as to demand that much lower numbers be allowed into the nation. Again, there is no evidence for either argument. Exactly one known former refugee has committed an act of public violence in the United States during the last decade, compared to the thousands of such incidents perpetrated by native citizens during the same period. Likewise, while Americans provide modest assistance to refugees as they resettle, all evidence suggests that such individuals routinely soon transition to becoming contributing taxpayers and that they continue as such across their lives.[4] There is simply no basis for a contrary claim, other than fear mongering and scapegoating and that is, indeed, what the President has undertaken and continues to embrace concerning this population. He is adroitly using dread of the alien, of difference, to engender in at least a share of Americans a completely unfounded and cruel fear and hatred.

Given these paradoxical realities—that Trump’s claims are factually empty, while his monstrous assertions are nonetheless given credence by many—one is led to reflect both on the abiding propensity of human beings to “fear and loathe the alien” that would create this circumstance, and on how it might be addressed so as to prevent deepening its negative consequences for our nation. That is, the question Trump’s continuing invocation of hatred has raised is whether the United States will succumb to the same ruthless vacuity of which the Exodus author warned. One may hope that Trump’s mendacity can be addressed, at least partly, by consistent efforts to inform the public of the facts and of reality, as against his false and inflammatory rhetoric. But this remedy is not likely alone to persuade a share of those supporting the President’s incendiary claims to change their view, as ideology and Trump’s constant rhetoric concerning allegedly “fake news” have combined to convince many citizens that anything contrary to what the President says cannot be true.[5]  For others who support Trump’s assertions, including a share of the nation’s Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians, the President’s behavior is acceptable, however morally and ethically abhorrent and completely contrary to their faith’s teachings, as long as Trump takes stands they favor and they believe themselves better situated to attain and maintain a modicum of influence in policy-making as a result of his positions. Folk wisdom has long suggested the pursuit of power can be an alluring and morally poisonous elixir. Indeed, when combined with humanity’s propensity to “other the alien,” it has emerged as a force that now threatens to sever the very sinews that bind the diverse people that constitute our nation.



[1] The New American Bible, Exodus 22:20-26, (South Bend, Indiana: Greenlawn Press, 1991), pp. 77-78.

[2] Zong, Jie and Jeanne Batalova, “Refugees and Asylees in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, Accessed October 30, 2017.

[3] Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, “United States Labor Force Statistics,” Accessed October 30, 2017.

[4] New American Economy, “From Struggle to Resilience: The Economic Impact of Refugees in America,” June 19, 2017, Accessed October 30, 2017.

[5] French, David. “Mueller’s Investigation Won’t Shake Trump’s Base,” The New York Times, October 30, 2017, Accessed October 30, 2017.

Reflections on Capacity Building and Community Change

Note to Readers: I originally prepared this week’s Soundings as remarks I delivered as a keynote address at the Global Leadership, Empowerment and Diversity Summit held in Arlington, Va. on October 18-19, 2017. I have edited them lightly for publication. MOS _____________________________________________

Reflections on Capacity Building and Community Change

The organizers of this conference have asked that I address “Economic Development and Capacity Building” and, for me, that title implies a focus on developing nations. It also suggests the need for some sort of change—that would be the development part—and the need for means to achieve it—the capacity building element. In addition to denoting change, capacity building and development also entail learning. They do so, at least implicitly, as to learn, one must reflect on where one now stands, consider how a possible idea or course might shift that stance and what it might portend for you against some set of criteria, rational and otherwise, and then take steps to adopt new actions, behaviors and values to realize a new path. All of those things demand conscious cognition. So, it follows that capacity building for development requires at least that a targeted population adapt in new ways to its present circumstances. For example, when a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or government introduces water by pump and sanitary facilities to a community that had neither of these, the question is not merely one of information, but of systematically helping an affected population become aware of those technologies and how they can change the quality of their lives, and the rationale for each in their lived circumstances. None of these steps is automatic when one has had no knowledge of those possibilities before, and it can be easy to reject the new as alien, and to revert instead to what is known and long accepted. Development history is littered with examples of just this story and permutations of it in any domain you might wish to consider; agriculture, education, sanitation, housing and so on.

On reflection, it might seem obvious that development requires adaptive change on the part of the targeted populations in more than merely technical ways, since how one lives one’s life and views one’s place in the world do not stop at one’s workplace door, wherever that may be. Change of any sort, in this view, will likely require reflecting on existing values, norms and mores and reconstituting and reimagining those in light of the suggested innovation. Sometimes this may be easier than others, but it is rarely a matter of simply promoting a change, arguing it will make community or individual life more efficient, and seeing the initiative widely accepted and adopted.

Indeed, if change is disruptive, we might not expect it to go easily. Those advocating for the horseless carriage, as early automobiles were called, were derided as starry eyed and more than a bit dizzy, when cars were first introduced. Even when the new-fangled machines began to prove their capabilities, many people were slow to adopt the innovation as they perceived it a threat to their known way of life.

Just so. Much change that developers/capacity builders would bring to a community not only disrupts residents’ processes of accomplishing tasks, but also how people conceive of those undertakings in the light of how they make sense of the world. Bringing trade to communities that had only known barter and subsistence does not just yield “development” in some technical connotation, but literally destroys the only way of life that residents in such communities had ever known.

I am not being romantic about untouched cultures. Rather, I am making the basic point that all development is likely to require cultural change, and that shift is likely to be adaptive in character to varying degrees. That means a supposed “technical” capacity-building endeavor, such as bringing drip irrigation or new stove technology to communities, cannot simply be mechanical, nor a matter of sharing relevant information, since each addition changes the way residents see and reside within their life worlds.

If this is true, and all of the evidence I can find suggests that it is, then it follows that our dominant approach to technical assistance and capacity building for development must be rethought. That logic, rests on neoliberal assumptions, now roughly 50 years old, that prize efficiency as the central or core form of valuation of anything, and argues that markets should be employed for as much social decision-making as possible. But decades of pressing those claims in development has yielded mountains of failure, even as it has systematically devalued the cultures and beliefs of those it has targeted. More, it has so prized efficiency as to lose sight often of its consequences for justice in the affected societies. That should not surprise us, I suppose, since if one argues change is technical and merely requires some form of brief education, why would one be concerned that innovation might yield broader and deeper consequences? And indeed, that assumption has long been held, and is still regnant, for many engaged in development today.

There is an important corollary to the point I have made that almost all change is adaptive. At least in democratic societies, such shifts must first be adopted by the individuals affected by them. That is, ultimately those targeted to adopt a new “innovation” and whose capacity we wish to build, will arbitrate whether and how that change is realized. As such, their needs, behaviors, values, fears, prejudices and expectations will leaven how they perceive a change. And that fact will determine whether it is adopted and diffused or partially accepted or resisted and so on.

But, of course, if developers need to work to include the constituency whose capacities they would build in their efforts to design innovations, that itself is a deep challenge, as any of you who have sought to offer participatory space in projects in which you have been involved could attest. A whole host of factors mediate the relationship between would-be change agents and those selected for assistance, including whether they can come to a measure of trust, can come to shared understanding of purposes, can clarify potential desired implications and those devoutly to be avoided, and so on. None of these efforts is automatic and none are purely technical, but all are vital and all must be contextualized to the lived experiences of those targeted. Only those individuals can definitively suggest what that means, notwithstanding the good will and empathy and good intentions of those seeking the change, i.e., the developers or capacity builders.

