“Am I Ready To Be President?”

A child with an adult looking face and seated in a fine carriage.

“Am I ready to be president?”  An alarming number of Americans are asking themselves this question, and, after a quick look in the mirror, deciding that the answer is yes.  It is a large legion of astonishingly raw talent whose names we’ve never heard of and perhaps can’t pronounce.

They can’t wait to throw their hats in the proverbial ring.  A bell goes off in their heads, and they begin forming exploratory committees.  Losers from lower-level races imagine finding redemption as presidential wannabes.  From tweets and selfie videos come presidential contenders.  In no time, they are on the royal road, schmoozing the nameless kingmakers of Iowa and holding hands with Stephen Colbert.

 

Image: “Our future president” (c.1867),
from this source.

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Lori Lightfoot’s Mandate


Lori Lightfoot has become mayor-elect of Chicago in an election confirming the waning power of the Chicago machine. Newscasters’ muted coverage of Lightfoot’s lopsided victory over her only remaining challenger, the comfortingly familiar Toni Preckwinkle, registered the unexpectedness of Lightfoot’s achievement and what it really portends for this troubled city.  While the scope of the new mayor’s work is gargantuan, her mandate is alarmingly slight.

In a town of some 2,7 million souls, just under 1.6 million of its adults are registered voters, and, on April 2, only 504,123 (31.65%) of them cast a vote for mayor.  Lightfoot received 73.7 percent of these votes to Preckwinkle’s 26.3, but the salient fact is that, given the low turnout, Lightfoot became mayor with just 371,529 votes, representing 23.3 percent of Chicago’s voters and 13.65 percent of its total population.

Most voters did not turn out, presumably out of apathy or because they did not like or approve of either of the two remaining mayoral candidates.  Lightfoot and Preckwinkle beat out all the other candidates who had qualified for the first mayoral election on February 26, 2019, their first- and second-place showings putting them ahead of their thirteen rivals, including all whites and all men of color.  One wonders how many black and Hispanic men stayed home from the polls this week, disdaining to choose between two gifted black women who had risen above the males in a wild competition.  Several black women I spoke with reported meeting with angry silence from men in their workplaces when the subject of the mayoral race came up.

Thus, when, the day after the election, the Chicago Tribune blared, “Lightfoot In a Landslide,” the message it communicated was somewhat misleading.  Support for Lori Lightfoot is intense, but it’s not particularly broad.  The media’s emphasis on identity politics is likewise of little help in understanding what happened in this week’s momentous election.  Voters did not turn out for Lori because of her race or sexual orientation; most turned out for her irregardless of these traits.  She won the liberal white vote everywhere, racking up her biggest margins on the north and northwest sides.

Lightfoot won because she is extremely smart and deadly serious about waging war on corruption and the “Chicago way.”  She won because she’s committed to equal treatment for Chicago’s neighborhoods and peoples.  Yet given the slimness of her mandate and the legions of Chicagoans still loyal to the old patronage system, Lori will be sorely challenged to “Bring In the Light.”

A Legitimately Elected President

Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michele Obama, and Jill Biden among dignitaries on inauguration dias.
The conclusion of the Mueller investigation presents leading Democrats with a fateful choice: whether to continue digging into the past in hopes of hobbling or delegitimizing Trump’s presidency, or to concentrate on the present and the future, when all their ingenuity will be needed to beat Trump and deny him a second term.

Though the latter would be better for the party and nation, turning away from the special investigation requires fortitude.  The Mueller report hasn’t been made public, and the pundits and pols who are against Trump aren’t satisfied with Attorney General William Barr’s disclosures and conclusions.  The Democrats want more information.  This desire, as reasonable as it is, distinguishes them from the mass of American citizens who are really tired of this subtle affair and who are dying for evidence that the government is still capable of . . . . GOVERNING.

If the Democrats want someone new in the White House in 2020, they need to persuade voters that their nominee and their vision will be better for the nation than what Trump offers.  Yet they are so far from presenting this impression that one can scarcely imagine their unifying around a tenable candidate and winning.

