In yesterday’s NYT Sunday Review, Kevin Baker wrote an opinion piece for which I am profoundly grateful: it says everything I would write if I were as fluent as he is, and he has thus relieved me of that impossible burden.
I’ve excerpted particularly luminous paragraphs and highlighted a few sentences. But do read the entire piece.
Novelists and historians had their own version of American exceptionalism, which the 2016 election destroyed.
I have listened to all the blame foisted on the Clinton campaign for doing this or that wrong, or the media for not exposing Mr. Trump, or for giving him too much airtime. I don’t buy it. Hillary Clinton’s campaign wasn’t that bad, and Mr. Trump was exposed enough for any thinking adult to see exactly what he is.
From assorted commentators I have heard that it is unfair or condescending to say that all Trump voters were racists, or sexists, or that they hated foreigners. All right. But if they were not, they were willing to accept an awful lot of racism and sexism and xenophobia in the deal they made with their champion, and demanded precious few particulars in return. Lately Mr. Trump has endorsed the comparison of his personal populist movement with Andrew Jackson’s, and it is true that there was much that was racist and ignorant at the heart of Jacksonian democracy. For their love, the followers of Old Hickory demanded the destruction of Native American civilization in the South, and the furthering of slavery westward. This cruel bargain won Jackson voters land, and thus the vote. What have those who embraced “Mr. I Alone Can Fix It” obtained, save for the vague, grandiose promise, renewed in his inaugural, that they will soon “start winning again, winning like never before”? Or — worse — Mr. Trump’s vow to end “political correctness” and make this, at least rhetorically, the same white man’s America it was in Jackson’s time?
The populists after the Civil War, faced with the collapse into peonage of American farmers — then about half the population — built nationwide lecture and correspondence networks, and eventually won the reforms they needed, even though it took them more than 60 years. The first wave of feminists fought for more than 70 years to win their biggest demand; Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were dead by the time women got the vote. African-Americans battled ceaselessly, in every way they could, against their enslavement and Jim Crow, training their own lawyers to take their cases to the Supreme Court. The struggles for labor rights, gay rights, Hispanic rights, civil liberties, religious toleration, women’s control over their own bodies — all these battles and more took decades to win. They are the glory of our civilization.
Today’s passive, unhappy Americans sat on their couches and chose a strutting TV clown to save us.
What they have done is a desecration, a foolish and vindictive act of vandalism, by which they betrayed all the best and most valiant labors of our ancestors. We don’t want to accept this, because we cannot accept that the people, at least in the long run of things, can be wrong in our American democracy. But they can be wrong, just like any people, anywhere. And until we do accept this abject failure of both our system and ourselves, there is no hope for our redemption.
A couple of days after the election I watched on CNN as red-faced Russian apparatchiks in Moscow toasted one another on their great success. “Hurrah!” I thought. “No more American exceptionalism! We have joined up with the drunken idiot of history!” Once Russians, too, and especially Russian writers, were certain that there was a special destiny for the Russian soul. But a century of disastrous choices and their consequences seems to have disillusioned them. They have so much to teach us.