Tag Archives: MAGA

Remembering Margaret Chase Smith–And More

A recent post from Heather Cox Richardson reminded me that–despite my personal experience with a once-responsible Republican Party–this isn’t the first time the GOP has gone off the rails. In my defense, I was very young when the United States went through the period known as MCarthyism.

As Richardson reminds us, the Republican response to FDR’s New Deal was divided between those who understood the new approach as a “proper adjustment to the modern world” and those who were determined to destroy that adjustment.

Those who wanted to slash the government back to the form it had in the 1920s, when businessmen ran it, had a problem. American voters liked the business regulation, basic social safety net, and infrastructure construction of the new system. To combat that popularity, the anti–New Deal Republicans insisted that the U.S. government was sliding toward communism. With the success of the People’s Liberation Army and the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Americans were willing to entertain the idea that communism was spreading across the globe and would soon take over the U.S.

One of those who wanted to return to the “good old days” (aka “Make America Great Again”…) was an “undistinguished senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy.” McCarthy famously proclaimed that he had “a list” of communists working for the State Department,  and that the Democrats–“fellow travelers”– refused to investigate these traitors in the government.

It was a previous version of the Big Lie.

The anti–New Deal faction of the party jumped on board. Sympathetic newspapers trumpeted McCarthy’s charges—which kept changing, and for which he never offered proof—and his colleagues cheered him on while congress members from the Republican faction that had signed onto the liberal consensus kept their heads down to avoid becoming the target of his attacks.

These forerunners to today’s spineless Republican officeholders weren’t willing to speak up about the damage being done to American principles. One who did speak up–memorably, and on the Senate floor–was Margaret Chase Smith.

Referring to Senator McCarthy, who was sitting two rows behind her, Senator Smith condemned the leaders in her party who were destroying lives with wild accusations. “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism,” she pointed out. Americans have the right to criticize, to hold unpopular beliefs, to protest, and to think for themselves. But attacks that cost people their reputations and jobs were stifling these basic American principles. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” Senator Smith said. “It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”

Senator Smith wanted a Republican victory in the upcoming elections, she explained, but to replace President Harry Truman’s Democratic administration—for which she had plenty of harsh words—with a Republican regime “that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.”

“I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

The parallels to our current situation are blindingly obvious, and those of us (me very much included) who had forgotten this dangerous time from America’s past should recall Santayana’s admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Today’s GOP is using the McCarthy playbook–repeating Smith’s all-too-accurate appraisal. They are appealing to fear and ignorance with bigotry and smear. And with exception of a very few like Liz Cheney and Adam Kitzinger, elected Republicans who know better, who understand the threat posed by these tactics, remain silent.

That silence is acquiescence.

Smith’s attack on Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear has often been quoted (although it would be inaccurate to say it remains well-known), but America would do well to ponder another part of her speech, which Richardson quotes.

“As an American, I condemn a Republican Fascist just as much as I condemn a Democrat Communist,” she said. “They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country. As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”

Smith authored a “Declaration of Conscience,” enumerating five principles she hoped (vainly) that her party would adopt. That declaration ended with a warning:

“It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques—techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.”

History may not repeat itself, but as Twain observed, it often rhymes.

 

Wisdom From Harvey Fierstein

Sometimes, you stumble across wisdom in the least predictable places. 

Time Magazine recently had an interview with gay icon Harvey Fierstein,. The interview was triggered by the publication of Fierstein’s memoir, titled “I Was Better Last Night.” As you might expect from a writer known for his wit, the interview elicited some funny responses; for example, asked what had prompted him to write the memoir–what circumstances had led him to consider doing so–Fierstein replied, 

First, you arrange for a global pandemic. You clean your desk of all other garbage; then you look around the house for other things to do. I made five quilts. I walked the dog. And then the next thing—the only thing—I could possibly come up with, besides cleaning the refrigerator, which is nothing anybody ever wants to do, was to write my memoir.

The interview covered a number of more serious topics, several focused on Fierstein’s long history of activism on behalf of gay rights. But it was the following exchange that made me stop and reread both the question (in bold) and the answer.

You wrote about rehearsals for the Torch Song Trilogy, and a scene specifically where Estelle Getty took issue with a line from her character, when she tells her son, “It gets better.” She’s talking specifically about grief, but that phrase has become such a rallying cry for the LGBTQ community more broadly—and maybe too generally—in recent years. Do you think that’s been the case?

