We’re near the breaking point

I think it’s appropriate that the last words on this campaign and the first words for our new president go to an immigrant. They’re from my friend Lesley Goldwasser, who came from Zimbabwe in the 1980s. Surveying our political scene a few years ago, Lesley remarked to me: “You Americans kick around your country like it’s a football. But it’s not a football. It’s a Fabergé egg. You can break it.”

I’ve thought of Lesley’s remark often in recent weeks, because for the last decades we’ve seen people deliberately trashing our institutions and eroding the foundations of trust that are the bedrock of American democracy. They did so with the seeming assumption that the American system is indeed a football we can kick around endlessly to advance one’s political career or, worse, make money, and it will always bounce back.

Well, none of us knows exactly where the breaking point lies, but I’d posit that the last eight years of our politics, culminating in this campaign, have stressed America to the limit. It’s indeed a Fabergé egg, not a football. We can break it. We can debase our most cherished institutions that were the envy of the world. We can irredeemably shred the bonds of trust that are the sine qua non of any democracy.

In short, if we don’t pull back from the madness that has become American politics – if we have another eight years like the last eight – we’re going to break this place.

What produced all the anger that has propelled the Trump campaign? I believe it has much less to do with trade or income gaps and much more to do with culture and a lost sense of “home.” America’s becoming a minority-majority country has threatened the sense of community of many middle-class whites, and the fact that we’re in the midst of a dizzying whirlwind of technological change has threatened their economic status as well, and left many people feeling unanchored.

Women’s empowerment, which Hillary Clinton embodies, also threatens many less-educated white men. Donald Trump, presenting himself as The Strongman, promised he could build walls to contain all of these changes. A shocking number of Americans fell for it. But Trump had help.

In recent years, making people angry, sowing mistrust among Americans and delegitimizing our national institutions in Washington became good business – and good politics – on the right. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and other radio and TV fearmongers have been deliberately making people angry and mistrustful, and gotten rich doing so.

The anger business is now one of America’s growth industries.

And social media, which is becoming the primary news source for many people, amplifies it all. At its worst, it marinates people in conspiracy theories and helps to foster this “post-truth” era of politics. It was all crystallized in the hysterical “lock her up” chants against Hillary for a stupid use of email that caused no known national security breach. And the GOP establishment, weakened by the ability of its party members to independently raise money and run for office using the internet, threw out its moral compass and went along for the ride.

Ezra Klein put it well in an essay on Vox: “The lesson of this unnerving year is that less can be taken for granted than we thought – the American people are not immune to demagogues, and the American political system is too weakened to reliably stop them.”

Our next president has to lead us in much healing to restore the sinews of trust essential to democracy. “It’s a truism to say that we face a crisis of leadership,” said Gautam Mukunda, a Harvard Business School assistant professor and the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.” “But just as important, we face a crisis of ‘followership.’” Because after years of this anger industry, “too many Americans will not believe the truth when they hear it. We will not have effective leadership until we once again have followers who can be lead. And all of that starts with trust.”

That’s why job one for our next president – before any economic or foreign initiative – has to be to try to fix the “deficits of trust among ourselves and the deficits of trust in authority” that now plague America, argued Ronald Heifetz, an expert on leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” “It’s the central challenge revealed by this election.”

If Clinton wins, argued Heifetz, “she may want to embark on a national listening tour to receive people’s anger with grace, and engage their sense of betrayal by being disarmingly honest. She has to make clear that as president her top priority is to repair trust – and renewing trust in government has to start with tackling distrust in her.”

I think that would be Clinton’s instinct. It would have to be matched by a similar impulse on the Republican side. One reason for our resilience as a nation is that Americans have always had the capacity to forgive one another, when the asking is sincere. I don’t care what anybody says, I’m convinced most of our country is starved for a leader who can bring us together.

If Hillary Clinton can do that, she will be remembered for something even more important than being the first woman president.