Let’s not misread the moment.
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!....
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
'Tis of the wave and not the rock;
'Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest's roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It used to be that every time something big and unpleasant happened to America – Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, the JFK assassination, Watergate, 9/11 – there would ensue a spate of articles about how America had finally lost its innocence. This year’s apparently successful election fraud, too, feels like one of those occasions.
To be sure, the fraud was not a stand-alone event but the culmination of several years of Democratic chicanery, beginning with the effort to destroy Trump’s campaign and continuing with the attempt to bring down his presidency. During these years, one public figure after another was held up to us as a hero and then shown to be yet another Big State sewer rat.
So fast-moving have events been during the age of Trump that it can be hard to keep track of all the betrayals – some of which, though just a couple of years old, feel as if they took place in the distant past. Remember the gut punch that was Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia probe? Remember when you thought Jim Comey was a good guy who’d pull back the curtain on the Clinton crime family and bring Hillary to justice? Remember being assured by people you trusted that Bill Barr and John Durham would get to the bottom of the Russia hoax? The other day, when Texas AG Ken Paxton took his election-fraud case against four other states to the Supreme Court, were you among those who expected the three Trump appointees to join Alito and Thomas in stopping the steal?
Yes, the Trump administration has yielded one triumph after another. But living through it has also meant experiencing one crushing disappointment after another. It’s been hard not to feel that the swamp was too deep even for Trump to drain, and that, by dreaming otherwise, we were being hopelessly naïve.
For heaven’s sake, not only did Barr, after promising to deliver a long-overdue reckoning, drag his heels on the Russia probe; it now turns out that during the entire campaign season he’s known about investigations into the Biden clan that, if made public, would almost certainly have reduced voter support for Joe to a point that would’ve made the election steal impossible.
It hasn’t all been about Trump, either. After Comey let Hillary off the hook, there was that brief shining moment when the feds nabbed Jeffrey Epstein, leading us to hope that the exposure of his sex-island secrets would finally sink Bill Clinton, among others, once and for all. At least we weren’t so naïve as to buy the story that Epstein had committed suicide.
Still, we feel duped. Deflated. Stunned in 2016 by Trump’s victory, we’re even more stunned in 2020 to see victory snatched from our president and handed to a senile, China-owned mediocrity. We now face the prospect of an inauguration at which Joe and Hunter, Bill and Hill, Barack and Michelle – all of whom should be in prison – will be celebrating their joint triumph over Trump.
It doesn’t just feel wrong. It feels unprecedented. And in certain details it may be. But as yet another episode in the long annals of human duplicity, it’s anything but.
It is certainly not a loss of innocence. For America was never innocent. We’ve known our share of chaos and trauma – and major deviations from the letter of the Constitution. That train, make no mistake, has gone off the tracks again and again. Think of FDR’s National Recovery Act. Or Obamacare and DACA. Woodrow Wilson was candid in expressing his view of the Constitution as an impediment to effective governance.
And if you’re talking about messy – and even shady – presidential elections, we’ve had several. The 1800 race was thrown into the House. In 2000 the results were decided by the Supreme Court. The 1876 dispute was resolved by a deal between party leaders. And in 1960, JFK – with the help of the Mafia, the Chicago Democratic machine, and a certain blue-eyed crooner – stole the presidency from Nixon.
That’s not all. During the Trump years, many have looked upon journalism as a once-noble profession fallen into disrepute. Yes, the mainstream news media have told one whopper about Trump after another while branding him a Nazi, racist, boob, and bully. But this isn’t new, either. Even Washington, during his presidency, was viciously slammed in the press. John Adams fared terribly, with editorials calling him “old, querulous, bald, blind, crippled, [and] toothless” and “a repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite, one of the most egregious fools upon the continent.”
During Jefferson’s presidency, his supporters were dismissed in one newspaper as “the refuse, the sweepings of the most depraved part of mankind from the most corrupt nations on earth.” A New Jersey newspaper dismissed Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address as “involved, coarse, colloquial, devoid of ease and grace, and bristling with obscurities and outrages against the simplest rules of syntax,” and the Chicago Times called his Second Inaugural “slip-shod [and] puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp.”
So much for slandering great presidents. As for the marketing of monumental untruths by top-ranked newspapers, just think of the legendary New York Times men who, we now know, whitewashed Stalin (that would be Walter Duranty) and Castro (Herbert Matthews). Are American reporters worse in 2020 than Duranty or Matthews or their earlier counterparts? No, the only difference now is that we know how bad they are.
Think of it. A few generations ago, most Americans spent nearly all their waking hours farming, mining, working in a factory, keeping house. Few had time to read and think – and get aggravated – about politics.
There wasn’t much information to be had anyway. When Kennedy stole the 1960 election, insiders knew, but the public was kept in the dark. News was carefully curated. The Times led the way, deciding what to tell us and how. Other newspapers, and the network news divisions, followed its lead. Among those who toed the line was Walter Cronkite at CBS News, who throughout most of his long TV career was the most trusted man in the country.
It was naïve to trust Uncle Walter implicitly. (It’s naïve to trust anyone implicitly.) And it was naïve, too, to buy the depiction of two Washington Post tyros in the 1976 movie All the President’s Men as saviors of the Republic. Note, however, that movies – and movie audiences – used to be less starry-eyed about journalism. In Citizen Kane (1940), press magnate Charles Foster Kane invents a war in Cuba to boost circulation; in His Girl Friday (also 1940), reporters eager for a juicy story clamor to see a framed man hanged for murder.
Only in more recent times – Spotlight, The Post, Good Night and Good Luck, Frost/Nixon – has Hollywood routinely celebrated journalists as valiant truth-tellers. Why? Because Tinseltown filmmakers and legacy-media hacks belong to the same left-wing cultural elite, subscribing to a single narrative and condescendingly lecturing to the rest of us.
But at least in 2020 we know it. Thanks to the Internet, we live in a time when we can be better informed about the world than our forebears ever were. A time when we stand a better chance of figuring out when we’re being lied to and by whom. A time when we can develop a better sense of whom to trust and respect – and when, yes, disillusion is inevitable, precisely because of our greater access to facts.
We shouldn’t let this election steal, then, make us feel that a golden age of morality has given way, with terrifying speed, to an era of perfidy and lies. La plus ça change, and all that. There’s nothing new under the sun.
Nor should we feel disappointed in Trump if he fails to overcome the election steal. He’s accomplished a remarkable amount, but expecting the superhuman from him is neither fair to him nor good for us. We’re all just people, even him.
“People,” my uncle Everett (a World War II POW) used to say, “are no damn good.” America isn’t based on some idealistic notion of man but on a keen awareness of the moral frailty of humankind. The “perennial challenge,” observes David Horowitz in his classic and newly republished 1996 memoir Radical Son, is “to teach our young the conditions of being human, of managing life’s tasks in a world that is (and must remain) forever imperfect.” Our country’s Founders understood this – and, in their wisdom, sought to fashion a government that would, in the face of our species’ moral frailty, stand a chance not only of enduring in the long term but also of making possible, from one generation to the next, the survival of liberty.
But the preservation of that liberty depends on us. “Freedom,” Ronald Reagan famously proclaimed, “is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Indeed. At this admittedly strange and disturbing historical moment, it’s important for all Americans of good faith to rise above any self-pitying or (heaven forfend) nihilistic sense of lost innocence that we might feel, to embrace with hope and heart our role as the Constitution’s current custodians, and – for the sake of our progenitors and our posterity – recommit ourselves to our obligation to right our beloved ship of State when she’s been buffeted, or worse, by the waves of malfeasance and mendacity.