That fact implies that real-world capacity building is, in fact, still more complex than what I have outlined thus far, since communities and their needs are rarely homogeneous and there are also multiple influences at play on whether individuals in a community can or will be able and willing to adopt a new belief or changed behavior or process or the like. Women in many cultures, for example, are often simply not permitted to play any but specifically assigned and often subservient roles. Western style health initiatives may first need approval from traditional healers before they will be trusted by the residents of communities in many nations. Likewise, it may take many pilot projects to persuade farmers that a new technology, seed or planting style is worth the risk of not knowing its likely harvest outcome compared to existing practice. I could multiply these examples, but I hope it is clear that those whose capacities we seek to develop are not individualistic automatons. They are instead a part of social structures and it is the sinews of those constructions and the ontologies that underpin them that often drive their reaction to offered change. And most of those mediating claims, developers cannot determine and ethically, perhaps should not seek to shape even when they can, if they wish to honor the dignity of those whom they purportedly are seeking to serve.

While I might deepen and develop this discussion further, I hope it suffices to show that

  • Capacity building cannot and should not be conceived as a technical enterprise driven by efficiency claims alone and when that is so, it will most likely fail;
  • In any case, populations are unlikely so to regard change;
  • Individuals should not be seen as lone, but social actors whose actions are likely to be shaped by the dominant values and norms of the local societies of which they are a part;
  • Those ways of knowing the world are often profoundly held and “sticky,” so most capacity building is unlikely to be accomplished along rationalistic pre-planned log frame/PERT (program evaluation and review technique) chart timelines.

Finally, capacity building must be said to have implications for justice in the communities it affects because it will shape social relationships within them, another and compelling rationale for involving aid beneficiaries in efforts to plan change interventions in their communities even as that fact complicates immensely the tasks and project and ethical responsibilities of the would-be capacity-builders, who must now work with affected populations and not merely deliver a “product.”

Taken together, these characteristics imply that capacity building must be considered very differently from today’s still dominant view that it should be planned by technically superior Westerners and delivered to “needy” recipients and evaluated against a criterion of efficiency alone. It also contravenes the reigning view that projects can be linearly implemented and their length and character planned alone by those offering them.

In lieu of these characteristics, one might expect capacity building to be

  • A messy process of mutual social learning characterized by fits and starts and, as often, by misapprehension as understanding;
  • Evolutionary and adaptive in character;
  • Charged with equity and ethical concerns;
  • Mediated by a host of cultural and political factors, including of course, questions of social power and privilege.

I think this complex portrait of capacity building, albeit brief, comports with the reality of such initiatives as professionals pursue them in the field. Hopefully, increased awareness of the realities of these dynamics will engender a greater sensitivity among those seeking change and a deeper understanding of the needs and vulnerabilities of those whom they would serve. It seems that just and ethical behavior demand no less and that, in any case, and simply as a practical matter, effectiveness requires it as well. In an article published in 1957, Martin Luther King argued in the midst of the civil rights struggle in the United States, that those pursuing change needed to “wage the struggle with dignity and discipline.”[1] And if they were able to do so wisely and courageously, the result would be a “bright daybreak of freedom and justice.”[2] A useful conclusion for these remarks today is to suggest that those seeking to build capacities for community change would do well to exhibit the same tenacity and perseverance and the same abiding regard for human dignity that King so powerfully articulated.



[1] King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” Christian Century, February 7, 1957, Accessed October 12, 2017,

[2] King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.”

Chilling Lessons from the Vietnam War Resonate Today

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick spent more than a decade researching and creating their recently premiered 10-part 18-hour documentary chronicling the history of United States involvement (and, less exhaustively, earlier French engagement as well) in Vietnam. The Vietnam War has been warmly received and has even been dubbed a “masterpiece” by conservative Washington Post columnist, George Will.[1] While I have not yet seen all of the film, I have seen several episodes, including part 7 (covering June 1968-May 1969), in which the filmmakers report a deeply disturbing series of events concerning then presidential candidate Richard Nixon. During that segment, the documentary’s narrator reports that at Nixon’s personal direction, a representative of his campaign contacted the South Vietnamese government and urged President Nguyen Van Thieu not to participate in peace talks in Paris, to which he had previously agreed, and which were set to begin in the week before the November 1968 American Presidential election. The campaign representative purportedly promised that Nixon would give the South Vietnamese a “better deal” if they complied with the request and he won the election. This allegedly occurred in the closing days of a very close contest in which Nixon’s opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, appeared daily to be gaining ground. Whether as a result of that request or for other unknown reasons, Thieu withdrew suddenly and unexpectedly from the talks.

The film provides a short excerpt of an audio-taped conversation between President Lyndon Johnson—who had learned of the Nixon campaign’s purported role in this turn via the Central Intelligence Agency—and Senate Minority Leader Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) on November 2, 1968. During that recorded conversation, Johnson suggested that “this is treason,” and Dirksen agreed. Thereafter, Nixon called Johnson and indicated, again on tape, he had heard such was being alleged and that he had not so acted and would never do so. Johnson did not say he had reason to believe otherwise during their conversation, having decided not to reveal how he learned of the apparent treasonous duplicity. Here is the relevant narration from the film:

NARRATOR (Peter Coyote):

Nixon was lying and Johnson knew it. But to go public with the information, the President would have to reveal the methods by which he had learned of the Republican candidate’s duplicity. He was unwilling to do so.

Nixon’s secret was safe. The American public was never told that the regime, for which 35,000 Americans had died, had been willing to boycott peace talks to help elect Richard Nixon. Or that he had been willing to delay an end to the bloodshed in order to get elected.[2]

The Richard Nixon Foundation has argued the documentary’s claims are inaccurate, but Burns and Novick stand by their finding, and clearly Johnson and Dirksen were persuaded it had occurred, as the film recounts.[3] If true, it suggests an individual so desirous of power as to sacrifice American military personnel’s lives amorally and cynically to obtain it. If matters occurred as outlined, this alarming episode shows a would-be President willing to commit treason and thereafter to lie flatly and outright to the President of the United States about his action.

But there is still more in the film concerning Nixon’s lack of a moral compass and his near absolute mendacity. In episode 9, the documentary recounts the horrific and costly failure of the March 1970 American air-power-supported South Vietnamese army incursion into Laos, an effort to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail by which North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were moving soldiers and material to the South for attacks. In the documentary’s account, the narrator states, “Although individual RVN (Republic of Vietnam) units fought bravely, the invasion was a failure.”[4] Casualties were very heavy, as were the numbers of South Vietnamese soldiers captured. Nevertheless, on April 7, 1971, following an additional American-backed RVN intervention into Cambodia as part of his administration’s continuing policy of giving the South Vietnamese more responsibility for the war, Nixon appeared before the American people in a nationally televised address “to report that Vietnamization has succeeded.” One of the pieces of evidence he employed to buttress that claim was the “success” of the Laos effort.

Following footage of the speech, the documentary provides an audio recording of Nixon speaking with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in which he tells the Secretary that his overriding concern as he considered the conflict was his reelection in 1972, and the war was a stone around his neck in ensuring that possibility. As he and Kissinger discussed the speech, Nixon remarked, “I will tell you one thing, this little speech was a work of art … it was no act, because no actor could do it. No actor in Hollywood could have done that that well, don’t you think?”[5] Whether it had been delivered by Nixon’s hypothetical actor or, as in this case, offered by America’s President, the speech completely and deliberately sought to mislead the U.S. public concerning events in Vietnam.