Democrats are procrastinating.  They are shirking the hard work that follows from acknowledging that Trump won office legitimately.  He enjoys an authority that is foolish to argue with: In 2016, he understood the rules of the electoral game and exploited them more effectively than did Hillary Clinton.  He won the electoral votes he needed by persuading enough citizens to go to the polls and vote for him in key states.  Two years later, most of the president’s opponents have yet to reckon with this reality, even though any political strategy leading to Trump’s defeat must be designed with this geography in mind.  To defeat Trump, Democrats must peel away moderate and independent voters in states fed up with stale Democratic memes.  The Dems face an uphill battle, even with teamwork, ideological innovation, and the right nominee.

And where is Democratic rage when it comes to the real bogeyman, Russia–the real villain who prejudiced American voters against Hillary by waging a campaign of misinformation, who smeared her and deployed assets to promote Trump, a candidate who, for various reasons, Russia wanted instead?  What is Congress doing to ensure that foreign nations don’t infiltrate and corrupt American political discourse in the future?

While real danger looms over American democracy, one wonders whether the Democrats will ever look up from their game of Clue and do something.

Image: Screen shot of leading Democrats attending Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
© 2019 American Inguiry

Like the Moth, It Works In the Dark

The coordinated slaughter of Muslims in two New Zealand mosques last week was the latest atrocity sociopaths have committed in the name of the white race.  The idea that there is such a thing as a “white race” and that it is superior to all others defines a disgusting but deeply historically rooted movement that civil society must stamp out.  White supremacy is a comfortingly naive ideology that turns its adherents into soulless monsters, waging war on the racial and religious toleration central to peaceful, free, democracies.

In the US, white supremacy has long been associated with the local and provincial order of the Ku Klux Klan.  The Klan’s commitment to violence against blacks takes the form of a face-to-face fraternity whose members “man up” by getting together in numbers and donning disguises that mask the essential cowardice of their heinous acts.  The psychology of the cult and its rituals binds powerless and feckless individuals together, emboldening them to commit terrifying sins against their neighbors.

Lately, however, white supremacy is taking a different form, manifest in the persona of one of the gunmen who mowed down the Muslim worshippers in New Zealand.  He committed his crime in broad daylight, alone, even broadcasting it live on social media.  This was an individual zealot who methodically prepared for this day, justifying it with a manifesto he published on Facebook and linking his actions to a “tradition” of ideologically motivated hate crimes committed in recent years in Charleston, South Carolina, and in Norway, where a so-called “white knight” slew 77 people.

In an outstanding segment of the PBS Newshour, historian Katherine Belew urged viewers to recognize that these apparently disparate “lone wolf” attacks are part of a global “White Power” movement.  Though perpetrators are often socially and geographically isolated, they share the same creed and believe their crimes serve a common purpose, that of “defending” “white civilization” (typically defined as Christian) against people who are non-Christian or non-white.  Civil society, the ultimate victim of these kindred crimes, must cease to reward such sociopaths with publicity and fully discredit the febrile ideology that  fuels the assertion of “white power.”

Image: Charles Henry Dana, “Like the Moth, It Works in the Dark” (circa 1922)
from this source.

 

RELATED:
Consign the Sociopath and Terrorist to OblivionAmerican Inquiry
New Zealand PM Ardern Urges Her Nation To Make Gunman ‘Nameless,’ NPR

It’s Lent

Independence Pass, Colorado

It’s Ash Wednesday, March 6, and Lent is beginning. The Christian season of Lent has many meanings, but essentially it is a season of preparation, observed during the forty days leading up to Easter. Over the centuries, many Christians have chosen to make this a season of self-denial, mortifying their flesh in imitation of Christ, who, according to the Gospel, spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness just prior to his crucifixion.   Scroll to the bottom or click here to listen to the audio version of this post.

Although Christ did withdraw for a period of fasting and prayer, during which time he was tempted in the wilderness by a “deceiver” whose temptations he resisted, the larger purpose of Jesus’s spiritual retreat was to understand his mission on earth: how he should live the remainder of his days, what he had been put here to do.  In this sense, Lent is a season of spiritual renewal, or, as our dean has informed us in this week’s newsletter, ”Lent is Easter in disguise.” It’s a time to be revived, renewed, and rejuvenated. At least, I am approaching Lent as a season of renewal this year.

