It seems easier every day to wonder if America has lost its memory. And it seems even easier to believe that what many of us thought and felt about our country 42 months ago is different today as we sit in July of an election year.
Growing up, a lot of us took it for granted that we lived in the greatest country on Earth. It was an automatic—didn’t the Greatest Generation survive the Great Depression, defeat Japan and Hitler’s Germany, and leave Europe without claiming any territory? We came home, implemented the Marshall Plan, rebuilt whole nations, passed the G.I. Bill, signed a national highway act that opened up the country, helped create suburbs, defeated polio, matched Sputnik, went to the moon, applauded Elvis, said hello to The Beatles and good-bye to JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy while so many had so much dignity stolen from them in places like Birmingham, Alabama, Mississippi, and Massachusetts, and as too many lives and part of our soul disappeared in Vietnam.
We got through Nixon, Watergate, gas lines and huge inflation. Reagan, Bush, the first Gulf War; Clinton “never had sex with that woman” and never explained why he pardoned Marc Rich. The Supreme Court elected George W. Bush and we nearly elected John F. Kerry.
We witnessed a cloud of fear covering a perfect blue sky on September 11th with a president acting like a leader in that moment as he stood in the smoking embers only to turn and light up the Middle East where the fires still burn. We saw Barack Obama arrive carrying a gift of hope that remains largely unopened. We have been eyewitnesses to Russia, a sworn enemy, seeking to disrupt our elections and we go through the days as spectators on the sideline as the dead keep coming home to Dover, Delaware, in flag-draped steel caskets to tears and questions.
Through all of it—the good, bad, the memorable and the instantly forgotten—America has bumped along while millions of our citizens were left without equal access to pieces of their citizenship we take for granted: the right to vote, to be pulled over for a traffic stop without fear, to stroll around a supermarket or a department store without being followed, to expect children to learn in a safe environment, to walk a city street without being stared at, to never be hungry.
We were never a perfect nation but a lot of the time we tried. And failed. But then kept on trying.
We were and are an imperfect nation, an imperfect people, living in this huge, sprawling, multi-colored, open, free land called America. No matter the built-in defects placed in our story by our own hand and our own history it’s remained a land of opportunity, one that’s always in the process of re-working, re-making, re-defining itself hopefully for the better. And no matter what tragedy or inequity occurred, no matter how shocking, terrible or unfair it was, the sun kept coming up in the morning, optimism always emerged from the shade, the darkness and the embers.
Until our memory of who we really are, what we have done and what we have meant in the world around us—the good, the bad, all of it—and who we really want to be was lost, crushed by a man who looks at a global epidemic, more than three and a half million infections, well over 100,000 deaths, millions more unemployed with rents and mortgages due, with furlough being a simple word for no future job like the one you just lost, looks at all that and feels sorry only for himself.
He talks, rambles actually, about grievance not governance. His whole life has been a litany of lies. He is always the victim and is so blinded by the swollen size of his ego that he can not see and does not recognize the casualties left behind behind: America, the presidency itself, the nation’s citizens who at a minimum expected protection, defense and a calming, competent hand against enemies medical and military seeking to harm our democracy.
He is a failure. An incompetent simply not up to the job. And for those who claim he is a master at marketing, promoting, identifying and picking at the scabs of resentment formed on the beliefs of so many voters, his “base”, his election in 2016 is proof that while he knows how to tap into fear he has little idea about and less interest in the lives of 328 million Americans.
What he does not realize is that there has always been one dominant emotion that has bound every American to one another. It is called loss. Every normal person is familiar with it, has experienced it at some level, losing a job, a paycheck, a house, health insurance, admission to a college, a roster spot on a Little League team. Losing hope. Losing a spouse, a child. Pride. Dignity. Self-respect. Losing a sense of place in your own small universe.
Comprehending loss is beyond his grasp. He casts himself as a stranger to loss. Losing something, anything or anyone could mark you as a loser. Not him.
So this is what we have here in the middle of summer 2020: a man who turns a mask into a joke, who is incoherent and invisible in the heat of a lethal battle against a virus that is consuming our country, battering our confidence, bleeding our economy and provoking legitimate questions about who we are, where we are going and what has happened to the United States of America.
On November 3, 2020 we might find out.