In the Age of Trump, a growth industry of commentators and critics is in search of a mythical image, a graphic insight, a metaphorical phrase to capture our fragmented politics and culture. “Make America Great Again” worked as a campaign slogan, but it’s about process, not essence.
For self-glorification and euphemism, no one beat John F. Kennedy & Family, who conducted the most effective public relations in our history. In his short time as president, the handsome young war hero president from Massachusetts thrived in the glamour of the fictional Camelot. After the death of JFK and before the Vietnam War ruined his chances, Lyndon Johnson established a strong image as a leader capable of creating “The Great Society.” It didn’t last.
Barack Obama, our first black president, offered a portrait to the world to show how America had truly changed since the Civil War. But his wings were clipped when the heir(ess) apparent couldn’t sustain his promise of hope and change and 8 million disenchanted Obama voters helped send Donald Trump to the White House.
Political and cultural emblems and motifs often fail to survive into the next election cycle, and emblems and motifs are especially ephemeral today, when high-tech media messages race across television screens at the speed of light. Perceptions crash and burn in a single tweet. We’re so eager to find new trends and update descriptions that historical context flies out the window.
Joe Biden, the bumbling “nice guy” vice president for Barack Obama is tarred and feathered as a bad guy afflicted with blind spots, unwilling to recognize the pain he inflicted with his opinions on busing — opinions that eventually became the opinions of nearly everyone black or white — and the compromises he made with senators with whom he usually disagreed, only to get good things done. He has been accused of trying to polish a halo tarnished by the passage of time. The new girl(s) on the block, and even the remaining good ol’ boys of the Democratic Party, are complaining they don’t want a grandfather figure in their future.
The past is not dead, Faulkner observed, because it’s not even past, a sentiment to remind us that history, both political and personal, continues to influence the present. But the past as remembered can be manipulated to fit whatever opinions may be current and surging, which keeps the spinners busier than Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter.
One conservative commentator of the contemporary drama, Peter Wehner, once a major figure behind the scenes as a smithy of words for George W. Bush, examines the current state of affairs in an incisive new book with his judgment in the title, “The Death of Politics.” He refers to the “death-match mindset” that characterizes politics today, cynical and fatalistic attacks on democratic virtues that will permanently damage the republic.
Sustained by a religious vocabulary, Mr. Wehner draws on John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and argues that we have fallen into the “slough of Despond,” the swamp of despair described in Bunyan’s iconic 17th-century allegory of Christian faith.
In updated contemporary references, Mr. Wehner describes politics as a fallen profession composed of fallen people. As a conservative who doesn’t particularly like the president, he argues that “the slough of Despond” didn’t enter the political conversation with this president. Unruly and uncivil contributors came from the left long before the political ascent of Donald Trump. The president’s crude and sometimes cruel rhetoric only deepened it.
Making matters worse is the “silo-ization” of news sources, the partisan news flowing from cable channels, blogs, the Internet and social media, which “convince ourselves that we’re right and righteous and the other side is not only wrong but criminal or evil.”
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” the way we get information, the mode of transmission being as important as content. That analysis is more telling today as news sources create and reinforce ideological polarization and dogmatism, contributing to government gridlock and a rigid formula for talking about ideas.
When Peter Wehner brings his inner Christian into dialogue with his inner optimist he still believes that politics is not only a necessary activity, but can rise to a noble calling “to advance justice and human flourishing.” But that can only happen if we bring back respect for the “craft of governing” and “the virtue of compromise.”
He recalls the words of the late philosopher-columnist Charles Krauthammer that “politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.” Such insight lacks the romance of Camelot and the illusory promise of “The Great Society,” but it may be the motto and myth for our time.
• Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.
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