If there is any single trait that defines Americans, it is optimism. We read our history as a journey upward, from the arrival of the first European settlers to the present. We operate with a collective sense that progress may sometimes be slow and arduous — but will be achieved.
That intuition endows us with confidence in our destiny. But what if it’s wrong? What if all along, we have not been ascending a peak but been striding toward the abyss? What if our national story is one that ultimately ends in tragic, irreversible failure?
Optimism can foster naiveté and false hope. This is a moment when we need to give serious consideration to the plausibility of pessimism.
Anyone who has grown up in postwar America has been thoroughly schooled in the inevitability of progress. After the horrors of World War II, we achieved material plenty, renounced white supremacy, liberated women, won the Cold War and inspired the spread of free markets and democracy. The 21st century looked to be engineered for liberty, prosperity and peace.
All this confirmed what Sen. Bill Bradley asserted at the 1992 Democratic convention: “The United States is history’s greatest experiment in the elimination of despair.”
But is it still? The United States has been at war for 16 consecutive years. Terrorism has become a constant threat. We are still recovering from the worst economic meltdown since the 1930s. Around the world, democracy and human rights are embattled, and authoritarianism is gaining ground.
We’re not immune from these trends. The rise of Donald Trump has both reflected and aggravated our own dark impulses. We have never had a president so opposed to fundamental American ideals, so contemptuous of truth and so intent on dividing the citizenry.
The government’s traditional role in the economy is up for grabs in a way that would have appalled Ronald Reagan. In Trump’s warped version of capitalism, corporations do the bidding of the president or suffer swift retribution. Though hostile to many core Republican principles, he has turned the party into his obedient servant.
It’s tempting to believe he will destroy himself by bringing on impeachment or defeat in 2020. But neither is assured, and the elements that created Trump won’t evaporate regardless. The bleak revelation is that many matters we believed were settled — such as the equality of blacks and women, the value of immigrants and the importance of a free press — are still contested.
We thought we found the answers for those issues. But maybe all we did was reach an accommodation that would prove unstable. Presented with a presidential candidate who pandered to racism, sexism and xenophobia, a near majority of the public was prepared to indulge his bigotry. His dishonest attacks on the news media elicited lusty cheers at his rallies.
Our institutions and political norms have proved more vulnerable than we thought. In electing Trump and enabling his abuses, we turned in a direction that leads toward a banana republic. We assume we can always turn around and find our way home. But a country that sets off on the wrong path sometimes finds that it has burned the bridges it would need to go back.
Just because we survived and overcame the Civil War, the Great Depression and the violent turmoil of the 1960s and ‘70s doesn’t mean we’ll come through this crisis. Plenty of marriages that weather numerous storms nonetheless end in divorce. Some damage can’t be repaired — and sometimes its fatal effects can be seen only in retrospect.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” was recently accused by Harvard professor and left-wing activist Cornel West of “profiteering” off “fatalism.” Coates is guilty only of shunning illusions. “I was hugely influenced by poetry,” he said in a November interview. “Poets are not asked to be hopeful.”
I am not here to embrace despair. Trump has spurred broad and passionate opposition, and his low approval ratings indicate he doesn’t speak for most Americans.
But neither is despair an unreasonable state of mind. No nation or system lasts forever. Ours could have a shorter, grimmer future than we imagine, because of our own failures.
The late writer John Cheever once observed, “The most wonderful thing about life seems to be that we hardly tap our potential for self-destruction.” We may fully tap it yet.
Chapman writes for the Chicago Tribune as well as being syndicated columnist.