I was a youth as this history unfolded and was unaware of, or do not recall, these specific examples of Nixon’s duplicity and willingness to mislead the American people (and likely, worse) to secure election and reelection. When I learned of them while watching the film, I was shaken. Nixon resigned from office in disgrace on August 9, 1974, in the face of certain impeachment arising from his direction and attempted cover-up of the Watergate conspiracy. What most Americans—and one supposes, the 24 percent of the citizenry who, according to a national poll, continued to support him just prior to his resignation—did not realize was that Watergate was not an isolated episode. It was only one example of a pattern of behavior revealing Nixon’s willingness to lie and conspire and even allegedly treasonously to sacrifice soldiers’ lives to gain and retain power.[6]

I share these historical incidents for two reasons. First, most leadership theorists today define that phenomenon in a fashion that demands that it be ethical to be regarded as leadership at all. By these lights, for example, Adolf Hitler was not a leader, although he exercised power. Nixon knowingly and repeatedly failed this test, and revealed himself in so doing as morally bankrupt at his core, irrespective of his specific policy initiatives or programs. He was, as the film and Watergate alike illustrate, an utterly unethical actor, and therefore in no sense, despite his election, a democratic leader.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the nation was fortunate that the break-in at the Watergate was bungled and led to broad awareness of the moral bankruptcy of the individual who ordered it. The country was lucky, too, that its governance institutions worked to force his ouster. Nixon’s presidency stands as a modern warning to the American citizenry of what can go wrong when an individual without scruples, and without moral or ethical moorings, gains office and is interested only in power and self-aggrandizement.

If this is so, it illustrates my second rationale for sharing these historical examples of venality and moral corruption by an incumbent president. Chillingly, President Donald Trump’s campaign is under investigation as I write for conspiring with the Russian government to undermine the candidacy of Trump’s general election opponent. The parallel to Nixon’s alleged actions and treason, if shown to be true, is both appalling and instructive. More, Trump has almost daily and shamelessly lied to the American people about matters large and small. That is, unlike Nixon, he has not sought to obscure his venality and shame, but has instead argued that the media are misrepresenting him, and claimed they are partisan or simply corrupt. In fact, those institutions are neither, and the President is an amoral demagogue bent only on aggrandizing himself and his power. In this he resembles the disgraced Nixon very closely. And very like Nixon, too, Trump is maintaining the steady political support of a minority of the citizenry, irrespective of the many moral outrages he has committed in his eight months in office and continues to perpetrate.

Nixon left office under the certainty of impeachment, but, as I noted above, almost a quarter of the American public continued to support him notwithstanding. In light of Trump’s present support of roughly 36 percent of Americans, and in the face of his much more public display of lies and efforts to undercut democratic norms, I am left with two difficult questions. First, will today’s Congress and Supreme Court act to hold the President accountable as his behavior continues? And second, what will it take to convince those individuals now supporting a rudderless demagogue of the dangerousness of their complacency? History teaches that their stance, however rationalized, could prove very costly indeed.



[1] Will, George. “‘The Vietnam War’ is a masterpiece¾and a model for assessing our history,” Washington Post, September 15, 2017, Accessed September 15, 2017.

[2] Burns, Ken and Lynn Novick: “The Vietnam War, Episode 7: The Veneer of Civilization,” Accessed October 5, 2017.

[3] The Richard Nixon Foundation’s comments on this episode and narrative may be found here: “The Vietnam War-Errors and Omissions,” The Richard Nixon Foundation, September 25, 2017,  Accessed October 1, 2017.

[4] Burns, Ken and Lynn Novick: “The Vietnam War, Episode 9: A Disrespectful Loyalty,” Accessed October 5, 2017.

[5] Burns and Novick, Episode 9, Accessed October 1, 2017.

[6] Coleman, David. “Nixon’s Presidential Approval Ratings,” History in Pieces, Accessed October 6, 2017.

A Toxic Brew of Media Polarization, Extremism and Untruthful Advocacy

As Republican lawmakers in Congress have recently once again sought to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz has highlighted one of the two apparent rationales for their effort to deprive an estimated 32 million Americans of health insurance coverage by 2026 and to remove their protection against non-coverage as a result of pre-existing conditions:

Americans who feared that Barack Obama would come for their guns are happy that Donald Trump is coming for their health care, a new report finds. In interviews conducted across the country, people expressed satisfaction that, by taking away their ability to see a doctor rather than their ability to shoot people, the federal government ‘finally has its priorities straight.’ ‘I couldn’t get a night’s sleep, worrying about Obama taking away my guns,’ Carol Foyler, a gun owner from Kentucky, said. ‘Now that we have a President who’s just taking away my family’s health care, I can breathe easier.[1]

To appreciate the irony to which Borowitz is pointing, one must first understand that the Obama administration never undertook an effort to “come for Americans’ guns.”[2] Instead, in the aftermath of several mass shootings involving semi-automatic weapons, it sought to ban such guns for public sale and to develop more adequate registration and licensure requirements generally to ensure that those who had violent criminal records or past histories of mental illness could not readily purchase firearms. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Republican Party (GOP) teamed to argue that any such effort was undue and threatened hunters’ rights and would result in the action Borowitz here satirizes. It did not matter that the Obama administration never contemplated such a stance: many gun owners were nonetheless convinced that it must be true by the NRA and the GOP’s persistent advocacy of their demagogic narrative. Moreover, many, as Borowitz suggests, still believe that such was true. Meanwhile, irrespective of the NRA and Republican Party manufactured outrage concerning “gun confiscation” stoked by false absolutist ideology and deceitful “Chicken Little” claims, it remains relatively easy for deranged individuals to obtain dangerous weapons in the United States. America’s dubious distinction as among the most violent nations in the world continues unabated and our number of mass shooting events stands alone, an ongoing tragedy that speaks for itself.

The deeper point here concerns the storyline that has sustained this situation, promulgated on the basis of falsehood and ideology, and often, other unstated motives. The NRA has consistently attacked any additional licensure requirement for assault-style weapons as a complete undermining of the Second Amendment, a dishonest and untenable position, and one that is prima facie unreasonable. Indeed, the Association’s arguments depend on the successful propagation of a deceptive account to prove sustainable. Still, it must be said that such a stance supports the nation’s firearms industry neatly, an industry which presently sells thousands of semi-automatic weapons annually at a handsome profit.

If this sort of policy and political advocacy has consistently been true of regulation of assault-type guns, which, notably, are not used in hunting, the supposed raison d’etre of the NRA, it has also been true of the Republican narrative concerning health care insurance provision for millions of Americans. For some seven years, Republican Party leaders and candidates have called for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, arguing, among many other things, that its requirement that individuals obtain health insurance unduly deprives Americans of their ability to choose otherwise.

Likewise, they have contended that the Act costs its subscribers much more than insurance did previously. The problem with these contentions is that, however appealing to individualist ideologues, they are untrue or utterly nonsensical. A freedom to be deprived of health care when you need it is no freedom at all, and GOP representatives have never been able to produce evidence that the Act is a costly malignancy in such terms. The ACA has instead, without arguing it is perfect, provided millions of people health insurance who would otherwise not have secured it.

