Balance beam Part 2

On January 6th, 2021, a mob stormed the capital of the United States. Call it a riot, an insurrection, an attempted coup d’etat, whatever, their actions were knowingly instigated by President of the United States, Donald J. Trump and his henchmen, his co-conspirators.

How did we get here?

If the election of Barack Obama seemed to indicate that we were making progress toward the goal of a single, relatively coherent, homogenous nation, of a fairer, more just society, the campaign and election of Donald Trump seemed to demonstrate just the opposite. We went from Obama’s, “there are no red states, no blue states, just the United States” to Trump’s there are only red states and blue states. If Obama thought we were first and foremost all Americans, Trump seemed to think that maybe that wasn’t quite true. At best, Trump rewrote Orwell: All Americans are equal but some are more equal than others (and maybe the others shouldn’t even be Americans, never mind equality).

On the other hand, Joe Biden campaigned giving frequent voice to Obama’s thesis, that he would be a president for all Americans, and won. Even while doing that, his actual campaign seemed to be implying something else. The Biden campaign was pure identity politics. The Democratic Party was the party of the minorities, the people of color, each element having a specific claim on the party and its candidate. It included every minority except Whites, except, maybe, working and middle-class Whites in the Midwest.

In the 2020 post-election period, we’ve watched the public jockeying for position and influence of this or that specific minority. Black, Latino, Asian, Gay, Women, and Native American (not to mention those in the extreme Left of the Democratic Party who assert they had no responsibility for the party’s down ballot losses despite all evidence to the contrary). Apparently, just about the worst candidate for a Democratic cabinet position might be a White man (except if you are the man who Obama nominated for the Supreme Court and was stiffed by Mitch McConnell, a special minority all its own).

Indeed, we’ve been watching hyper-awareness of differences between groups play out for years. We once thought of America as a great melting pot, that the assimilation of various groups would result in a singular American whole. Over time that vision seems to have eroded. The countries where peoples’ forebearers (or they themselves) came from seemingly became more important than the fact that they were Americans. What divided us—as hyphenates: as Afro-Americans, as Italian-Americans, as Hispanic-Americans—seemed to become more important than what we have in common as Americans, that we are all Americans.

The idea of microaggressions, of minor insults or rebukes of others, of not-to-be-thought-of, much less spoken thoughts, seemed so sensitive a subject in colleges, that it increasingly put students and teachers in verbal straitjackets. There were lists of things you should not think, much less say. Increasingly, the academic Left sounded like old style Leninist and Stalinist requirements to toe the party line with no divergence to be tolerated.

When Trump went on and on about political correctness, there’s little doubt in my mind that many were bothered by the Left’s stifling of speech, of its attempts to enforce groupthink. Is it any wonder that many Trump supporters were ripe for a rebellion against this? Not bothering with the niceties of shunning microaggressions, and so-called trigger words, is it any wonder that Trump and many of his most ardent followers returned to the outright major aggressions of earlier times―the “n” word, the “k” word, the “s” word. Overt expressions of racial hostility have ramped up considerably over the past four years, as has anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant fervor.

In his own way, Trump required something similar to political correctness in his administration and party. He, too, required Republicans to follow the party line, in his case, to demonstrate fealty and loyalty to him personally rather than to the Constitution. To do otherwise was to invite being castigated via Twitter and primaried. Stalin had a simpler penalty: he’d just have you shot or sent to Siberia. The more we’ve heard of what Trump’s political appointees were doing in cabinet departments to career professionals, the more it sounded like the way Russian and Chinese Communists enforced the politically correct dictates of their leaders.

Jane Austen wrote, “Manners is what holds a society together. At bottom, propriety is concern for other people. When that goes out the window, the gates of hell are shortly opened and ignorance is King.” Trump tore open the gates.

Trump’s cabinet was just the opposite of Biden’s cabinet nominees. It’s mostly made up of its own special interests, in particular White male multi-millionaires and billionaires. Interestingly, many if not most of them, made their money by investing and managing money not by the actual making of anything. I find it hard to imagine what Wilbur Ross, Trump’s Commerce Secretary, thinks he has in common with Deb Haaland, Biden’s nominee for Interior Secretary (and vice versa).