Specifically, I’m going to be reading a devotional booklet put out by an Episcopal organization called The Living Compass. The booklet is called Living Well through Lent 2019, and its overarching theme is Practicing Forgiveness With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind. Although I’m using the booklet in printed form, it’s also available as a free downloadable PDF.  Or, you can sign up to receive the content of the booklet via email daily.  There is a Spanish-language version, too.  For more information about Living Well Through Lent 2019, go to the website, livingcompass.org.

The opening reflection for Ash Wednesday, written by the Right Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, introduces the topic of “extreme” or “radical” forgiveness. At the outset, she describes extreme forgiveness as a divine attribute. It is in the character of God to have mercy and to forgive every category of human sin. She then describes the case of Ms. Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who was subjected to Dr. Mengele’s eugenic testing. Late in life, Ms. Kor, who emigrated to the US, has chosen extreme forgiveness as a way to transcend the weight of all that she, and millions of others, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Reverend Burrows writes,

Lent is our time to be intentional about taking stock of the most broken parts of our lives and our world as we seek forgiveness for our sins of omission and commission. It may be too much to imagine writing a letter of forgiveness to someone who has caused us pain or done violence to us. It might be beyond our fathoming to recount the pain, let alone forgive. It may seem too extreme. And yet . . . Jesus, who had an enviable well of forgiveness to draw upon even as he hung from the cross, continually calls us to the Way of Love and new depths of grace, mercy, and liberation. There are many paths to liberation, and extreme forgiveness is but one. However we get there, may this Lenten journey lead to the healing of ourselves and our world that allows resurrection, not evil, to be our defining story.

For each day of Lent, the booklet offers a brief written meditation on a different aspect of forgiveness as a concept and a process, and how the work of forgiveness can engage our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. The reader is then invited to write a response to each day’s reading. Here is my response to Reverend Burrows.

To be honest, I worry that thinking too much about forgiveness will destabilize me. It is a complex topic, embracing as it does sins of commission and omission (i.e., “things done and left undone”), as well as social wrongs for which we might bear complicity. Meditating on this topic involves dwelling on recent and perhaps slight hurts, as well as those that are more grave and may have occurred long ago. In addition, “practicing forgiveness” is an entirely different process, at first glance, than seeking forgiveness—the former involves giving pardon to someone who may have wronged me, while the latter involves being pardoned for something regrettable or damaging that I have done. The process of forgiving seems to involve almost godlike strength, but for that very reason promises to draw us into a new relationship with one another and with God. 

Many of my sins are those of omission, for I have often been indecisive, immobilized by doubt and fear: in a word, cowardly. I often wake up feeling awful about something decent that I just don’t have the nerve to do, or do yet.

 Finally, in thinking of forgiveness and those who have hurt me, I am struck by how few of those people have ever taken the initiative to acknowledge their injurious acts and how they wounded my feelings or inflicted tangible and lasting harm. But in the “practicing forgiveness” model, that doesn’t matter, because putting my finger on those hurts and proactively pardoning the people who inflicted them is all on me. When someone hurts me and doesn’t admit that or apologize, that leaves me feeling very small. So I get why Ms. Kor found that offering radical pardon to a Nazi perpetrator left her freer and lighter afterward.

Image: Independence Pass by Susan Barsy

Lori v. Goliath

Black and white photo of City Hall and the Daley Plaza.

CHICAGO.  Yesterday’s mayoral election put Lori Lightfoot in position to prevail against the entrenched interests that have long determined how things go down in Chicago, interests that in the next phase of the mayoral race will likely back her remaining opponent, Cook County Board president, Toni Preckwinkle.

