As democracy is perfected, the office [of the presidency] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
H.L. Mencken, 1920, from a Baltimore Sun article.
When this was written, the word moron was undergoing a transition from medical term to insult, having only recently been used to designate a mental age range between 7 and 10 years. Similarly, an imbecile was considered by the medical lights of the time as someone slightly less gifted, with a mental age of 3 to 7 years. At the bottom of this dubious hierarchy stood the idiot, whose range worked backwards from the age of three.
Of the three, it is the term “idiot” that most interests me. The word hails from ancient Greece, referring to someone of private, or selfish disposition. Athenians for example, expected their citizens to participate in the city’s politics, and didn’t look kindly on those who did not. Furthermore, participation required a rigorous education. Someone who hadn’t embraced public life therefore, a private person, a selfish person, very often an uneducated person, was considered lacking in good judgment, and unworthy of contributing to the civic dialogue. Back then, the word embraced all of these attributes, with little practical distinction between a person who avoids the general polity, a selfish person, and a person who’s ignorant of the issues, a stupid person.
Clearly, Mencken saw the vital link between education and civic participation, and even back then noted the absence of that link, and foresaw the disastrous results that disconnect would eventually entail. His quote, which could easily be dismissed as glib and dismissive, even cynical, can now be seen, in the fullness of time, as a profound expression of sadness.
We have done it. One year ago this month we did it. The American people has finally made manifest the essence of Mencken’s dire prediction. After a long succession of the privileged sons of Harvard and Yale and West Point, after a prideful procession of the scions of Boston and Philadelphia and Virginia, no small number of whom proved to be, by varying degrees, either corrupt, incompetent, adulterous, or venal; not to mention the bullies, racists, criminals, and war-mongers; we have sent to the White House a man who embodies all of those odious traits.
Truly, we are a schizophrenic people. Again, I return to the language of the ancient Greeks. The word’s etymology is literally “split mind.” I am not the first to observe the pendular nature of our national elections. And I’m not the first to note the strain of anti-intellectualism that has plagued our politics since at least the days of Woodrow Wilson. Even the more conventional definition of schizophrenia cites fragmentation and disconnection between thoughts, emotions, and observable facts. The violent swings that characterize our presidential elections can be explained by either of these definitions. This country needs an intervention. But what do you do, when the grownups are all half the size of the self-destructive, abusive addict? You tread with care, or you avoid confronting the situation altogether.
Upon taking office, Harry Truman, a relative neophyte and unwitting patsy to his Communist hating Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, undoes FDR’s tripartite agreements with Stalin and Churchill, in favor of confrontational standoffs with the Soviet Union. He becomes obsessed with the “Soviet Menace,” and acts accordingly. Byrnes personally threatens Molotov at Potsdam, and the Cold War is on. Like the portrait of Dorian Gray, the inner soul of the American people, as Mencken put it, still closely resembles the image it projects to the world, but no longer faithfully.
His successor, General Eisenhower, a man who has actually seen war, turns inward. He creates the interstate highway system, and presides over domestic growth unparalleled in the nation’s history; but warns the country, during his farewell address, of the danger of the “military-industrial complex,” initiating a uniquely American tradition of retiring politicians speaking truth to power only after they’ve decided to leave any position of influence that might have made a difference.
When Kennedy beats Eisenhower’s Vice President Richard Nixon, he walks into a rat’s nest of rampant Cold War paranoia, forcing him to look outward. He bravely defies his generals and unapologetically resists their lizard-brain need for combat against the “Communist Horde.” He refuses to instigate war with either Cuba or the Soviet Union. Also a neophyte, at least to the realities of executive branch politics, he underestimates the forces arrayed against him. He dies as a result.
His Vice President, LBJ, sweltering beneath the progressive shadow of his predecessor, sees the folly of continued war in Vietnam, but is wise enough to see the folly of trying to pull out. Representing another sweep of the pendulum, he looks inward, towards Civil Rights, hoping for redemption for an increasingly barbaric war abroad. But he alienates the South by embracing the Negro cause, while still being vilified as a warmonger, dooming his presidency. He concedes the office after a single term.