Trump’s campaign in 2016 and even more explicitly in 2020 engaged in identity politics as much as the Democrats. His campaign, with a coalition that included large doses of White evangelical Christians and White workers who had been displaced by economic policies that had long been championed by Republicans, alongside some of the fringiest of White Americans―White supremacists, White nationalists, White militia groups, anti-Semites, and neo-Nazis―explicitly promoted fear of Blacks and other inhabitants of urban America, along with the specter of rampant socialism. On January 6th, they coalesced in a mob flying the Trump banner.

If you want to know why Trump won his first election and came close to winning his second, go back to the Democratic coalition and then look back even further to the idea of affirmative action. Is there anyone who lives in this country unaware that Blacks were, at one time, deliberately kept out of colleges, out of advancing in their careers, not because they weren’t smart enough or ambitious enough but because they were Black? Apparently, the only way to ensure that they got the education or jobs they deserved by merit was to deliberately recruit, hire and promote them. Thus, affirmative action, a phrase first used by Jack Kennedy in an Executive Order in 1961.

Put simply, affirmative action meant, for example, that if you were a college and had 100 open places in your freshman class and there were two equally meritorious students, one White and one Black, the Black should be given preference. In other words, there was a winner and a loser. It may have been a win-win situation for the other 99 freshmen (whether they knew it or not) as it might be for the society as a whole. But for the White student who lost out, it was a win-lose solution and the White was the loser. Thus, the idea that Blacks were being given advantages that Whites weren’t. Since, in general, Blacks were considered to be the lowest rung of society, their interests were being advanced over the interests of those who perceived themselves to be above the lowest rung—all Whites, no matter how poor, how uneducated, how impoverished they were. No matter how successful this policy has been—today we frequently see Blacks (literally since many are on TV) in positions of responsibility and respect that they rarely had 60 years ago—there is still plenty of resentment. It is a clear echo in the objection to the larger implications of Black Lives Matter. It’s no surprise that some politicians seek to capitalize on that resentment and Trump has been the clear promoter and master of White grievance.

But the more I think about this election and the elections of the past 40 or 50 years, the more I think another long-held belief of mine is holding true. We’re forever treading on a balance beam. We do not live in a pure free market capitalist society. Nor do we live in a pure socialist society. We live, rather, in a society that is a combination of both. We’ve never decided on a specific formula that defines the exact proper mix of capitalist and socialist policies. Perhaps that’s because there is nothing, no economic system, no kind of social organization, that is perfect, one in which everybody always wins and no one ever loses. We, instead, live on a balance beam constantly teetering toward one side or the other, sometimes moving towards more recognizably socialist policies, sometimes moving towards more free market policies.

On January 6th, 2021, we came too close to falling off the beam. The attempt by Trump and his most ardent followers to break America failed. But no matter what you think of Trump or Biden, of Democrats or Republicans, they and we are all in some degree responsible for the mess we’re in. Isn’t that always the case?

So, what does the New Year hold in store for us. I have some thoughts about that, which I’ll explore in a future column or two. In the meantime, I await January 21st, the real start of this year’s New Year.

Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.

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(1) comment

Audrey G. Schoenfeld

With all due respect to Michael Saltz, and while there are many valid comments stated in his opinion piece, and also while I take issue with several other of his statements, I don't believe this is a time for intellectual debates about how and why we got here. I agree this unrest has been fomenting for decades, but the bottom line is this: we are on the brink of one of the most dangerous moments in our recent history. Today, now. This moment was encouraged, supported, and lead by a dangerous and very sick president. His enablers, many members of congress, his supporters, and those diabolical fringe spearheads took his words as their green light and marching orders and march they did! They wrought terror on our nation, endangered lives, and created havoc and destruction in and on our nation's capitol. Now there are very credible reports that the violence will continue and even escalate, further endangering the lives of our leaders and nation. Vice President Pence has the authority to quell this imminent threat by invoking the 25th. amendment now, removing the president from office, preventing him from inflicting further, possibly deadly, harm to our leaders and nation. The time to act is now, later for historical diatribes.

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