Nevertheless, according to various analysts and journalists, none of this matters to Trump and GOP Hill leaders today as they pursue the Act’s repeal once more, for three basic reasons. First, Trump is hungry for something that he can call a “win,” to share with his ardent base of supporters, irrespective of the fact that such a false and demagogic “victory” would deprive millions of those cheering him of their health care coverage.[3]  He is likely aware of that paradox, but apparently believes he can blame others for the result, should it come to pass. Meanwhile, GOP leaders are in a similar box of their own making. Having maintained for years that providing access to health care to millions of Americans is a travesty, and then failing, once in power, to repeal that imagined abomination, they now find themselves under sharp criticism by their devotees and donors who have demanded “evidence” that they can deliver on their promises.[4] In short, GOP leaders today are arguing they must take this action to take it and for no other reasoned purpose.[5]

Meanwhile, too, a share of their criticism has never been about the supposed freedom of individual Americans to risk sickness or death due to a lack of health insurance, if they so choose. Instead, to the extent they have been unable to repeal the ACA to date, Republican leaders are violating a pledge to a wealthy constituency to eliminate the tax that many are paying to support the law. More, they are failing to adhere to their ideological faith that reductions in taxes (of any sort) for the most-wealthy will free those individuals to use those funds to provide jobs (a proposition, interestingly, for which there is little evidence during the last several decades the GOP has embraced it most ardently).

All of these policy advocacy machinations and narrative claims exist in a rapidly evolving media/information environment in which those wishing to believe the sort of counter factual narratives offered by the NRA or the GOP (or other political actors, to be sure) can do so free of criticism by cocooning in news and social media outlets that support their concocted outrage about concerns that never existed in fact. In a recent thoughtful overview of careful analyses of the role of media sources in the ongoing polarization of the country’s citizenry, Isabel Sawhill and Eleanor Krause of the Urban Institute observed that the “Fox News Effect” charted by researchers, may have been even larger in the 2016 election than in the four previous national contests:

Martin and Yurujoglu’s findings are striking simply because of the sheer magnitude of this ‘Fox News effect.’ Indeed, the network may have played an even larger role in the 2016 presidential election, but no one has yet investigated the causal relationship. According to researchers at Pew, Fox News was the main source of election news for 40 percent of Trump voters, while there was no equivalently dominant source of coverage among Clinton supporters—18 percent of Clinton voters pointed to CNN as their main source of coverage, followed by MSNBC (9 percent), Facebook (8 percent), and local television networks (8 percent). If the growing influence documented by Martin and Yurujoglu continued through the most recent election cycle, the ‘Fox News effect’ might have moved an election-changing portion of the electorate in Trump’s favor.[6]

According to the Urban Institute’s well-respected scholars, the implications of this fact, in which Americans of varying partisan dispositions obtain their information from widely disparate sources, and in the case of “Fox News,” one that routinely adopts GOP talking points as a filter for its reporting and talk/opinion shows, are growing polarization and ironically, an increasing role for broadcast media in that process:

If some of these platforms meaningfully influence consumers’ political beliefs, our nation’s political divide will almost certainly grow worse. When individuals select media sources based on demographic and political factors and these sources then amplify or strengthen an individual’s political views, the echo chamber becomes a feedback loop for increasingly intractable political polarization.[7]

Finally, Sawhill and Krause conclude, “Should big money or rising concentration begin

to play an even bigger role in cable programming, control of the media could become the determining factor in electoral success.”[8] Taken together these analyses and the argument sketched here suggest several disturbing trends for U.S. policy politics:

  • the Republican Party’s adoption of ever more extremist variants of anti-governance and individualistic ideology and, increasingly, for the sake of doing so
  • the continued polarization, wrought by demographic canalization and narrow casting, of the media landscape
  • the GOP’s willingness to craft and press policy narratives and electoral claims divorced from fact and reality, even when those redound against the interests of the citizens drawn to support them on the basis of the values they are presented as embodying.

These developments appear to be creating a politics characterized by ever more brazen falsehoods predicated on the absolutization of ideological or advocacy claims to secure voter mobilization. These efforts feed polarization, with GOP Party narrative and related broadcast and social media outlets each encouraging extremism. The result, de facto, constitutes a continuing attack on prudential democratic deliberation of different points-of-view in favor of a willingness to valorize completely and, more and more often, false, policy narratives and claims. In turn, this cycle continuously raises levels of partisan division. These have only been made more intemperate by the coarse attacks on democratic norms and specific groups in which President Trump has engaged almost daily while in office and, prior to his election, during his campaign.

One may hope that the same voices that have thus far prevented GOP efforts to remove access to health care for an estimated 32 million Americans by 2026 and to blame those so affected for their inability to address their health care needs alone, will be able to stop like efforts in other policy domains, constructed on similar dangerous foundations. One may also hope that those citizens drawn to this parlous and perilous rhetoric will begin to reevaluate their stance and begin to call for a more grounded, reasoned and truthful policy dialogue. Whatever else may be said, present trends cannot be allowed to deepen if the nation is to emerge from this poisonous period of mutually reinforcing extremist, often simply untruthful advocacy with any remaining capacity to engage in something resembling prudential democratic politics.



[1] Borowitz, Andy, “People who Feared Obama Would Take their Guns Happy To Have Trump Take their Health Care,” The Borowitz Report-The New Yorker, September 21, 2017, Accessed, September 21, 2017.

[2] Luckerson, Victor. “Read Barack Obama’s Speech on New Gun Control Measures,” Time, January 5, 2016, Accessed September 23, 2017.

[3] Lucey, Catherine, “Trump Trying to Turn Around GOP Holdouts on Health Bill,” US News and World Report, September 23, 2017, Accessed September 23, 2017.

[4] Hulse, Carl, Behind New Obamacare Repeal Vote: ‘Furious’ GOP Donors,” The New York Times, September 22, 2017, Accessed September 22, 2017.

[5] Hulse, Carl. “Behind New Obamacare Repeal Vote.”

[6] Sawhill, Isabel and Eleanor Krause, “Gauging the role of Fox News in our electoral divide,” Brookings Institution Briefs, September 20, 2017, Accessed September 20, 2017.

[7] Sawhill and Krause, “Gauging the role of Fox News.”

[8] Sawhill and Krause, “Gauging the role of Fox News.”

Rationalizing Away the Imperative of Deliberative Self-Governance

Clive Crook of Bloomberg News recently wrote an opinion essay entitled “Why People Still Support Trump” in which he argued he was dispirited by President Donald Trump’s public embrace of racism and bigotry in his response to the tragedy in Charlottesville. Crook also was troubled by Trump’s pardon, of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who, while in office, systematically denied hundreds of individuals their civil liberties on the basis of their national origin or skin color.[1] Crook nonetheless suggested that those who supported Trump in these instances were being unfairly maligned by Democrats, intellectuals and many in the mass media. He framed his contention by suggesting that Trump supporters are generally understood by these groups in either of two ways. He first states:

There are two main theories of Trump's support. One is that a large minority of Americans—40% [N.B. actually approximately 34%] percent, give or take—are racist idiots. This theory is at least tacitly endorsed by the Democratic Party and the mainstream liberal media. The other is that a large majority of this large minority are good citizens with intelligible and legitimate opinions, who so resent being regarded as racist idiots that they'll back Trump almost regardless. They may not admire the man, but he's on their side, he vents their frustration, he afflicts the people who think so little of them—and that's good enough.[2]

