Making America Great…Again & Again & AgainOn September 26, 2020 by Bob Talks
Walk Whitman, one of our truly remarkable poets, wrote an important poem about America’s greatness in 1884. The poem is entitled: “Election Day, November, 1884,” and it
reads in part:
If I should need to name, O Western World, your
powerfulest scene and show,
“Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye
limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone…
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now,
I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—
America’s choosing day,…
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the
paradox and conflict,…
These storm gusts and winds waft precious
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
This is not one of Whitman’s finest poems, with its awkward syntax and difficult cadence. It doesn’t compare with his wonderful tributes to President Lincoln or his “I hear American singing” Songs. Nevertheless, it does remind us of one of our greatest assets—the tradition, power, value, and voice of the VOTE—“the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day.”
Although the Civil War ended in 1865, almost twenty years earlier, the country was far from fully healed and the divisions between the South and North were still painfully wide and deep. The assassination of President Lincoln in that same year still hung over the country like a bloodied shroud. Whitman understood and wrote about these pains and scars honestly and boldly, pushing the country to sing its songs and celebrate its diverse greatness.
Whitman understood that art and politics inextricably and inexplicably were intertwined. He was a very political writer in the broadest sense of that word. His poems sing lustily of our country’s many strengths. In addition to the wonders of our natural resources, Whitman celebrated our diversity, our teeming multitudes, our loud and chaotic cities, our workers, our ethic differences, our peoples from all walks of life. He loved his country with a profound and abiding passion.
At that very juncture where art and politics meet, Whitman had the profound wisdom to realize that the underlying value of art is its capacity to expand our understanding of the human condition and to help us comprehend that in our differences we are more alike.
Art fosters connections, and these connections call for compassion. Whitman is a poet of compassion. He shouts from the mountain top the importance of empathy. He realized that politics without compassion and empathy is a hollow vessel devoid of honor, dignity, and respect. Whitman believed that empathy and compassion were deeply embedded legacies of our greatness—essential to our future opportunities for greatness. He understood both the “paradox and the conflict,” but the very act of voting is “precious,” swelling the sails of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
I doubt that Donald Trump ever read Walt Whitman. Regardless, I know full well that he and his caddies do not have the capacity to understand the importance of art in relationship to politics. Trump has treated and continues to treat the right to vote like a disposable diaper. He actively soils this sacred tradition.
We face a very serious crisis, a crisis that goes way beyond the thousands and thousands of lies Trump has told, way beyond the many shady or dishonest or crooked acts he’s committed, way beyond the egotistical narcissism. We now know that Trump is addicted to power and will do anything and everything he can, legally or illegally, to maintain that power for himself and for his dirty tricksters.
This crisis is clearly and powerfully described in a book by Lawrence Douglas, entitled WILL HE GO?: TRUMP AND THE LOOMING ELECTION MELTDOWN IN 2020 (published in May of this year). The author is a distinguished professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College. The book lays out frightening, disturbing, and highly probable scenarios in which Trump refuses to leave office, regardless of the outcome of the election. The author is aware that there have been other contentious elections. He understands that there are other very serious forces at play in this election: the raging Pandemic, racial inequality and police brutality, climate change playing out before our eyes with dramatic fires on the West coast and hurricane-force storms on the East, continued immigration challenges, eroded foreign relationships, a collapsed economy with record unemployment, and an overall malaise hanging over this country oozing distrust, worry, and concern.
Douglas points out that Trump has insulted and abused virtually every traditions, norm, institution, and concept of decency that have been the mainstays in our customs, values, and practices. The litany of these abuses is long, deep, and continuous. This is who he is. He fosters a country that is divided, packed with fear and hatred, and one that condones bullying behavior.
It is especially ironic and disturbingly alarming that Trump’s mantra, MAG, doesn’t have a clue what really has made and will continue to make this country great. Our greatness is in a continual state of becoming, a striving to be better, to be more humane, more inclusive, more civil and civic, more just, more decent, more giving, understanding, and forgiving. Our greatness has to do with honor, dignity, respect, empathy, and compassion. These are the essential traits that we need to reaffirm and practice again and again and again in order to ensure our potential for greatness. These are deeply embedded in our DNA, though unfortunately they are currently being overshadowed by voices of fear and loathing from the likes of Trump and his henchmen. These traits are exhibited over and over again by the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and so many other voices calling out to us to stand strong and tall in the face of these threatening storms.
WILL HE GO? is not the only prophetic voice warning us of this crisis we face. There are other very knowledgeable experts shouting similar warnings. THE ATLANTIC monthly magazine just did an early release of a chilling report by staff writer Barton Gellman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, who documents just how frightening the possibilities are that Trump will not give up the White House. As Gellman writes, it “is not that Trump rejects the election outcome. The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him” (see Jeffrey Goldberg <email@example.com>). Both Douglas and Gellman, along with others, describe just how fragile, archaic, and easily manipulated our Electoral College is.
It should be no surprise at this late hour with the election looming a few weeks away that Trump, Pence, McConnell, and company will try to ramrod a new Supreme Court justice to replace the remarkable Justice Ginsberg. I’m surprised at the loud cries among news media pundits of “Foul Play,” “Hypocrisy,” “Unconscionable,” and all the rest of the wringing of hands and utterings of shock. What did you expect? This is their modus operandi since the beginning. By now, we should expect it.
The scary reality that Trump will do something drastic to stay in power, as discussed in WILL HE GO? and the forthcoming ATLANTIC article by Gellman place a huge burden of greatness on all of us. We simply must do everything within our power to make sure he is defeated at the polls by a huge number of uncontested votes. It must be a landslide. We have the greatness within us to do that, and that in and of itself will be a huge step toward making us great again. That is our immediate challenge and our necessary mandate.
Several days ago, I was traveling South on I-75 heading toward Flint, Michigan. I passed a huge billboard with a larger-than-life picture of a sneering Trump. Did you ever see him smile? He doesn’t, he sneers. The billboard read in large letters: SERVE GOD, BUY GUNS, VOTE TRUMP! I almost drove off the highway in disgust and fear. Is this really the country we love and wish to see great again? For me, that billboard boldly symbolizes the challenges we face. We simply cannot sit this election out and hope someone else will address these challenges for us. Soundly defeating Trump and his enablers is the only pathway toward future greatness again open to us. We best do whatever we can to help Biden and Harris win decisively. I am hopeful we will succeed.
Sending you my good wishes and sincere hope for a brighter future,