The Jillster (Jill Lepore) was among 16 New Yorker writers who contributed essays to the magazine's post-election collection. See "Aftermath: Sixteen Writers On Trump's America" here. The Jillster's essay was chosen for today's post because this blogger holds her writing in high esteem. To her credit, Professor Lepore denies the inevitability of the decline and fall of the United States of America. If this is (fair & balanced) historical analysis, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By The Jillster (Jill Lepore)
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
The beginning of an end is hard to see: the moment when a marriage started to fall apart, the half-sentence of heartless scorn, an unmendable cut; the hour when the first symptoms of a fatal illness set in, dizziness, a subtle blurring of vision, a certain hoarseness; the season when a species of sparrow, trying to fly north, falls, weakened by the heat; and the day when the people of a nation began to lose faith in their form of government. The election of Donald Trump, like all elections, is an ending, the ending of one Presidency and the beginning of another. But, unlike most elections, Trump’s election is something different: it ends an era of American idealism, a high-mindedness of rhetoric, if not always of action, which has characterized most twentieth- and twenty-first-century American Presidencies, from FDR to Eisenhower, from Reagan to Obama, from the New Deal order to the long era of civil rights.
The beginning of another, very different end lies quite far back in American history. “The fate of the greatest of all modern Republics trembles in the balance,” Frederick Douglass said, in a speech he gave in Philadelphia, in 1862, titled “The Reasons for Our Troubles.” Born into slavery, Douglass had escaped in 1838. What astonished him, as the Civil War raged, was how blind Americans were to its origins. “To what cause may we trace our present sad and deplorable condition?” he asked. Americans of Douglass’s day blamed the election of Abraham Lincoln, abolitionists, and Southern politicians for the division of the nation. Douglass blamed slavery: “We have sought to bind the chains of slavery on the limbs of the black man, without thinking that at last we should find the other end of that hateful chain about our own necks.”
The rupture in the American republic, the division of the American people whose outcome is the election of Donald Trump, cannot be attributed to Donald Trump. Nor can it be attributed to James Comey and the FBI or to the white men who voted in very high numbers for Trump or to the majority of white women who did, too, unexpectedly, or to the African-American and Latino voters who did not give Hillary Clinton the edge they gave Barack Obama. It can’t be attributed to the Republican Party’s unwillingness to disavow Trump or to the Democratic Party’s willingness to promote Clinton or to a media that has careened into a state of chaos. There are many reasons for our troubles. But the deepest reason is inequality: the forms of political, cultural, and economic polarization that have been widening, not narrowing, for decades. Inequality, like slavery, is a chain that binds at both ends.
Trump’s election does not mark the end of an era of civil peace: no state has seceded, or will. But, if the nation is not at arms, it is at war with itself and with its ideals. In Douglass’s day, the war that was fought over the meaning of the words “liberty” and “equality” claimed the lives of three-quarters of a million Americans. But it ended slavery. When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, in January, 1863, Douglass was in Boston with “an immense assembly,” largely of black abolitionists. “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four millions of slaves,” Douglass recalled. The crowd sang the hymn “Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow”: “Ye mournful souls, be glad.”
Many Americans, having lost faith in a government that has failed to address widening inequality, and in the policymakers and academics and journalists who have barely noticed it, see Trump as their deliverer. They cast their votes with purpose. A lot of Trump voters I met during this election season compared Trump to Lincoln: an emancipator. What Trump can and cannot deliver, by way of policy, remains to be seen; my own doubts are grave. Meanwhile, though, he has added weight to the burden that we, each of us, carry on our backs, the burden of old hatreds. Frederick Douglass, a man of Lincoln’s time and, decidedly, not of our own, tried to lift those burdens with the strength of his ideals.
Douglass had been fighting for women’s rights since Seneca Falls, in 1848, and he fought for female suffrage. He expected women to lead the nation by speaking for themselves, declaring, “I believe no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with the power and authority of woman herself.” Many Americans of Douglass’s day believed that they saw, in equal rights for black men and even for women, the beginning of the end of the American experiment. “It is thought by many, and said by some, that this Republic has already seen its best days; that the historian may now write the story of its decline and fall,” Douglass said, in a speech called “Composite Nation,” in 1869. To those who predicted doom, Douglass repeated what he had said when the war was just beginning: “The real trouble with us was never our system or form of Government, or the principles underlying it; but the peculiar composition of our people, the relations existing between them and the compromising spirit which controlled the ruling power of the country.” For Douglass, the aftermath of the fight to end slavery was a lesson about the persistence of inequality: it had already begun to take a new form, in proposals to deny constitutional protections to Chinese immigrants. Hatred of the Chinese, especially by those who wanted to exploit their labor, was, Douglass argued, new wine in old bottles, slavery by another name. And he condemned it: “I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man.”
Douglass had his blind spots. Everyone does. Mine drive me crazy—just knowing they’re there does. Trump was elected because he got something right, about the suffering of Americans, and about the arrogance of politicians, of academics, and of the press. What he got wrong can be proved only by the forces of humility, of clarity, and of honesty.
When does an ending begin? Douglass saw that the end of a republic begins on the day when the heroism of the struggle for equality yields to the cowardice of resentment. That day has not come. It is thought by many, lately, and said by some, that the republic has seen its best days, and that it remains for the historian to chronicle the history of its decline and fall. I disagree. Sparrows may yet cross the sky. ###
[Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University as well as the chair of the History and Literature Program. She also is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest books are The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012), Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013). and The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014). Lepore earned her BA (English) from Tufts University, an MA (American culture) from the University of Michigan, and a PhD (American studies) from Yale University.]
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