In yesterday’s election, Lightfoot emerged as the top vote getter, far eclipsing many other of the fourteen candidates who received more media attention and were thought more likely to win.  Lightfoot received some 90,000 votes (17.48 percent), far outstripping Bill Daley (whom the Chicago Tribune endorsed) and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, whose relationship with the corrupt Ed Burke, 14th ward alderman, is such that her wedding was held in his house.  Daley and Mendoza received roughly 76,000 (14.78%) and 47,000 votes (9.09%), respectively.  The second-highest vote getter was Preckwinkle, who received some 82,000 votes (just under 16%), out of a total of 515,771 votes cast.  (Totals are current as of this writing, with the official count still ongoing.)

Because no candidate received a majority, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will face one another in a run-off election on April 2.

Ironically, Lori and Toni have some similarities. Both are brainy and have roots in Hyde Park. Both have little Afro halos of hair. Both are competent, ambitious, and palpably serious. Lightfoot, in particular, rarely smiles. Both were visibly delighted last night, however, emerging victorious from one of the most unpredictable contests Chicagoans have seen.

Now their contest will get more interesting.  The votes scattered across yesterday’s large field will now be gathered behind the two remaining candidates.  Today will see the Lightfoot and Preckwinkle camps bidding to secure endorsements and support from the candidates who lost.  Who will Willie Wilson, Amara Enyia, Bill Daley, Garry McCarthy, and Gery Chico, throw their weight behind?  How many anti-establishment forces will mobilize behind Lori, and will they end up prevailing over the old interests (including journalistic ones) that favor the incumbents and the status quo?

Toni Preckwinkle was all smiles last night, knowing that party regulars will rally around her.  She will get the money that would have gone to Vallas, Chico, and Daley.  She will get support from all the predictable places: the unions, old party hacks like Berrios and Dorothy Brown, the developers who like aldermanic privilege and want the basics of city government to remain what they are.  Preckwinkle opened her campaign against Lightfoot last night, shrewdly timing her “victory speech” to correspond with the 10 o’clock news.  She received several minutes of free political advertising, broadcast live.  She will position herself as the more experienced executive, with a clearer economic vision and a more palatable tonic for the fiscal ills that have poisoned Chicago.

Lori Lightfoot will run on a platform of fairness, public safety, and equal investment.  She is explicitly anti-establishment but not necessarily “progressive,” as dismantling “the Chicago way” will entail taking on the public unions.  She will get the vote of the poor and the ordinary, the dispossessed and struggling folk of the city.  She will get a lot of the liberal vote–and the vote of the cynics and those seasoned enough to see through Preckwinkle.  She will get the “roulette” voters, who after a lifetime of being betrayed by Chicago’s power elite, will look at little Lori Lightfoot and say “What the hell.”

Image: 1981 view of Chicago’s City Hall and Daley Plaza,
 from this source.

Chicago’s Mayoral Election

Black and white perspectival view of Chicago's City Hall taken from the southeast.

Tomorrow is Chicago’s mayoral election, with fourteen candidates vying to replace the incumbent Rahm Emanuel.  The large number of candidates and an unusually unsettled political climate make this a particularly exciting and unpredictable contest.  If one candidate among the fourteen pulls way ahead and receives a majority of all votes cast tomorrow, that candidate will be Chicago’s new mayor.  But, given the absence of a clear front-runner, it is more likely that no one will receive a majority, setting the stage for a run-off between the two highest-polling candidates.  (In fact, election-eve polling shows no one candidate getting more than fourteen percent.)

So, the most significant mayoral race in decades is coming down to the wire.  Three or four events have shaped the race and influenced the way voters are assessing the candidates.  The first of these is the Laquan McDonald shooting, which destroyed Mayor Emanuel’s reputation and chance of re-election.  One year into the mayor’s second term, it came out that he had been responsible for suppressing the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting in favor of covering up the police’s misconduct and buying off the dead teen’s family.  Since then, the shame of a colossal moral failure has dogged Emanuel’s administration.  But the fallout from this event has galvanized the electorate to expect more from the city and its police department, to demand better policing, and to look for leaders who will be on the side of citizens and have the courage to stand up to the police and to entrenched interests that do nothing but tolerate unacceptably high levels of violence in the city.

