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We’ve Been Here Before

Based on Jon Meacham’s book, The Soul of America, the bad news about the Trump presidency we are experiencing is that we have been here before.

His book is a history of America through the stories of the presidents we have had, none of whom was remotely similar to Donald Trump, but in various ways each had to confront the kind of political corruption in which Donald Trump is enmeshed.

I realize, of course, that as a nation we have shown little capacity for learning from our history, in large measure because we show so little interest in knowing about it, but in this instance it can provide us with the proper context that puts our circumstances in better perspective.

Meacham paints a clear and concise picture of America that tells the story of a country that has suffered and prospered accordingly based on the quality of its political leadership, not least how that leadership has responded to social movements related to issues such as women’s suffrage, racial justice, worker rights, foreign threats, and American involvement in endless wars.

An honest reading of our history leaves little doubt that we have been here before because we have never lived up to the ideals to which this experiment in self-governance has aspired.

As late as the 1920s, for example, it was still controversial for a politician to oppose public hangings, especially in the South where it was a tool used by whites to kill innocent blacks, including men, women, and children.

A resurgent Ku Klux Klan held a rally during this same period in Washington, D. C. attended by as many as fifty thousand people.

Every president has manifested weaknesses and made bad decisions that have not served the country well. They struggled to do what was right while being pressured to do what was politically expedient.

At the same time, Meacham highlights a critical difference between Donald Trump and all the ones who came before him.

Unlike all previous presidents, Trump is the only one to show open disdain for the social and governmental institutions essential to the continuation of our democracy.

Not only has he not tried to maintain them, he has sought to undermine them, whether it is the power of oversight by the Congress, the independence of the Justice Department, his relentless attack on a free press, or his insistence that everyone in government pledge allegiance to him rather than to the Constitution.

In this regard, Trump stands in a long line of despotic politicians whose only concern was their own personal fortunes, leading them to put themselves before anyone and everything else.

The biggest surprise I found in the book were the stunning similarities in character and behavior between Donald Trump and the disgraced Huey Long, former Governor of Louisiana who also served in the U.S. Senate.

By every account, Long was a first-order demagogue whose entire career was more akin to the world of crime bosses than American politics. One source says this about Long:

“Long’s folksy manner and sympathy for the underprivileged diverted attention from his ruthless autocratic methods. Surrounding himself with gangster-like bodyguards, he dictated outright to members of the legislature, using intimidation if necessary. When he was about to leave office to serve in the U.S. Senate (1932), he fired the legally elected lieutenant governor and replaced him with two designated successors who would obey him from Washington. In order to fend off local challenges to his control in 1934, he affected radical changes in the Louisiana government, abolishing local government and taking personal control of all educational, police, and fire job appointments throughout the state. He achieved absolute control of the state militia, judiciary, and election and tax-assessing apparatus, while denying citizens any legal or electoral redress.”

The long and short of Huey Long’s story is that he was a terrible man and an equally terrible, unscrupulous politician. Donald Trump is cut from the same piece of cloth, so, yes, as a country we have been here before.

That’s the bad news. But there is also good news, which is, ironically, that we have been here before and we are still going. That is the ray of light in the pall Trump has cast over the nation.

Our country has survived every political and religious leader who was bad for the country, and we will survive Donald Trump.

At the heart of the good news is that we are a resilient people, thus far having survived every effort to exploit our collective fears and turn our conflicts into open divisions, so, no, Donald Trump and his Huey Long brand of politics will not overcome us.

In Meacham’s word, “We have managed…to survive the crises and vicissitudes of history.”

A major reason why we can expect to do so again is the fact that “our brightest hours are almost never as bright as we like to think; our glummest moments are rarely as irredeemable as they feel at the time.” (Meacham).

There is no guarantee that we will overcome the damage Trump is doing, but the odds increase dramatically if we are willing, as Meacham’s book does effectively, to tell the truth about ourselves to ourselves, and to tell the truth about our political leaders to our leaders.

It is tempting to think that telling the truth cannot compete against lies, but Meacham quotes President Truman challenging that notion in his typical straight forward way: “The dictators of the world say that if you tell people a lie often enough, people will believe it. Well, if you tell the truth often enough, they’ll believe it and go along with you.”

People like Trump want us to believe that Americans will believe lies over truth, but history says that in the long run we haven’t. Truth has always won the battle.

I believe the same is true today, and that is what will determine our future.

So the bad news of our history is that we have been here before, overshadowed by the good news that, yes, we’ve been here before, but we were not destroyed, and we won’t be.

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