            I confess I do not understand this argument. First, it is unclear to me that all who criticize Trump’s supporters suggest they are racists or idiots. In fact, many analysts critical of those citizens offer a much subtler portrait of their beliefs and views than Crook’s caricature suggests. Apart from this empirical reality, it is nevertheless difficult to understand why “good citizens” who do not “admire” Trump would back him out of angst that others may disagree with their views. But Crook goes still further in his criticism than this unintelligible position:

The second theory—the correct theory—is a terrible indictment of the Democratic Party and much of the media. Why aren't the intelligible and legitimate opinions of that large minority given a hearing? Why must their views be bundled reflexively into packages labelled ‘bigotry’ and ‘stupidity’? Why can't this large minority of the American people be accorded something other than pity or scorn?[3]

A bit further in his argument he suggests: “In fact, this automatic attribution of stupidity and bad faith is just another kind of bigotry.”[4]

I am even more confused by these contentions than those I quoted above. First, Crook would have it that a third of Americans are willing actively to support an individual whom they do not admire and whom he argues has adopted reprehensible positions, and then argue that their stance is a consequence of others not being willing to like and respect them enough, or of those others considering their behavior or beliefs in simplistic terms. That is, in Crook’s view, Trump’s supporters’ individual and collective awareness of that tendency causes them to be willing to normalize and rationalize the President’s attacks on the civil and human rights of immigrants, women, gay individuals and many other groups, and on the press. It is that concern, too, presumably, that brings many of them not only to countenance, but also to celebrate, Trump’s persistent lies on multiple topics, including press reporting of his activities, the views of his opponents, conditions in the nation and more. It strikes me that reality is much more complex than Crook avers.

Leaving this matter aside, Crook nonetheless goes still further to contend that since Democrats and the media are to blame for pushing these Americans to support Trump and to rationalize his anti-democratic and demagogic behaviors and positions, all will be made well if these individuals will just “respect” Trump’s supporters more. Here is how he put the case:

Democracies that work make space for disagreement. You can disagree with somebody in the strongest terms, believing your opponents to be profoundly or even dangerously mistaken. But that doesn't oblige you to ignore them, scorn them, or pity them. Deeming somebody's opinions illegitimate should be a last resort, not a first resort. Refusing to engage, except to mock and condescend, is both anti-democratic and tactically counterproductive. Proof of that last point is the dispiriting tenacity of Trump's support.[5]

Now, we reach the essential point: a vigorous debate is underway in this nation concerning two points and deeper principles that Crook’s “analysis” does not reach. First, is the question of whether it is reasonable to assume that Trump is venting his supporters’ or anyone’s frustration in anything like a reasoned and civil way. The issue is not, as Crook would have it, whether one admires fiscal conservatism or loathes it, wants the federal government to do more or less, or would like capitalist values to play a still larger role in our culture or a lesser one. It is whether Trump is embracing any of those positions or instead simply is mobilizing voters to vote for him and to venerate him on the basis of fear and loathing of “others,” including the institutions that help to maintain their freedom. To debate this point is not to mischaracterize Trump’s enthusiasts, but to ask what the implications of their backing for Trump’s actions and behavior may be for the regime and for self-governance, a decidedly different concern. Second, it is unclear whether ANY democratic citizen should be making policy or political choices on the basis of Crook’s equivalent of immature schoolyard praise: “I like him because he degrades that person I do not like.” This is not so much an argument as a carte blanche rationalization for Americans to embrace Trump no matter what he does and, absent any reasoned limits or thoughtful debate concerning the same, one that opens the door in principle to the undoing of democracy itself, a scenario Crook would presumably abhor.

And that is precisely the larger concern at stake here. Democracies cannot be sustained by citizens who believe and act on the lies of leaders who tell them that certain of their number are “less than” because they are the wrong gender, creed, color or any other characteristic. And citizens should certainly not be applauded for doing so on the basis of a supposed resentment that others are not respecting them enough. Nor, should such individuals be informed that an appropriate response to their perception when they confront such a situation, is to provide full-throated support to appeals to bigotry and fear by a President they “may not admire.” There are no limits to this sort of rationalization in principle, and it bars the possibility for a dialogue concerning the implications of such behavior for civil and human rights and for self-governance by labeling it a debate over partisan preference.

In my view, it is none of these things, but is instead an appropriate discourse concerning the necessity of prudence and deliberation for self-governance. Asserting that a share of the population cannot be called upon to consider thoughtfully the positions and claims of those they support because they are upset that others do not respect them sufficiently strikes me as both a specious and dangerous contention. It is dangerous because Crook’s reasoning allows him to rationalize virtually any behavior evidenced by the President’s supporters or, in theory at least, by his opponents as well, to whom the same contentions could presumably apply. One can say that those “others” made them think or believe as they did and then defend any stance they might take on that basis. This is a recipe for tyranny and not vigorous self-governance, and it is profoundly anti-democratic, the very criticism Crook levels at individuals and entities who do not support the positions adopted by Trump’s supporters as “intelligible and legitimate.” Crook’s comments not only do not support democratic governance, they go much further and open the door to an excused and unfettered nihilism.

A democratic people must hold one another and their leaders accountable for their actions against their shared aspirations for freedom and equality. Crook does not, and this sort of “analysis” should be held up accordingly as the sort of claims-making likely to undo our regime, rather than support it. Not all debate about governance is simply partisan, and there must be an ongoing exchange of perspectives among Americans about the implications of their nation’s policy-making and discourse for the health of their democracy. This should not be a conversation about whether some citizens support demagoguery out of resentment for being stereotyped, but a deeper debate about why anyone of any partisan persuasion would imagine such a position could support their continued enjoyment of freedom.


[1] Crook, Clive, “Why People Still Support Trump: It’s Not all about Bigotry and Ignorance,” Bloomberg News, August 28, 2017, Accessed August 28, 2017.

[2] Crook,

[3] Crook,

[4] Crook,

[5] Crook,


Freedom for all: Principle on a Precipice

Press accounts in the aftermath of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia are replete with comments by President Donald Trump’s supporters that his statements concerning the postulated joint responsibility for the violence there, on the part the white supremacists who organized the events, and counter protesters, whom he labeled the “alt-left,” were “no big deal.” His statements simply represented “common sense.” Many of these stories also quote the President’s strongest supporters applauding his efforts to dismantle political correctness and to “take down the bullies” with these comments.[1] Many Trump advocates have also suggested that to conclude otherwise is simply the result of partisan differences. I continue to read these reports to understand the rationales offered by Trump’s base for his behavior, but I have done so in recent days with mounting dismay and incredulity. I say incredulity because the hate groups’ rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer and injuries to 19 more individuals, was never about “political correctness,” nor was it common-sensical. Nor, indeed, are condemnations of what happened there partisan. The death and injury of innocent people at the hand of an individual motivated by hate is not a partisan question. Instead, like the nihilistic act of one of its own, who drove his car into a group of counter protestors at high speed, the White Supremacist rally was itself the product of raw hatred and discrimination. That animosity was displayed publicly in anti-Semitic chants based on those of the Nazis of World War II, in the remarks of hate group leaders speaking on the record of their loathing for non-whites and Jews, and of their veneration for Trump, who they are convinced (if one believes their leaders’ public pronouncements at any rate) supports their racist agenda.

