As President Trump and Trump’s myriad critics remind us on a daily basis, ours is today a profoundly divided nation. Yet understanding the source of those divisions, amply displayed in perceptions of this week’s Democratic debates, requires looking beyond the antagonisms of the moment. Americans need to recover what aviators call situational awareness – a knowledge of where we are and how we got here.
Toward the end of “Personal History,” his bestselling account of his adventures as a foreign correspondent in the 1920s, Vincent Sheean reflects on the difficulty of taking what he calls “the long view.” Perspective, he writes, requires “finding a point in time from which events can seem ordered.”
What precisely is the “point in time” to which Americans today can refer as they try to make sense of ongoing events? Our present-day inability to answer that question goes far toward explaining the pervasive discontent afflicting the nation. Put simply, we’ve lost any shared sense of America’s place in the stream of history.
For several generations of Americans, World War II defined the agreed-upon point of origin. Here was the wellspring of a durable past that defined who we were and where we were headed. For Americans, victory over Nazi Germany (and to a lesser extent over Imperial Japan) served as both anchor and azimuth. As enshrined in collective memory, in other words, the war itself provided a reference for all that ensued. What followed was ”postwar,” a term that Tony Judt chose as a title for his excellent history of the period from the mid-1940s through the 1980s because it required no further elucidation.
The end of the Cold War rang down the curtain on this postwar era. For a brief moment, the events of 1989-91, bookended by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first Iraq war, appeared to signal what was to come next. Successive triumphs over Communism and Saddam Hussein, Americans were told, promised even more momentous successes to come. Here, it seemed, was the point of origin of a new historical era.
The overarching theme of the postwar era had centered on defending freedom while averting Armageddon. The passing of the Cold War gave rise to far greater ambitions. This was, after all, the so-called “unipolar moment” of putative U.S. economic, military, technological and cultural supremacy. Those Americans who by the 1990s saw security, prosperity and ever-expanding freedom as their birthright were especially susceptible to hucksters promising utopia just around the corner.
All of this has now turned out to be an illusion. During the interval between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 2016 presidential election, the United States experienced a precipitous fall from grace, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it was largely self-inflicted. A mere 30 years after the collapse of Communism, having in the interim endured a series of military disappointments, economic catastrophes and natural disasters, Americans find themselves today without an agreed-upon long view, whether of their past or their future. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
So while the Spirit of ’76 may still provide a pretext for Fourth of July cookouts, concerts and fireworks displays, it no longer animates our polity. Nor does fulfilling our Manifest Destiny, destroying the slavocracy, taming the frontier, taking up the white man’s burden, making the world safe for democracy, or any of the other tropes that once imparted a collective sense of national purpose and thereby provided a basis for taking a long view of America’s place in history. To complicate matters further, in the age of social media, the very concept of a long view has seemingly become passé, eclipsed by the manufactured urgency of tweets and postings that go viral and as quickly vanish into the ether.
In a fundamental sense, Americans no longer recognize a common past, a development that the Trump presidency simultaneously expresses and exacerbates. After all, the United States has now become a nation that can’t decide whether Robert E. Lee was a heroic beau ideal or a murderous traitor. Were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson visionary progressives or contemptible racists? The very question elicits angry debate. We can’t even agree on whose face should adorn the $20 bill.
Here is where we come face to face with what ought to be the transcendent issue of the 2020 election: Whether choosing a president next year will become a point in time that affirms existing divisions or begins the process of recovering a long view.
Within the last couple of weeks, Trump himself has clearly signaled his own choice: He appears intent on splitting American society into irreconcilable halves, calculating that doing so will win him a second term.
Will Democrats follow his path? To the extent that they allow the election to become a referendum on Trump, they will do so. They too will thereby become complicit, even if inadvertently, in cementing division.
Only by recovering a sense of what unites us as a people, much as the myth-history of World War II once did, can we avert this sorry outcome. Only then might it be possible for the election of 2020 to become a point in time enabling Americans to reestablish a long view of themselves and their history. Sadly, with each passing day, such an outcome appears less likely.
Andrew Bacevich is co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory,” due out in January.