Whatever you survive becomes a triumph, right? And I think time, you know, does make things better. Does it bring somebody back to life? No. But makes it easier to take that breath without that incredible pain underneath. Do things get better politically just because time passes? No. You actually have to do the work. One thing that people don’t understand, and I don’t understand why they don’t understand, is that you can’t go backwards. Nothing goes backwards! If you want to go backwards in time, you’re just kidding yourself. Especially these days when you see this ‘Make America Great Again’ idiocy; I look at those people and what I see are these walking skeletons. Dead people. They’re not looking to the future, and if you’re not looking to the future you’re not alive. You are saying, I am no longer a force in the world. I am just a memory. And that’s no way to live.

This exchange highlighted the under-appreciated connection between the pain of loss and the utter uselessness of trying to reverse that loss. Reading it made me (marginally) more understanding of the people trying so desperately to return the country and the world to an earlier time that existed in their (very selective) memories.

Most of us who have reached a “certain age” have experienced the grief that comes when loved ones or friends of longstanding die, and we have no choice but to come to terms with the hole in our lives that results. Three years ago, I lost my best friend of 50 years, and Fierstein is exactly right when he says that “it gets better” is limited to the dulling of the pain, not its absence. 

He is definitely right when he points out what should be obvious: you can’t go back.

No matter how much you grieve–about a personal loss, about the disappearance of a social environment in which you felt comfortable–your grief, nostalgia and yearning won’t reverse what has happened. If you aren’t working on accepting changes you cannot undo, Fierstein is exactly right: you aren’t really living.

Reading the interview reminded me of my grandfather’s favorite saying: denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

When people are unwilling to accept reality–when they are in denial–they are surrendering an important, even essential part of what makes us human. Acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain of loss; that pain also makes us human. It does mean that–as Fierstein eloquently framed it–if you’re not looking to the future, if you’re not engaging with your environment as it actually exists and making decisions about how you will continue that engagement, you aren’t truly alive.

Fierstein’s observation made me think of that famous line from the movie “The Sixth Sense,” where the young boy says “I see dead people.” 

So does Fierstein. So do I. A lot of them.

 

 

A Matter Of Morals

This is a very difficult time for those of us who are old enough to remember a much different politics.

When I was in City Hall, most elected Republicans and Democrats (granted, not all) could disagree over certain policies while agreeing about others. State Senators and Representatives could argue on the floor of a Statehouse chamber and go to lunch together afterward. Both Republican and Democratic Congressmen (yes, they were all men) would carry the City’s water in Washington.

And politicians of both parties honored election results and participated in the peaceful transition of power.

Why has that changed? Why do members of Trump’s hard-core MAGA base seethe with resentment and hatred of “the libs”? Why do so many of us respond to their hostility with incomprehension– as if they were representatives of a different species?

Well-meaning observers–pundits, political operatives, writers–counsel Americans to listen to one another, urge us to try to understand and respect each other, to make genuine efforts to bridge our differences.

Why do those pleas fall on deaf ears?

I think most thoughtful Americans struggle to understand the abyss that exists between the  MAGA true believers (and the integrity-free officials who pander to them), and the rest of us–the “rest of us” encompassing everyone from genuinely conservative “Never Trump” Republicans to the Bernie and AOC wing of the Democratic Party.

Like many of you, I have struggled to understand why Americans’ political differences have magnified and hardened. Clearly, our information environment has contributed greatly to the construction of incommensurate realities. That said, however, I think there is a deeper reason, and we find it at the intersection of politics and morality.

Political contests are about power, of course–about who gets to make decisions about our communal lives and behaviors. And power is obviously a great aphrodisiac. But purely political battles center on policy disputes–everything from where the county commissioners are going to put that new road to whether the country will enter into a particular trade agreement.

When politics works, the battles are overwhelmingly “how” arguments: how will we provide service X? What sort of law will solve problem Y? Who should benefit from program Z? Those battles certainly implicate morality, but not in the way or to the extent that our current disputes do. Increasing numbers of Americans believe they are engaged in a battle between good and evil–and to the extent the issues dividing us really are fundamentally moral ones, there is little or no common ground to be found.

I was struck by this observation in an article titled “The MAGA Hat Isn’t Campaign Swag. It’s a Symbol of Hate.”