Mayor Emanuel’s disgrace has left him in too weak a position to ensure that his office will go to a chosen successor, even though he appears to hope the office will go to Bill Daley.  Bill Daley’s election would represent a terrible step backward, however, at a time when the city desperately needs an honest, fresh, independent guide.

The second event shaping the race is the feds’ recent sting.  In January, the FBI raided the offices of Alderman Ed Burke, who symbolizes the hermetic quality of Chicago machine politics, having enjoyed a controlling influence over local affairs while occupying the same seat in the city council for 49 years.  Burke is now, as Chicago Magazine put it, “facing federal charges for allegedly extorting legal business from the owner of a Burger King in his ward.”  Four candidates in the mayor’s race have “come up” through the machine and represent a continuation of politics as usual: Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico, and Bill Daley.  The raid on Burke’s offices has been followed with the even more sensational revelation that Alderman Danny Solis wore a wire for the FBI for almost two years.  Solis chose to cooperate with the FBI rather than face charges of criminal misconduct himself.

As the FBI’s work opens up the happy possibility that more corruption will be exposed in Chicago, the prospects of many of the city’s erstwhile leaders are being recast.  Will Chicago voters finally turn against candidates such as Bill Daley, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, and Gery Chico, who are clearly creatures of the Chicago machine?  If voters do turn decisively toward “outsider” candidates, they may at last succeed in draining the swamp and liberating the city from “the Chicago Way.”

Identity politics is a third factor that makes the outcome of the contest hard to predict.  With so many candidates in the mix, including four women and many people of color, the contest will ultimately hinge on attributes other than the candidates’ skin color or sex.  It becomes nonsensical to talk about how “the black vote,” or “the female vote,” or “the white male vote” will go.  Will the upstart Amara Enyia and the solemn Lori Lightfoot split the black vote with Willie Wilson and Toni Preckwinkle?  Or will blacks simply vote for whomever seems likely to do the most for their communities and their pocketbooks, regardless of how they look?  In this day and age, what demographic is viscerally devoted to Bill Daley?  Looking at the contest in terms of superficial attributes seems particularly futile and nonsensical this time around.

It’s a momentous day for Chicago.  Personally, I hope either Lori Lightfoot or Gary McCarthy wins: either would make a fine, iconoclastic mayor.  Chicago needs to reject machine politics and all its creatures.  Peace, public safety, and honest governance: this, above all, is what Chicago needs.

Image: 1981 Hedrich-Blessing photograph of Chicago’s City Hall, taken from the southeast,
from this source.

Senator Flake

The former Senator from Arizona speaking at the Union League Club of Chicago's George Washington's Birthday Celebration.
Over the weekend, I went to hear Senator Jeff Flake at the Union League Club. Every February, the club hosts a big dinner to celebrate George Washington’s birthday and invites a guest speaker. This year, Jeff Flake of Arizona spoke. This was the 131st first year the dinner was held.

I believe that whenever one has a chance to see a major public figure, one should take the opportunity.   Flake has just left the Senate after one term but he is definitely presidential material, and I will be surprised if he fails to run for president one day. He faces one major impediment to his ambition, however: at the moment he is very nearly a man without a party.

Flake comes across as a very poised, articulate, and thoughtful conservative. He describes himself as having fallen in love with politics at an early age. He served twelve years in the House of Representatives prior to his elevation to the Senate. Then along came Trump, the game changer who has cast Flake into a sea of difficulty.  Flake is one of the few Republicans in Congress to have broken openly with the president instead of going along with him in a sheepish and cowardly way.

Most Republican senators have tried to “find common ground” with the president as though doing so does not compromise their dignity. They have chosen to collaborate with him, even though it cheapens them by association. Trump treats the Senate in a high-handed and condescending manner. The Republican-led Senate has permitted itself to be humiliated. Republican senators endure Trump for the sake of party domination.

