I have a friend, a smart and ironic Dutchman who like many Europeans regards American culture and especially American politics as a sort of reality-based absurdist tragedy — impossible to ignore, often pathetically amusing, but also worrisome and dangerous to all. We agree on most things, but often by the ends of our conversations I find myself feeling a bit defensive and tribal, not because my friend is wrong about what’s happening, but because he has no basis for trusting the American mechanisms that tend to keep the lid on disputes, letting them simmer and gradually evaporate instead of allowing them to boil over completely.
The Trump phenomenon, for example, and the increase in thuggishness and xenophobia and scapegoating, make my friend think of Germany in the '30s — a place and time that the Dutch understandably keep in mind. And there are certainly disturbing parallels. But there are also those mechanisms that Germany didn't have and we do, even if they're rusty and shaky. The main one, designed into the system by the founders of the country —students of the Enlightenment with a pretty good grasp of human nature — was the one that steers factions into negating each other's influence. We've seen a good example of that in the Obama years — such gridlock that hardly anything has gotten done except by the occasional executive end-around. But down the road it may well turn out to have been a good thing that our know-nothing Republicans have spent all their energy in mere blind opposition, rather than in trying to come up with any ideas of their own, much less move them forward. As Goethe said, "Nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action." It won't have been a proud era, true, but sometimes no movement can be better than dimwitted movement.
On the day of the recent Brussels bombings, Trump took the opportunity to say "It will happen here," and renewed his calls for a Muslim ban and more extreme torture. I texted to my friend that "Trump seems to exist in a cloud of fear and farts."
He texted back, "Unfortunately, Americans in general have lived in a sphere of fear for many, many decades."
At which point my back went up a bit. Again, not because he was wrong, but because there's more to it than that. I said, "Well, some do and some don't, and anyway the preference for security over freedom is unfortunately universal, not peculiar to America. I'm in a van right now heading from New York to New Haven. We’re stuck in a traffic jam. We have two cosmopolitan Egyptians — a man and a woman, although strangers to each other — speaking Arabic and English; a Sikh neurobiologist, raised here, who teaches now in Berlin and whose parents live in New Rochelle; a young woman student; a retired housewife from rural Connecticut who travels the world by herself; two business guys, one just back from China and the other from Italy; and a guy who writes about boats and the ocean. We're all Americans one way or the other, squished together — and laughing because we're all squished together — in this humid van, comparing notes on travel, Trump, today's Brussels bombings, and a bunch of other stuff. The driver happens to speak Arabic too. Not sure where he's from — Syria? Lebanon? Anyway, this kind of situation makes me glad to be American, just as I felt after 9/11 when it turned out that the World Trade Center victims came from dozens of countries and cultures. Most Americans are like that, not like Trump: We generally don't create problems where they don't exist, and we tend to get along fine in real life. Don't give up hope. We'll probably figure this shit out."
And he said, "OK... won't give up hope :-)"