SAN ANTONIO – I never really understood how fascism could have come to Europe, but I think I understand better now. You start with some fundamental historical transformation, like the Great Depression or the shift to an information economy. A certain number of people are dispossessed. They lose identity, self-respect and hope.
They begin to base their sense of self-worth on their tribe, not their behavior. They become mired in their resentments, spiraling deeper into the addiction of their own victimology. They fall for politicians who lie about the source of their problems and about how they can surmount them. Facts lose their meaning. Entertainment replaces reality.
Once facts are unmoored, everything else is unmoored, too. People who value humility and kindness in private life abandon those traits when they select leaders in the common sphere. Hardened by a corrosive cynicism, they fall for morally deranged little showmen.
And then perhaps there’s a catalyzing event. Societies in this condition are culturally tense and socially isolated. That means there are a lot of lonely, alienated young men seeking self-worth through violence. Some wear police badges; some sit in their rooms fantasizing of mass murder. When they act, the results can be convulsive.
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Normally, nations pull together after tragedy, but a society plagued by dislocation and slipped off the rails of reality can go the other way. Rallies become gripped by an exaltation of tribal fervor. Before you know it, political life has spun out of control, dragging the country itself into a place both bizarre and unrecognizable.
This happened in Europe in the 1930s. We’re not close to that kind of descent in America today, but we’re closer than we’ve been. Let’s be honest: The crack of some abyss opened up for a moment by the end of last week.
Blood was in the streets last week – victims of police violence in two cities and slain cops in another. America’s leadership crisis looked dire. The FBI director’s statements reminded us that Hillary Clinton is willing to blatantly lie to preserve her career. Donald Trump, of course, lies continually and without compunction. It’s very easy to see this country on a nightmare trajectory.
How can America answer a set of generational challenges when the leadership class is dysfunctional, political conversation has entered a post-fact era and the political parties are divided on racial lines – set to blow at a moment’s notice?
On the other hand …
I never really understood how a nation could arise as one and completely turn itself around, but I think I’m beginning to understand now. Back in the 1880s and 1890s, America faced crises as deep as the ones we face today. The economy was going through an epochal transition, then to industrialization. The political system was worse and more corrupt than ours is today.
Culturally things were bad, too. Racism and anti-immigrant feelings were at plague-like levels. Urban poverty was indescribable.
And yet America responded. A new leadership class emerged, separately at first, but finally congealing into a national movement. In 1889, Jane Addams created settlement houses to serve urban poor. In 1892, Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance to give the diversifying country a sense of common loyalty. In 1902, Owen Wister published “The Virginian,” a novel that created the cowboy mythology and galvanized the American imagination.
New sorts of political leaders emerged. In city after city, progressive reformers cleaned up politics and professionalized the civil service. Theodore Roosevelt went into elective politics at a time when few Ivy League types thought it was decent to do so. He bound the country around a New Nationalism and helped pass legislation that ensured capitalism would remain open, fair and competitive.
This was a clear example of a society facing a generational challenge and surmounting it. The Progressives were far from perfect, but they inherited rotting leadership institutions, reformed them and heralded in a new era of national greatness.
So which path will we take, the horrific path of 1930s Europe or the renewal path of 1890s America? The future of the world hangs on that question.
One way to think about it is this: America still has great resources at the local and social level. Here in San Antonio, there are cops who know how to de-escalate conflicts by showing dignity and respect. Everywhere I go there are mayors thinking practically and non-dogmatically. Can these local leaders move upward and redeem the national system, or will the national politics become so deranged that it will outweigh and corrupt all the good that is done block by block?
I’m betting the local is more powerful, that the healthy growth on the forest floor is more important than the rot in the canopy. But last week was a confidence shaker. There’s a cavity beneath what we thought was the floor of national life, and there are demons there.