Going back to Puritan New England, Americans have considered themselves the rightful beneficiaries of God’s grace. We entered into a contract with God — we do the right thing (maintain a just, democratic republic), and in exchange, He will single us out with enlightenment and prosperity, and through His grace we will become unique, a beacon, an example to the rest of the world — a City Upon a Hill.
However compromised and threadbare the contract has become over time, we keep propping it up, if with a more secular partner. While ignoring the permanent and inhumane stain of racism (somehow falling outside the bounds of our covenant with God), we continue to claim for ourselves an exceptional position, the first among the nations. Last Wednesday, Jan. 6, though, the doors were battered down, people were beaten and murdered. There has been no remorse, not a moment of introspection. Just the ugly, inhuman fury, caught indelibly in photos and videos. The monstrous Donald Trump and his mindless enablers released our worst demons that afternoon, and together they leveled our City Upon a Hill.
Watching the video, transfixed by the worst frames (mine was the guy caught halfway through a door, having the life intentionally, nearly successfully, squeezed out of him), I couldn’t help but think of my parents. Their voyage from Poland 100 years ago was literally unspeakable — they never spoke of it (an uncle told me about my 10-year-old father watching as a Polish soldier machine-gunned his older sister in a boxcar hideout). They risked everything to reach the City Upon a Hill, and they weren’t let down.
A kind of informal idea of American exceptionalism was always with my sister and me through our parents’ life stories, in every apartment and at every dinner table argument, and in every classroom along the way. You took the opportunity, you worked hard, you took care of your family, and more than anything, you always, always tried to do the right thing. American society respected and rewarded you, and you knew to pay it forward. My father (he became a member of our local draft board so he could vote to defer all who asked) became an accountant, and his clients often came to him hoping to lower their tax bills. He loved to tell us his unvarying response: You live in a great country, you should pay your taxes and stop complaining.
One hundred years later, I grieve for what my parents would make of USA 2021. Even the most hopefully myopic among us needs to acknowledge our moral collapse. The year 2020 and the first weeks of 2021 have punched us in the gut twice. First, through the reporting on George Floyd and Marcellis Stinnette and Breonna Taylor and on and on, all woven through the Black Lives Matter challenge. And then last week through Trump’s still-incomprehensible, grotesque, violent siege on the U.S. Capitol, concluding his four years of sociopathic indifference to America’s bedrock values.
We try always, with bare success, to keep racism bottled up and invisible. America’s original sin, it is not only still with us, but grows like an untreated virus, and remains at the heart of our economic, educational, healthcare, and political inequalities and failures. And Trumpism, forged in the monstrous brain of Donald Trump and enabled by a cadre of pompous, self-important, self-serving politicians and plutocrats, and executed by a tinderbox mob of angry, socially alienated followers armed to the teeth; racism and alienation and the deadly violence they feed on are still the American credo.
One could say, “That’s not us,” but of course it clearly is. One could say, “I didn’t vote for this,” but in fact just a hair fewer than half of us did. One could say, “Our laws and institutions protect us from this,” but of course they don’t. One could say, “The beatings, the hate slogans, and the police failures can be fixed,” but of course they can’t. We had the real American dream, simply a fair and open society, in our hands, paid for in blood and hard work, and we have thrown it all away.
We have become the Trump Tower Upon a Hill that enables mobs, hatred, guns, autocracy, riots, and social failure as artifacts of strength. Last week’s armed assault on the U.S. Capitol plows fertile valedictory ground for Donald Trump and his heedless accomplices and enablers. They have permanently stained all who joined in, and have grievously diminished our moral authority and our claim to American leadership, let alone American exceptionalism.
The climb back will be long and slow. It will require examples and models, power sharing, dreaded quotas and government intervention, reallocation of resources, and perhaps most difficult for us, it will require patience as we correct and redress; the reservoir of goodwill upon which to draw is all but gone. Our heedlessness and callousness have earned this for us. As Pogo said 50 years ago, “We have met the enemy … and he is us.” We’ll need another 50 just to get back to even.