The President refused, ultimately, to condemn those groups for their embrace of Nazism, racism, nihilism and vicious inequality. Instead, as noted, he argued that the white supremacists and counter protestors pushed and shoved one another that day, and as such, must be considered jointly responsible and morally equivalent for all that occurred. The President’s argument is both outrageous and irrelevant. It is so because it does not address the central fact of the situation to which Trump was nominally responding: the death and injury to a score of innocents by an individual who was in Charlottesville to attend a rally motivated by hate and calls for inequality. It defies belief that any U.S. public official, let alone the President, would embrace this “moral equivalence” argument as an adequate response to the horror wrought by the race-based hatred of its perpetrators.

Nonetheless, the President did so equivocate, and he has been widely, rightly and roundly condemned for his stance and refusal to acknowledge that one side in Charlottesville sought to stand for freedom, equality and civil rights for all Americans, while the other shouted white supremacy and Nazi slogans and killed and maimed. Trump was deeply wrong in principle not to call out the haters for what and who they are. That fact left his supporters in the difficult position of having to rationalize the indefensible to deal with the cognitive dissonance his actions created for them. To do so they turned to what is now a hoary truth within their ranks: that what the President was really doing was attacking political correctness and calling matters as he saw them, and any disagreement with him was mere partisan posturing. The trouble with this claim is the obvious fact that those who paraded, accompanied by Nazi flags and symbols, were marching for hate and their rhetoric had nothing whatever to do with posited political correctness or partisanship. Instead, it had everything to do with the deprivation of civil liberties and equality for minorities of various sorts.

But the political correctness and partisanship rationale was nonetheless offered in interviews by his supporters as justification for Trump’s now public demonstration of his absolute absence of any moral sense, empathy or understanding of America’s Constitution. Interestingly, those individuals adopting this position were willing to commit the same logical fallacy they had embraced in order to support Trump as he campaigned. Time and again, as Trump attacked Jews, African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, Muslims, or women or any of a multitude of other groups during his campaign for office, his supporters claimed he was just saying what he thought and attacking political correctness. He may indeed have been saying what he thought, but that has once again been revealed to have nothing to do with correcting perceived overzealous rhetoric aimed at protecting the rights of specific groups in society. Instead, it has been shown to be what it always was, an open attack on anyone he could scapegoat or demonize to mobilize voter support on the basis of those citizens’ worst instincts. And it is those screams of adulation that Trump craves, whatever the costs to the body politic of his public rhetoric and positions, and however antithetical to the nation’s regime principles those stands may be.

Trump continues to retain the support of approximately 34 percent of Americans and a solid majority of those aligning with the Republican party (although both numbers are trending downward) and it appears he is doing so because his remaining backers are finding ways to rationalize vilifying and demonizing specific groups and individuals and targeting them for contempt and worse because of their race or ethnicity or religion. That such is dangerous in any polity dedicated to freedom is too obvious to belabor. History teaches that when such occurs, tyranny is the result. In any case, those now supporting the President can no longer contend he is attacking political correctness, or that foes of his assaults on minorities are simply partisans. Instead, his base of support must now admit he has embraced groups whose reason for being is to deprive specific Americans of their civil liberties. In short, shouting “political correctness” and partisanship to the rooftops is no defense for embracing those calling for systematically undermining the civil rights and freedom of millions of American citizens and residents.

I confess that I am wary of imagining that all of the President’s supporters are the equivalents of the hate marchers in Charlottesville, but those individuals who now align with him following his very public decision to celebrate those groups can no longer argue they are unaware of the depravity he has embraced. They must know they are supporting one who has, by his morally empty choices, de facto attacked the civil rights of millions of innocent citizens on the basis of their specific characteristics and backgrounds. The tragedy in Charlottesville should occasion a measure of introspection, particularly among those of Trump’s supporters willing to attend his rallies and scream epithets at his vanquished election opponent for crimes she did not commit, or commend him for flouting his willingness to sow discord in this country as he shouts lies about the ruinous actions of “others,” who do not merit, as he contends, the right to be Americans.

In one of his countless moments of self-infatuation and congratulation, Trump compared himself to this country’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln.[2] He, and those now rationalizing his continued demagoguery as partisanship or as attacks on political correctness, would do well to heed Lincoln’s call in his Second Inaugural Address and to work instead for unity and freedom for all:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.[3]



[1] Tavernise, Sabrina, “A Deal Breaker for Trump’s Supporters? Nope. Not this Time, Either,” The New York Times, August 19, 2017, Accessed, August 20, 2017.

[2] Cilliza, Chris. “Donald Trump ranked himself 2nd on a list of ‘most presidential’ Presidents,” CNN, July 26, 2017, Accessed August 20, 2017.

[3] Lincoln, Abraham, “Second Inaugural Address,” Yale University Law School Avalon Project, Accessed August 20, 2017.

When a President Embraces, and Celebrates Hate

The recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in the death of one woman and injury to 19 other people, arose from one man’s decision to ram his speeding car into a crowd along a street in that city. The perpetrator of this evil purportedly was in Virginia from his home in Ohio as a member of one of several white supremacist/Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups who had planned two days of events and marches to protest the Charlottesville City Council’s recent unanimous vote to remove a commemorative statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown city park. The 700 or so hate group members who convened on Friday night, August 11, undertook a torch-lit parade on the University of Virginia Lawn, replete with chants of anti-Semitic slogans, eerily reminiscent of Nazi events in Germany before and during World II. The next day, these extremists, armed with clubs, shields and automatic weapons, clashed with counter protestors in downtown Charlottesville. During that period, one of their own saw fit to murder Heather Heyer and injure nearly a score of other individuals.

All of this is heartbreaking for what it says about the share of Americans who have learned or elected to revel in hating groups they perceive as different from themselves, and who have absolutized their passions and smallness of mind and character. This nation has always had a minority of such individuals whose numbers have waxed and waned with changing economic, social and political conditions. What we have not always had, however, is a President who embraces these groups, adopts their talking points and de facto, by so doing, encourages them in their vile assault on our nation’s pursuit of freedom and equality for all.

We have that now.

Before saying more about the deeply unsettling press event at which President Donald Trump supported hate, it is useful to recall that Trump has long endorsed monstrous anti-democratic and venal claims. Here is a sample of his willingness to celebrate hate:

  • Trump first rose to national political prominence as the principal spokesperson and proselytizer for the lie that President Barack Obama was not a United States citizen (and therefore an illegitimate chief executive). In the face of all evidence to the contrary, Trump continued to maintain this fiction until September 10, 2016, less than two months before the presidential election, when he publicly, if reluctantly, admitted it was not true. Nevertheless, in a national poll at the start of this year, some 42 percent of self-identified Republican voters said they believed that former President Obama was born in Kenya.[1] Trump’s stance was always a lie, but it signaled those upset that an African American was serving as America’s chief executive that Trump, too, saw the incumbent as illegitimate. Analysts have long labeled this sort of rhetoric “dog whistling” or “race baiting,” as it communicates to those targeted that racist claims are somehow legitimate without overtly saying so, while suggesting that the individual maligned is “less than” or “other” and therefore an appropriate foil.
  • Trump chose throughout his campaign to impugn minorities of virtually every sort with equal viciousness and mendacity. These included attacks on African-Americans as perpetrators of lawlessness, on immigrants as a class as rapists and criminals and amoral beings stealing “American” jobs, on individuals with disabilities as vaguely inhuman, on Jews as puppeteers of international financial connivance, on U.S. Muslim soldiers as members of a terrorist class, even when they had died for the United States, on women as appropriate targets for male groping and assault, since such constituted merely “locker room talk” and on decorated prisoner-of-war veterans as somehow unheroic because they had been captured, even when those individuals endured unspeakable acts of torture for their nation.
  • Trump berated his Republican opponents with playground name calling, and adopted and shared wild falsehoods concerning supposed conspiracies and illegalities committed by his Democratic opponent in the 2016 Presidential race.

