Can the country keep its sunny side up?
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A recent visit to the States reminded me what I love about America: its friendliness, its optimism, its individuality.
Seen from abroad, the country takes on something of a gargoyle appearance, seeming angry, intolerant, and full of guns. Its politically charged cultural battles are so toxic they get easily exported, like a virus that’s boarded a quick flight to Heathrow. In the UK, we’ve been stunned to have demonstrations about drag shows on our streets (that’s where the protests are, not the shows). Drag has not traditionally been a problem here, where men dressing up as women has been a mainstay of the culture (just check out a Christmas panto).
But as the saying goes, when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. And there’s been a lot of sneezing lately.
The US looks bitterly divided, majorly aggrieved, self-censorious, agitated, and unsure of itself.
But at ground level, it struck me as utterly charming. A two-week visit to New England had me at hello — and there were a lot of hellos.
It occurred to me that even in the midst of a national cultural breach, Americans are natural idealists, and their politicians have traditionally followed suit.
Bill Clinton was an easy smiler who did retail politicking like nobody’s business, who famously hailed from a town called Hope. That noun informed Barack Obama’s campaign, whose election manual was called “The Audacity of Hope,” with that buoyant word emblazoned on his posters.
I never agreed with Ronald Reagan’s politics, but I admired his cheerful disposition and self-deprecating sense of humor. In 1984, he was reelected (in a landslide) by declaring it was “morning in America.”
Even George W. Bush predicated his popularity on his likeability; he was the one you supposedly would want to “have a beer with.” This assumed that you wouldn’t have wanted to have a beer with Al Gore, who looked as if he’d go more for a chardonnay and didn’t know anything about baseball.
All of this contrasts with Donald Trump’s grim appraisal of his native country, describing “mothers and children trapped in poverty” and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Instead of Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” Trump sees “carnage.”
Like Mussolini, Trump declared, “And the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
That was his inauguration speech.
Compare that to Franklin Roosevelt’s reassuring “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” or John F. Kennedy’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” Kennedy called for a collective spirit of volunteerism: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Abraham Lincoln’s money quote is worth citing in full, so poetic is it in a time of true national calamity:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Donald Trump sees a mendacious America, cast in his own image. He even disparaged the war dead as “losers” and “suckers.”
Commenting on Putin’s murdering of critics and journalists, he remarked, “You think we’re so innocent?” It was a novel approach, convincing his fellow citizens that their country is just as bad as one of the worst of other countries. No “American exceptionalism” for him.
In 2016, Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high.”
It was an edifying line, but eight years later, we’ve seen almost an entire party go low, followed by (or is it following?) almost half the country.
In an age of false news, viral conspiracy theories, misinformation constantly fed by a right-wing ecosystem, deep fakes, and progressively more workable AI, it’s easier than ever to “go low,” and increasingly difficult to “go high.”
President Biden is still managing it. He’s of the old-school sunny-side politicians, his smile as easy as President Clinton’s. Whether he runs for reelection or not (whether he wins or not), his demeanor is the opposite of Trump’s and harkens back to the age of the political idealist.
“Given a fair shot, given a fair chance, Americans have never, ever, ever, ever let their country down. Never. Never. Ordinary people like us, who do extraordinary things.”
That’s Biden. It’s not exactly poetry, but it’s a good example of his upbeat rhetoric.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) has declared that “Florida is where woke goes to die.” It’s astonishing to hear a politician say that anything goes to their state to die, as if the Angel of Death were running for the White House.
It’s doom talk, negative nellyism.
And here’s Trump speaking in Waco, TX, last week: “If we don’t win this election in 2024, I truly believe our country is doomed. … Either the Deep State destroys America or we destroy the Deep State. … They’re flooding your towns with deadly drugs, selling your jobs to China, mutilating your children … setting fire to your life savings, releasing violent criminals to prey on innocent people.”
You could argue that his rally in Waco was also America “at ground level,” but I don’t buy it.
After two weeks in beautiful New England, driving through its picturesque towns, talking to its effusive citizens (I love my adopted England, but jovial is not their natural state when sober), I was reminded of the natural openness, confidence, and enthusiasm of Americans. With the caveat that this was an affluent area in a moderate, usually bipartisan state, I don’t think the friendliness I encountered was unique to my native Massachusetts. But in my experience it is unique to the country.
The more its politicians can harness and encourage that confidence and optimism, the better the country — and the world — will be.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.