Unless you’ve been marooned on the International Space Station, you know that Trumpism is racism, blatant or latent (here’s a summary of the voluminous evidence). That makes the cap no different than a Confederate flag. It’s racial animosity woven in cloth, unwearable without draping yourself in its political meaning. It would be like donning a swastika and expecting to be taken for a Quaker.

We Americans are still fighting the Civil War. As an article in the Guardian noted yesterday, the GOP has morphed into the Confederacy.

There has been a steady exodus from the GOP as its MAGA core has assumed effective control of the party.  And to be fair, there are still plenty of people who continue to vote Republican who do not fall into that category, although their willingness to ignore the obvious makes them complicit at best.

Those of you reading this post may disagree with the assertion that Americans are fighting over morality, not politics as we typically understand that term. But accurate or not, millions of thoughtful Americans  believe they are engaged in a battle for the soul of this nation, and are horrified by what they see as the willingness of some 40% of their fellow-citizens to spit on the aspirations of our founding documents and subvert the rule of law in order to retain a privileged status that they enjoy solely by reason of their skin color, gender and/or religion.

This isn’t politics as usual. It isn’t even politics as that term is usually understood.

Americans are having a profound and fundamental argument about reality, the nature of justice, the obligations of citizenship, and the kind of country we will leave our children and grandchildren.

That’s a hard chasm to bridge.

 

The Differences Are Generational, Not Ideological

The day after the second Democratic debate, Ron Brownstein had a very thought-provoking essay in The Atlantic-a publication that has become one of my essential sources of information. He introduced it thusly:

The same explosive question rumbled through this week’s Supreme Court ruling on the 2020 census and the two nights of Democratic presidential debates: How will America respond to the propulsive demographic, social, and economic changes remaking the nation?

The juxtaposition of these two events, purely coincidental, underscored how much of American politics in the years ahead is likely to turn on that elemental question. Trump’s determination to add a citizenship question to the census, which many think will depress Latino participation, demonstrates how thoroughly he has pointed his agenda at the voters most uneasy about these fundamental changes, a group I’ve called the coalition of restoration. Even after the Supreme Court, for now, blocked the citizenship question in a 5–4 decision yesterday, Trump immediately tweeted that he’s resolved to include it, even if that means delaying the census.

Brownstein suggests that all the splintering and tribalization we see around us can actually be re-categorized into two overarching and fundamentally opposed mindsets: one of  restoration and one of transformation.

There are, of course, other descriptions we might append to these categories: delusional (Make America Great Again) and aspirational (make America come to terms with its past and work toward a fairer, more inclusive future) come to mind.  Or just Republican and Democratic….

There’s no doubt which is the party of the past. The question so many of us obsess over is whether the Democratic Party is sufficiently aware of, oriented to, and able to navigate an inevitable future.

Especially in last night’s debate, the Democrats crystallized the question of whether the party can look back for leadership or must lean into America’s changing society by picking a presidential nominee who embodies it. That dynamic was underlined as much by images as by words, as two candidates—South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is a gay Millennial, and Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is of mixed-race descent—ran rings around, and sometimes directly over, the two white male septuagenarians at the center of the stage and the top of the polls: former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Brownstein argues convincingly that the primary contest isn’t between people of differing ideologies so much as different generational worldviews.

Whether or not it immediately moves the polls, last night’s debate raised the possibility that the axis of the Democratic race could shift from left versus center to new leadership that reflects the modern party’s diversity versus old leadership that does not.

The effort to add a citizenship question to the census is a perfect example of the GOP’s hysterical defiance of American reality. As Brownstein writes, suppressing the count of Latinos and other immigrant communities would be a powerful symbolic statement: what better way to deny an emerging American reality than to literally wipe millions of people out of existence by not counting them in the census?

People angered by this analysis–an analysis with which I entirely agree– say that proponents of generational change are being ageist. There may be an overlap, but age isn’t the issue. Ageism is discrimination against people solely because they’ve lived a certain number of years. Brownstein’s concern, and mine, is with people whose worldviews are rooted in realities that no longer exist.

We are all products of the world into which we were socialized.

No matter how many gadgets I use, I will never be as comfortable with technology as my grandchildren. Most older people–granted, not all–will never be as comfortable with, or as fully aware of, the political realities of today’s America as their younger counterparts.

Restoration isn’t possible. Transformation may be.