Leaders Inciting Dissent – A Dangerous Path

I worry about our nation. It’s never been like this for me since as a teenager in the Nixon years. Yes, we Americans have a history of deep divide on topics ranging from social issues, the environment, to the economy, but in the end we have rarely been fully engulfed in a national rage like I am seeing today.

It’s hard to succinctly capture what is causing the stark divide, and more importantly the anger leading to the brink of violence as we have seen this week with explosives being delivered to a variety of democrat politicians and media outlets.

For some sources, the effectiveness of media influence is fueled by asserting contrarian views in an effort to attract viewers. The news as I grew up with no longer exists. And while my news in my early years was likely whitewashed to an extreme, clouded in hidden or not so hidden assertions about the flag, love of country, and other leanings of the “moral” leadership of its day, today seems far more incendiary. The evening news has been replaced with an incessant 24 hour news cycle where competition for views, clicks, followers, and advertisers has changed this nation. We are pummeled with news continuously delivered by pundits and often a “panel of experts” who seem to be there solely to drive a contentious debate even further into the blood stream.

Depending on the reader, you might likely point to your most concerning news source based on your political leanings, but at the extreme this is happening on both sides. What’s worse, the need to remain current in live media means moving quickly to the newest story leaving us little time to absorb the last one before being shocked by the new one. In many ways, this is our fault. We drive the behavior by watching, reading, and listening to these sources. We drive advertisers to funnel more money into this exact behavior. But we cannot seem to stop even when decency and truth are left in the wake of factual reporting.

We are on the brink I fear. Chanting crowds at rallies for this President are fueled by rants about the “angry mob”, “radical immigrants” marching to the border, and socialist rebels driven by gays or minorities and arrogant elites trying to destroy their view of the nations fabric. This tirade from the right is met by an equally outraged populace on the left in shock at what they believe are the embrace of false statements against fact, intolerance to this growing diverse society, brutal and raw attacks against core structures of our government and free press. Calls for impeachment are met equally with calls to “lock her up”. The angry mob, nationalism, globalism, Islamic terrorism, and more are all bait lines to feed the polarized extremes on both sides.

Presidential Candidate John McCain’s race for office exposed to all of us this deep seated unrest in many communities, especially with the recruitment of Sarah Palin to the race. Her rallies were perhaps the blueprint for what the current President has pursued with more fanfare and purpose. But it was Senator McCain himself who kept the tone in check at some level. “No Ma’am”, he said. Those words at that single town hall reassured many of us that the America we know, the one where debate and discourse is encouraged but in the end we are still Americans and will defend truth, was evidence that this democracy was still in check. In the end Senator McCain congratulated the newly elected President as did other Presidents before and after. But something has changed.

In his inaugural address to the nation after defeating Herbert Hoover in 1932 President Franklin Roosevelt, in an effort to calm the nation at a most unstable time of economic depression and global uncertainty said these famous words, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. What did Roosevelt mean by these words? By saying this, FDR was telling the American people that their fear was making things worse. He went on to say in the same address, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

I have spent the last 6 weeks in Western Europe in England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany. I write this today from a small city in Eastern Germany, a former soviet controlled area until 1990 minutes from a former concentration camp that housed nearly 300,000 prisoners in World War 2 and murdered over 55,000. Jews, artists, and journalists all died here. Surprisingly, today their regional elected officials favor a renewed right wing nationalist spirit that some locals refer to as the new nazi’s. No matter where I traveled in Europe I heard concerns about immigration and the left. I heard equally from others concerns about an angry, uneducated, revolt from the right pushing back in hopes of protecting their view of the community they grew up in. The divides seem to be more than just a US problem.

What’s different? The United States is a very young nation from a global perspective. Our experiment has been victorious perhaps mostly because we had excellent timing. A young nation with huge access to natural resources and a spirit of adventurism with the benefit of being separated by a large ocean to allow us to leverage distance in our fight for independence helped us become who we are. But we are not insulated. We have our own history of slavery, suffrage, and lack of care or concern for the environment or people who are different from the majority that conquered the land in the first place.

What we did have was a succession of leaders who, in almost all cases, sent messages of unity and calm to the people. While all had imperfections, they often called to a higher purpose especially during the most conflicted times. Whether it was the calm, solemn addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the plain-spoken calls to patriotism of George W. Bush, or the precise, professorial speeches of Barack Obama, Americans often have looked to presidents for moral clarity in critical moments.

President Lincoln made it clear in perhaps his most famous address, “our common heritage is that our forefathers came upon this continent and created a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. President Bush calmed the nation after September 11, bringing political and religious leaders together and advocated to the nation that this was not an event brought by Muslims and demanded decency. “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes,” Bush said. “Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know.”

What seems different to me is the demeanor of Mr Trump. From applauding body slamming, calling the media the enemy, attacking many of his predecessor Presidents, berating his own attorney general and other law enforcement, exaggerating the plight of immigrants fleeing torture and murder in their own countries, and his ongoing public red hat wearing rallies that only add fuel to the hostile environment, this President has decided to take a different path as the head of the nation. He has determined for now that his role is not to be the moral compass or unifying leader. Maybe it began back when he became branded as the voice of the “birther” movement questioning President Obama’s citizenship. But this was made strikingly clear in Charlottesville Va when just after three days of the violent clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters he insisted that “both sides” were to blame. He was immediately applauded by former KKK leaders and others from the extreme right and equally attacked from those on the left. It was a major point of division in this nation that he only made worse by his own actions.

Hitler rose to power amidst uncertainties and anger amongst disenfranchised portions of society that look in many ways like we are seeing today. I know many repulse at these analogies, but as I sit here in Weimar Germany, and spend my time looking at the history here there are many similarities. His political party was formed and developed during the post-World War I era. It was anti-Marxist and opposed to the democratic post-war government of the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles; and it advocated extreme nationalism and opposition to immigrants especially Jews. He attacked immigrants, journalists, and treaties. And, most ironically, he became dictator through parliamentary process. It can happen anywhere if the collision of circumstances is met with the wrong leader.

Our nation needs voices of leadership now to say clearly that this behavior is wrong and to stand up to this President to demand more. I oppose this President more than any in my life because of his own personal immorality, his lies, and denial of facts. Yes, I worry about the environment, the economy, social justice, and international affairs, to which I think he is putting our nation at risk. We can debate those points and agree or disagree and back up these discussions with facts in seeking the right answers. But it’s the gap in leadership and this one mans role in inflaming divisiveness that cannot be overlooked. This President is putting his own self aggrandizement ahead of the nation and now risks this democracy which, while flawed, is the best model in the world comparatively and one I will work to defend in order to protect our ability to engage in fact based discourse in search of compromise in the best interests of our nation.

As President Lincoln once said and is so true today, “If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled..”

These are dangerous times for our nation. I hope that more of our leaders can find a political backbone and a way to calm and unify unlike what is happening today.