One axiom of American politics is that we get the government we vote for. On those occasions when we elect officials who value competence and efficiency, our government tends to become more competent and efficient. Conversely, when we vote for politicians who, in the immortal words of Steve Bannon, “want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” we end up with much less competence and far more chaos. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out where our current president stands. Just turn on the news, or read the headlines on your smart phone.
While it can be hard for some of us to accept this particular fact, a significant portion of our culture has stopped valuing education, professionalism and expertise. Take education. Last August, a Pew Research Center survey reported: “The share of Americans saying colleges and universities have a negative effect has increased by 12 percentage points since 2012. The increase in negative views has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican.”
The report went on to state: “From 2015 to 2019, the share saying colleges have a negative effect on the country went from 37% to 59% among this group. Over that same period, the views of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic have remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive.”
Think about that for just a second. Fifty-nine percent of right-leaning poll respondents believe that higher education has a negative effect on the country’s direction. That’s up from 37% in 2015. What happened?
Some of the jarringly discordant moments we’ve seen on the news over the last couple weeks — armed protesters screaming about their lack of freedom during a pandemic, or our commander-in-chief musing on national television about the benefits of injecting cleaning solution into our lungs, to name just two — only make sense in a world where expertise and professionalism are traits to be ridiculed. Trump can’t say “I think we did a spectacular job” with the coronavirus response unless facts and the truth are essentially irrelevant to his supporters.
Which brings me to my friend Tom and his most recent email. Tom is, bluntly put, smart as a whip. And not only is he smart, but he’s well-educated, talented, engaged and fully aware of what’s happening socially and politically here in America. Which, if you’re of a certain political persuasion, may well mean that he’s not to be trusted.
For the record, I should state that I have so far avoided being infected by authoritarianism and totalitarianism and the other nasty Dunning-Kruger maladies that are going around America in 2020, and that I do trust Tom’s judgment. Moreover, I trust his judgment enough that I was looking forward to his response to a recent Irish Times column by Fintan O’Toole.
O’Toole, pointing his telescope west across the Atlantic and sharing the truth as he saw it from afar, made a number of stinging observations about America’s COVID-19 response, including this gem: “This is not mere ignorance — it is deliberate and homicidal stupidity.”
Later, speaking specifically of Trump, O’Toole wrote: “As things get worse, he will pump more hatred and falsehood, more death-wish defiance of reason and decency, into the groundwater. If a new administration succeeds him in 2021, it will have to clean up the toxic dump he leaves behind. If he is re-elected, toxicity will have become the lifeblood of American politics.”
Which, though the words ring true, was not exactly what I wanted to hear. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted to hear in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 80,000 of my fellow American citizens, and that will undoubtedly end the lives of many, many more. Hell, we’re suffering through a plague of Biblical proportions. We require competence from our president. We require honesty. We require expertise, and empathy, and leadership. What patriotic American would ever want a respected Irish writer to describe Trump as “incapable of coherence?”
That’s a kick in the teeth, right? A serious punch to the gut. And that’s especially true when our precarious collective sanity demands something to hold on to in these troubled times. There has to be a silver lining for this toxic coronavirus cloud. There literally has to be.
Which, to be frank, is why I turned to my friend Tom. In addition to being smart and talented, he tends to, in the words of Monty Python’s Eric Idle, “always look on the bright side of life.” So he must, I convinced myself, have words of wisdom that would put things in perspective.
And he did. He sent me a note composed of one single line.
“I am rapidly coming to the conclusion,” he wrote, “that the American experiment in democracy has failed.”
I don’t drink. Not anymore. But I think I need a beer.
Todd Tanner is a Bigfork-based writer.
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