This list suggests not only Trump’s preparedness to violate long-standing canons of democratic civil discourse, but his willingness to do so with utter disregard for the truth and with contempt for those with whom he was dealing, including the voters to whom he appealed. And, from all of the evidence now available at least, he apparently did so to feed his own ego; that is, he undertook these actions to feel superior to those he degraded, and to persuade his supporters simultaneously that such empty viciousness was appropriate and necessary, given the posited contemptibility of his opponents. Nevertheless, his rhetoric was neither necessary nor appropriate, and it helped to intensify his devotees’ worst individual and collective impulses to scapegoat and to project their fears onto others and hold those people responsible for concerns that either were imagined or for which those targeted had no responsibility. More, this vacuous “othering” of opponents and groups deeply violated our Constitution’s principles of human dignity and political equality and justice, even as it daily degraded public trust and whipped those inclined into frenzied expressions of their hate of the individuals and groups Trump cast stereotypically as “them.”

One must add another element to this portrait of self-conscious malignancy in the pursuit of power. Trump may have captured the GOP nomination and the presidency with lies and ugly characterizations of his opponents and various minority groups, but he did so following several decades of Republican Party efforts to use race to divide and mobilize voters. As with Trump’s efforts, and dating at least to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” GOP appeals to law and order and claims concerning “social welfare queens” living in the nation’s cities and taking advantage of hard working white people’s tax payments were explicitly designed to mobilize voters on the basis of race, and to demean an entire share of the country’s residents in so doing. More deeply, they were aimed at falsely dichotomizing the nation’s population and pitting the resulting groups in opposition to one another. What is more, the Republican Party has embraced the lie that voter fraud is rampant in the United States and has sought to make it more difficult for specific groups to vote, including, perhaps not surprisingly, African Americans, a strategy that Trump has also undertaken to “prove” his counterfactual assertion that he won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. The GOP has also sought to attack immigrants and immigration and, more generally, to limit the civil rights of members of groups that frighten or otherwise are “othered” by what party leaders see as members of the Republican voter “base,” especially in the South.

All of this set the stage for Trump’s impromptu news conference on August 15, in which he adopted white supremacist rhetoric and arguments to contend that those protesting the neo-Nazi and other hate groups gathered in Charlottesville were morally equivalent to members of those entities. And Trump went further to argue that those confronting members of the Klan and their ilk on the streets were equally responsible for the violence that occurred in the city. Both contentions are categorically false, and taken together, they suggest a President who has no conception of the founding principles of the regime that he nominally serves. America was not created by and for white thugs or conspiracy mongers who believe those of the Jewish faith secretly run the world or that those with brown or black skin are inferior to Caucasians. These beliefs are odious on their face, and yet, Trump has now defended them and de facto encouraged those who believe them to engage in the reprehensible behavior and violence on display in Charlottesville once again.

It is now clear that a tiny minority of Americans elected a man completely unsuited to the office he holds. He cares nothing for this country’s citizens or for his supporters more particularly. Instead, he lives to be idolized by those individuals chanting his lies. Trump is a malevolent demagogue who has repeatedly, and now heartlessly and openly, embraced hatred, and those who daily spew bile and lies concerning the supposed superiority of the members of only one race. Trump has continually demonstrated that he should be removed from his post for which he has shown he is morally and intellectually unfit. This is not, nor should it be construed as a partisan issue, as members of his own party have condemned this most recent, and many of his past moral outrages. But GOP party leaders and elected officials now must go further than rhetorical denunciations followed by a return to the status quo. President Trump has now made it eminently clear he will not honor his oath of office and is an enemy of human dignity and civil and human rights and justice for all. As such, he has shown himself to be no better than the vain, ignorant and pitiable petty tyrants playing Nazi on the University of Virginia Lawn. Republicans and Democrats alike must stop supplying rationalizations for Trump’s narcissistic, depraved and hate-filled behavior. He is intellectually, morally and temperamentally unfit for his post, and Americans, irrespective of their partisanship or ideology, who care about their nation and its governing ideals, should take steps to marginalize and remove him from office.



[1] Zorn, Eric. “Polls Reveal Sobering Extent of Nation’s Fact Crisis,” The Chicago Tribune, January 5, 2017,, Accessed August 16, 2017.

“Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields”

Appalachia, a vast region along the spine of that mountain chain, runs from New York to Alabama and contains rich deposits of coal. That combustible rock has long been exploited for profit by major corporations that have purchased the land or mining rights, or both, to do so. Indeed, to this day, a major share of coal-rich land in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and far southwestern Virginia is owned by corporations headquartered elsewhere, whose executives do not live in the region in which their companies mine. Absentee ownership of large portions of its land areas is but one attribute of this region. Another is its relative remoteness, despite its proximity to major eastern U.S. population centers. This characteristic arises from its rugged topography and relatively poor infrastructure. Most coal mining towns in the region are not located near interstates and, generally speaking, one must want to visit them to find them. Likewise, most coal-dependent communities have witnessed decades of economic decline as mining has become more mechanized, its form has changed from underground to surface, requiring fewer employees, and demand for Appalachian coal from industry in Europe and Asia and American power plants has declined. Still another significant distinctive feature of these communities is their nearly complete dependence on coal for their economic vitality and the livelihoods of their residents. Finally, the people residing in these towns have long been characteristically hard-working and fiercely attached to the places in which many of their families have lived for generations.

I share these facts to paint a broad picture of the region, which is far more complex than this capsule portrait suggests. But I want most to establish that the coal industry and related employment have been waning across Appalachia for decades. Indeed, in March 2016 there were only 15,900 “extraction workers, machine operators and their helpers” in the entire United States, or .019 percent of the American workforce, and only a share of those were located in Appalachia.[1] Virginia’s coal-dependent counties, for example, had fewer than 3,000 individuals working in the more encompassing occupational category of mining in 2015 (and still fewer in 2016), even as Donald Trump argued during his presidential campaign and after he entered office that he would “bring the coal industry” back in those areas in the Commonwealth and nearby states dependent on it by stopping what he called the Obama administration’s “War on Coal” and by unfettering corporations from “undue” pollution and safety standards. [2]

What is clear, however, is that neither President Barack Obama, nor his administration’s effort to combat climate change and the continued degradation of the region’s (and nation’s) rivers, water supply and air, “caused” coal’s decline. To argue otherwise is to lie to a population experiencing a long-term disorienting economic sea change and to give them unrealistic hopes that a way of life and level of affluence can quickly return to their communities that most have not experienced in decades. Moreover, that lie contributes to the delegitimation of national governing institutions and, if acted on, as indeed the Trump administration is now doing, will not bring coal back, but will impose environmental costs on millions. Perversely, those damages will hit those working in and living near the mines still in operation hardest.