Richard Nixon, nominally a Quaker, his true religion is hardball politics. Turning the nation’s gaze again outward, he escalates the Vietnam War, carpet bombing a neutral country in the process. A disinterested observer might ask whether the massacre of civilians, and the defoliation of their forests and crops by means of Napalm and Agent Orange, constitutes war-crimes. But we live in a country in which an infinite number of questions may be asked of our representatives and leaders, but the answers will emanate only from the soulless memoranda of an automated and entrenched bureaucracy. Ironically, despite these monstrous actions, Nixon is forced to resign because he tries to cover up a bungled burglary carried out by a gaggle of CIA operatives more akin to the the Keystone Cops than any intelligence service. I have no doubt the ancient Greek goddess of destiny smiled at this turn of events.
We move on to Nixon’s hapless successor, Gerald Ford. He pardons Nixon for all crimes, past, present, and future, initiating yet another uniquely American political tradition: acting as if one’s predecessor’s transgressions never occurred. Ford’s largess however, far from ensuring a place of honor for him in the presidential pantheon, condemns him. He is relegated to history’s dustbin. Trust in its institutions by the American people is now at an all-time low. The country’s inner soul is now showing clear signs of wear and tear.
Ford is replaced by Jimmy Carter, Nixon’s antithesis, a born-again Christian, a plainspoken, God-fearing farmer, the people’s anticipated antidote to the excesses of executive privilege. He looks inward, the only modern president under whom no American soldier dies abroad. But the world will not be ignored. OPEC reduces oil production, forcing gas prices up and supply to a trickle. Desperate for gasoline, the people’s thirst remains un-slaked for too long. Instead of pulling together, they complain bitterly. Any concept of shared sacrifice has been lost over the past thirty years of material growth and expansion. Carter’s attempt to bring a level of sobriety to the office is met with derision. The Arabs withhold their oil. Carter attempts to talk to the American people as if they were adults, a mistake Nixon never would have considered, and one LBJ was wise enough to avoid. The Iranians kidnap his citizens. Carter fails to rescue them. He is replaced after one term.
The pendulum swings again. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, while still a candidate, negotiates in secret with the Iranians for the release of the hostages. They are set free on the day of his inauguration. Shortly afterward, Reagan tears down from the White House roof the solar panels Carter installed to symbolize energy independence. “The Gipper,” as he is fondly remembered, trains his sights on the Soviet Union, declaring them the “Evil Empire,” although the term empire hardly fits the ragtag collection of impoverished countries held under Russia’s thrall. In a manner more befitting the description of empire, Reagan repays the Iranian’s release of the hostages with armaments paid for with cash from a secret, illegal deal with the Contras of Nicaragua. After eight years, Reagan has raised taxes several times and more than doubled the national debt, after promising to do the very opposite, but in the process bankrupts the Soviet Union. When finally brought to heel for the Iran-Contra scandal, he is in the early stages of dementia, while his wife consults with astrologers. Despite high crimes and misdemeanors, he is remembered instead for spending the Soviets into oblivion. He sails into the sunset on waves of adulation bordering on consecration.
The adoration of Reagan carries his Vice President, George H. W. Bush into the White House, but only so far as one term. He attempts to slow the pendulum’s progress, but is not up to the task. It carries him out of the picture and William Jefferson Clinton into it. The country wants to look inward again. The public loves Clinton, but the Washington establishment, both the Media and the Legislature, hates him. Their venom for him is exceeded only by their detestation of his wife, Hillary. The ensuing eight years are underlined by sustained, pitched, political battle, but the country stays out of wars abroad, preferring to argue over health-care and blow-jobs. The country’s inner soul is crying out for something, but it still doesn’t know what.
By the time Clinton terms out, he’s been so vilified by his enemies that the term “Clinton fatigue” is coined to describe the weariness that accompanied the relentless attacks against him and Hillary, with whom he had the temerity to publicly enlist as an equal partner in policy development. Their progressive ideas trigger a backlash that stuns those pitiable Panglossian souls who still consider America a shining beacon of fairness and clear-eyed practicality. Still in a state of denial, America’s inner soul is finally beginning to get glimpses of its true self in the mirror.
