WASHINGTON, February 13, 2016 — Last July, Hillary Clinton put down Donald Trump’s campaign slogan with the observation, “in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn’t get: that America is great—because America is good.”
The line has been attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, but it appears nowhere in his work. It is nevertheless a good one, quoted by presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan to Clinton, and Mrs. Clinton, and it is good because it is true.
The election of Donald Trump has been cast as a repudiation of America’s greatness. A country that elected a “racist,” “homophobic” “misogynist” could hardly be great. The departure of the Obamas from the White House is the departure of grace and light from Washington, to be replaced with crude and ostentatious vulgarity, darkness with bling.
There are two major errors here. The first is that President Trump is the face of America. In fact, he was elected with the votes of only a bit over 13 percent of Americans. Had she won the electoral vote, Hillary Clinton would have done only slightly better, chosen by just over 14 percent of Americans.
The president is not the face of America, nor even of that bit of America that chose to vote. The president is our constitutionally selected head of state, nothing more. That’s nothing for any of us to be ashamed of. To feel shame because of the president is as pointless as feeling shame because of a boorish uncle. Only our own behavior can shame us.
The second error is that the president is a source of national grace or light. The president is neither father nor pope. He is neither führer nor dear leader nor вожд. He is neither our light nor our heart of darkness.
The source of American greatness is American goodness. But it is important to remember when we say that just what America is. What it is not is the political leaders or institutions or even the Constitution.
America is its people.
It was a great insight of our Founding Fathers that the people are not the subjects of government, but the source of its legitimacy. “We hold these truths to be self-evident … That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. They stated that they acted not on their own power or authority, but “in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies”.
The authority, power and legitimacy of the government and its agents—including the president, senators, representatives and judges—comes from the people. Louis XIV could declare “I am the state,” but in America, we are the state. President Trump and the rest of them are merely our instruments in government.
In an almost elegant Marxian inversion—an act of alienation—we have detached that power and authority from ourselves and bestowed it on our leaders. We believe their approval legitimizes our actions, not the other way around. We raise them up like idols, creating cults of the presidency and of Washington, cults of the judiciary and of political parties. We put our faith in them to solve our problems or blame them when those problems grow and spread.
Our cult, like any religion, has faithful believers, apostates, heretics and pagans. The orthodox among us take comfort in zealotry, and like any religious zealots, they are more interested in fighting evil than doing good. And for them, evil is everyone who is not a true believer.
The American political landscape now is a bleak and joyless one. Americans have taken to recrimination and blame as national pastimes. If you are on social media, you have probably been unfriended, unfollowed or blocked by someone, even if you aren’t overtly political. If you aren’t with us, you’re against us. If you are overtly political, you’ve probably been attacked as stupid, deluded, weak or corrupt.
At the moment, America is too angry and bitter to be very good.
“Then came Peter to him, and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?’
“’No, not seven times,’ Jesus replied, ‘but seventy times seven.’”
Or as was written elsewhere,
“I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”
America isn’t in a forgiving mood. Until it is, it will not be good; it can’t be. Goodness demands humility and reconciliation. People who are nursing grievances are too self-involved to be good.
People are often inclined to respond to that argument with indignation.
“So I should just roll over and let them get away with it? I should let people hit me and not hit back? They’ll just do it again. This is the real world, not Sunday school. I won’t let my children be threatened by that sort of weak, defeatist thinking.”
Would you prefer that they be threatened by people just like you? Christianity is a hard sell in an eye-for-an-eye world. Not even Christians seem to like it, preferring a more muscular, whip-ass Jesus who’ll punish sinners—gays, Trump voters, abortionists or bankers—here and now, where we can watch and enjoy the spectacle.
It would be a mistake to see the command to forgive as a command to lie down passively and say, “thank you for hitting me; please do it again.” Christians aren’t required to be masochists. So no, you needn’t just let people hit you.
But we should ask whether hitting back is the best response. Cycles of revenge have no logical conclusion except the destruction of one of the parties to the feud. Do we really want to bequeath to our children a nation divided into two warring factions that can never forgive, fighting to ultimate destruction and triumph?
We aren’t Bolsheviks fighting class enemies until we destroy them and impose a dictatorship of correct thinking people. We’re Americans, and the supposed enemy is our fellow citizens, our families, our neighbors and our former friends. America cannot possibly be good when we treat other Americans as enemies on the basis of their political preferences.
We can treat them as wrong, misinformed and short sighted. We can fight their bad ideas with better ideas and offer good policies in opposition to bad ones. We have an obligation to stand up for what’s good and to fight against policies that we think are wrong, but what we should really be fighting isn’t “bad” Americans, but bad ideas.
We have a civic duty to stand against policies we think are wrong and to fight them with every tool the Constitution gives us; we have a right to stand up for policies we think are good.
But if an executive order offends you, it’s the executive order that’s the issue, not your neighbors.
America has been at times good and great, and sometimes not. It remains a brilliant, unfinished experiment, not a perfected or a final product. We Americans are sometimes good, sometimes not. We choose.
Whether America will be great or good is not Trump’s call, and it never will be. It is ours. We can make America good, one heart at a time. We must start with our own.