Nonetheless, many individuals in the coalfields of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, longing for a more economically prosperous past that was last known decades ago in their communities, have supported Trump and continue to do so. What I wish to explore here is the fact that residents of these towns have nonetheless witnessed first-hand the reality of the decline of the industry that once sustained them, know well too that many coal firms have long exploited them and also realize that undue national regulation did not cause their present difficult situation. Even so, many from these communities support a charlatan who tells them that he can bring back a way of life now all but gone. One suspects it is their attachment to their memories of their towns that makes them wish to believe him, despite their experience and irrespective of their deep awareness of the costs “their” industry has imposed on their families. This paradoxical phenomenon is not new, and those ensnared within it are not to blame for it.

Nor, I hasten to emphasize, did malevolent government regulation imposed by the nation’s first African-American President do this to Appalachia. That is a Trumpian lie. Obama did not wish to harm the region’s residents, and to argue such, as Trump does often, is to play on citizens’ basest attitudes and fears.  To illustrate these arguments, I rely on a powerful book based on the reflections of Appalachian coal miners, men and women alike, on their profession, their lives and the political economy of their communities.

Sociologist Mike Yarrow and his wife Ruth Yarrow undertook 225 interviews, principally in the late 1970s and mid-1980s in Fayette, Raleigh, Mercer and McDowell counties in West Virginia and in southwestern Virginia. In 2015, Ruth Yarrow published a share of the observations of those interviewed in a volume entitled, Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields.[3]  Together, the interviews provide poignant testimony to a fast vanishing way of life. I cite brief portions of this rich text below to illustrate four larger analytical points germane to the current presidential administration’s claims and policies.

First, as I highlight above, presidential or Republican Party rhetoric notwithstanding, neither unions nor government regulation created the predicament in which these communities now find themselves and the trends fueling it have been afoot since at least the early 1970s. Second, while surely earning a decent wage, miners have ever been aware of the precariousness of their work and of their employment. Most of those whom the Yarrows interviewed had seen firms cut corners too many times and witnessed too many friends injured or worse, or debilitated by Black Lung disease that companies refused to acknowledge, to imagine that most of their employers worried much about their individual employment, health or safety.

Third, and ironically, given the GOP/Trump narrative, a substantial share of these miners recognized that America’s political economy and the near complete economic dominance of coal firms in their communities implied that their only hope for effective regulation of their working conditions would come from the national government. Finally, the Yarrows’ interviewees understood that a major change was already occurring in the country’s public philosophy that would soon rob them of the role their union had played for several decades in pressing for decent salaries, working conditions and benefits. They were concerned that lone company purview over those critical concerns would redound to their individual and collective detriment. I treat each of these contentions in turn.

Writing in 1988, Mike Yarrow noted the following:

The people we talked with have seen a radical decline in employment in the last ten years due to mechanization, increased foreign competition and a slump in the coal market. The pattern now is islands of employment in a sea of unemployment where the employed few are expected to work longer hours, to produce more, and to ignore safety violations.[4]

Reflecting on the change to which Yarrow pointed, a laid-off miner named Tim offered these thoughts:

Looking for work is a 40-hour job. Takes three months to learn how to do it. And it’s expensive—resumes, gasoline, Driving to Charleston to take civil service tests. I know one miner who lost his phone. Now he’s too poor to get a job. I lost any sense of direction. I got so I lost confidence in myself.[5]

Mining technology and global demand have shifted markedly since coal’s heyday in Appalachia in the 1960s, and no amount of claiming otherwise will undo those long-term trends. Coal will not soon employ the thousands it once did or suddenly support communities once dependent upon it, but now long in decline. While that reality continues daily to unfold in economic terms, it is hardly easy for those experiencing it to accept it and not to resent and be bewildered by its force and consequences for themselves, their families, friends and acquaintances, and for their communities. Equivalent alternatives will not be easy to create.

The miners with whom the Yarrows spoke knew well that the companies employing them were interested foremost in production because mined coal meant profits, but most of them knew equally well that safety had to be paramount, even when it meant slowing production, but that such would never be popular with their employers. As a female miner, Elsa, observed:

The company gives us an hour safety talk, Telling us to be careful, explaining different accidents, and saying, ’Don’t let this happen to you.’ Then, when they dismiss us, they say, ‘Beat the Day shift!’ The company will tell you that if the bosses catch a man Doing an unsafe act, They’d come down hard on him. They don’t. That’s a big lie.

The miners the Yarrows encountered understood the dynamics of the American political economy. They knew that their municipal government would not inspect their work conditions vigorously because most local revenues came from the coal companies, as did many other community services and much philanthropy too, and those firms were not shy in reminding elected leaders of that fact. The same was true of state elected officials, who received generous campaign contributions from the coal industry and who likewise were often reminded how dependent their constituents were on those firms for employment. These realities alone gave companies a great deal of leeway on miners’ work and safety conditions, and meant that only federal officials were likely actually carefully to inspect mines and to levy fines or demand changes in safety practices. Here is how miner Ken put this point:

I’ll tell you if it wasn’t for the federal inspectors, There wouldn’t be nothing done. The state inspectors don’t do nothing. … Nothing would be done if it weren’t for the federal inspectors.[7]

Finally, miner Al spoke to the fact that the long (116-day) strike during the winter of 1978 had taken its toll on the United Mine Workers union and that many non-union mines were now opening and able to attract employees.  He argued that a pro-market and anti-union logic had been embraced by government (which it indeed had been in the form of neoliberalism and antipathy to unions which would shortly be embodied by President Ronald Reagan and the GOP especially),

The country’s in a sad state of affairs When the government takes the side of big business, As opposed to the people it is sworn to represent. It’s the situation where dollars are matched against the people.

The Bituminous Coal Operators Association Would prefer not to bust the union. They’d rather have it weakened, a controlled situation, Whatever bureaucrat is in power s union president.

That’s the man they can call on to direct the workforce, Whichever way they want it to go. Capitalism, you know, the whole system Is built on war and exploitation Of the working and poor class of people. You either have slaves—or a slave-like work force— In order for the wheels of capitalism to turn.[8]

I cannot explain Trump’s appeal to so many coal country voters, but whatever the basis for that enthusiasm, it will not be rewarded with a renaissance of the coal industry as Trump has promised, nor with the sudden return of prosperity to the many towns dependent on coal mining in Appalachia hard-hit by decades of technological and economic change. Indeed, the future of this region’s coal dependent communities remains murky. What is far easier to conclude is that they are being done a terrible disservice by these appeals to their economic heritage and dealt false hope in the bargain. For a people so long beleaguered, false hope can be dangerous. Meanwhile, too, the Faustian exchange Trump now has on offer will only continue to degrade their beloved land and communities with increased pollution and less safe and healthful working conditions for the declining number still working in the mining industry. These proud and hard-working people surely deserve better, and the federal government could play a vital role in helping them achieve it. It plainly is not now intending to do so.


[1] Bump, Philip, “There are Fewer Coal Miners than you might Realize,” The Washington Post,  March 20, 2016,, Accessed August 6, 2017.

[2] Gibson, Allie Robinson, “Southwest Virginia Coal Production Continues Decline,” The Roanoke Times, March 22, 2015,; United States Energy Information Administration, “Average Number of Employees by State and Mine Type, 2015 and 2014,;  Guillen, Alex, “Trump Signs Order to end ‘Crushing Attack’ of Obama Climate Legacy,” Politico, March 28, 2017,, All accessed August 7, 2017.

[3] Yarrow, Mike and Ruth, Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2015.

[4] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2015, p. 7.

[5] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, pp. 29-30.

[6] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, pp., 65, 66.

[7] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, p.12.

[8] Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, pp. 76, 78.