Still prey to its own extreme mood swings, the American public goes on to elect the barely literate son of Reagan’s Vice President to replace a policy-savvy Rhodes Scholar and his civically engaged, accomplished wife. Once again the world will not allow America to collapse beneath the weight of its myriad internal contradictions, its refusal to acknowledge its pervasive racism and misogyny and homophobia. Early into George W. Bush’s administration, extremists from one of its closest allies, Saudi Arabia, kill 3,000 Americans, giving the warmongers in his cabinet a cause around which to rally the country. They proceed to embroil the country in a conflict at least as disastrous and expensive and foolhardy as the war in Vietnam, if not more so. Besides turning the nation’s gaze once again outward and away from the rot within, the administration’s foreign interventions highlight yet another corrosive agent eating away at the fabric of the republic: the burden of global empire. After eight disastrous years, Bush leaves office with one of, if not the, lowest approval ratings in American history. So inept does he prove himself to be at conducting foreign policy, he leaves the country’s international reputation in tatters. On top of that, by approving detention without recourse to due process at Guantanamo, and by approving the use of torture, and extraordinary rendition, and by initiating a vast and intrusive surveillance state, he manages to layer onto the nation’s numerous burdens the palpable veneer of fascism, the very ideology so reviled when wielded by Hitler and Mussolini.
The ugliness and immorality of America’s behavior has become so blatant, so brazen, one might believe it impossible for it to disregard. But ignore it, it does. The inner soul of the country is nothing if not addicted to its own inflated sense of moral rectitude. The appearance of Barack Hussein Obama upon the political scene sends through it a shock wave no less potent than an eighteen-year-old’s first snort of cocaine. His followers are giddy with the prospect of electing the nation’s first black president. All of the nation’s sins against African Americans, the unspoken implication goes, can be expiated by the full-bodied support and election of a man so apparently different than his predecessors. The evidence is undeniable: his name, so foreign and provocative; his skin, so clearly a rebuke to the previous forty-three presidents. Here lies proof, for anyone with eyes to see, of the inherent purity of the American soul, of its capacity to leave behind for good the sins it never truly acknowledged.
Yes, once again, denial prevails. The deluded, naive expectations of the nation’s inner soul are projected onto Barack Obama. The progressives see their savior, and the conservatives see their anti-Christ. Neither see the truth. Obama rides into office on promises to reduce the American footprint abroad, but the expansion of empire continues, as does the growth of the surveillance state. More Mexicans are rounded up and returned to their country in Obama’s first four years than had been detained in his predecessor’s eight. Whistleblowers are hunted down and prosecuted with unprecedented vehemence. Drone strike numbers rise, exceeded only by the number of civilians incinerated in their wake, more often than not redefined as “enemy combatants.” But all of this is ignored by both his allies and adversaries. Baby steps towards progress domestically are made, cautiously. But they are insufficient, considering the enormity and weight of America’s refusal to confront its demons.
Still, Obama’s administration is, in retrospect, remarkable, considering the colossal missteps perpetrated by his predecessors. Despite his adherence to the conventional wisdom as preached by Wall Street and the Pentagon, no scandals plague his term; no hint of impropriety, either personal or political, haunts his stewardship. Some movement, however small, seems to be visible, toward the calming refuge of sanity and rationality. But the American inner soul will have none of it. Like a statute of limitations, the end of Obama’s eight years seems to trigger a frenzy of heretofore repressed and barely controlled rage against the system. To be fair, an argument could be made that this misdirected spleen revealed itself much earlier, but that would be a distinction without much of a difference.
Despite eight years of service by a man whose probity, dignity, forbearance and intelligence cannot by any honest person be doubted, America has, only a year ago, managed to elect the exact opposite: a spoiled child in the body of a wealthy man with no moral compass. The pendulum swings again. Despite all rational instincts to the contrary, emotion once again prevails, and a demonstrable racist and philanderer, a provable con-man and liar, is installed into the office of the presidency. The inner soul of this nation has raised to its chief political office a man whose temperament is, by any definition, equivalent to that of a toddler.
A year into this execrable administration, unsurprisingly absent its leader’s own awareness, the seed of fascism has sprouted. The sabres rattle. The “other” is demonized. Despots are coddled. His cabinet plunders the coffers. His base feels unfettered. Attacks against people of color go unremarked. Attacks by people of color are condemned in the harshest terms. Up is down. Black is white. The logic of the tyrant, which is the absence of logic, prevails. The inner soul of the people now wheezes like an asthmatic, straining through deafness to hear the voice of reason, and squinting against myopia to see what is directly in front of it. It limps forward on arthritic legs, flailing through thin air for some sort of support, and finding none, falls to its knees to rail against implacable fate. But the sound that comes forth is a raspy creak, a hollow rattle accompanied by an almost childlike squeak.
Representing our nation now is a man whose name I cannot bring myself to utter. A man steeped in intemperance; a man who is the embodiment of habitual selfishness and willful stupidity. We have not, Mr. Mencken, elected a moron, nor even an imbecile.
We have elected, in the truest sense of the term, an idiot.