In the rare cases when the Republican majority finds that it cannot comply with Trump, its opposition to the president is tacit, as was true last week when Trump was shut out of the budget negotiations and told afterward that he must accept the negotiated deal. By and large, Republican senators have watched silently, however, as Trump has destroyed the soul of the “Grand Old Party.” It’s a peculiar situation, because it’s not clear whether most leading Republicans genuinely endorse Trump’s ideas. What they see is that Trump is charismatic and that his charisma is pumping up Republican power. Perhaps they believe they can outlast Trump, then return to what they were before.

Jeff Flake has no such illusions. He cannot stand with a president whose followers chant, “Lock her up.” During Flake’s tenure in Congress, he witnessed the gradual erosion of comity on Capitol Hill. When he began, it was still the custom of senators and representatives to move their families to Washington. Political differences tended to evaporate when members on either side of the aisle knew one another’s children by name. On weekends, representatives worshipped together and watched their kids play sports, developing friendships that softened the edges of partisan conflict.

That changed, Flake recalled, with Newt Gingrich’s speakership.  Gingrich told House Republicans to leave their families at home, because, on the weekends, he expected them to be back in their districts campaigning. As a result, the US now has “a commuter Congress,” with members flying in to work a few days a week.

Reluctant to treat Democrats as “the enemy” and unwilling to stand with the president, Flake has learned that Republicans in his state increasingly demand this very thing. Whereas “the economy” or “jobs” used to top the list of Republican voters’ concerns, “Where do you stand on Trump?” has displaced them, according to recent polls. Out of sync with both his base and GOP leadership, Flake saw re-election was futile.  He left the Senate last month.  In retirement, he seems to have embraced the philosophy of the first president we had gathered to honor. For, as that great man once observed,

If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The rest is in the hands of God.

Ralph Northam’s Virginia

The national flap over Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 yearbook page demonstrates how the affairs of states and localities are subject to external pressures that they were more free from formerly.  There is something to be said for the “nationalization” of political sentiment, in that it tends to make the states more like one another–something that the United States resists but needs.  Yet citizens can only be citizens of a particular place, and they above all others are entitled to decide who their leaders should be.  That Democrats outside Virginia have opined so freely on how Ralph Northam should behave at this point betrays an uneasiness about self-government that should be anathema in US society.

It’s doubly ironic that the Democratic Party, which is banking on its “zero tolerance” policy to distinguish it from the dog-whistle variety of Republicanism, should have gone so quickly for the bait that a right-wing website, Big League Politics, dangled.  According to Mother Jones, Big League Politics is “a young media outlet best known for defending white nationalists.”  The site is run by disgruntled Breitbart News staffers who view Breitbart as having gotten “too moderate.”  BLP represents an element of Virginia’s electorate that lost out when Republican Ed Gillespie beat their favored candidate, Trump enthusiast Corey Stewart, in the gubernatorial primary.

In publicizing an old photo from Northam’s yearbook, BLP  bet that Democrats would immediately throw Northam under the bus, no questions asked.  How right they were.  Many influential Democrats, responding almost viscerally to the “evidence” of a single old photograph (in which the governor is not identifiable), immediately called on Northam to resign.  Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, DNC chair Tom Perez, and presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Julian Castro all fell into the trap, needing no further information to declare Northam suddenly and completely disqualified.  The absolutism and self-righteousness of “zero tolerance” bid fair to destroy Northam, who gained office with the support of the more moderate and forward-looking part of Virginia’s population.

The Democratic vote in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary by county. Northam (blue) v. Perriello (green). Source: Wikipedia.

Though a distant observer, I followed Northam’s run for governor rather closely.  A relative who lives in Virginia decided early on to canvass for Northam, as a way to work for positive politics in the wake of Trump’s election.  Through her letters, I followed Northam through his primary battle with the Sanders-backed insurgent Tom Perriello, whose effort was seen as a bellwether for progressive Democrats nationally.  Despite Perriello’s losing, The Nation declared that Northam had “moved left in the course of the primary and is likely the most progressive Democratic nominee in the history of Virginia.”  Northam repeatedly denounced President Trump on the campaign trail, declaring that “we’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”

The Republican vote in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary by county. Gillespie the victor (red) v. Stewart (gold).  Source: Wikipedia.

Was it, in fact, because of Trump that Virginia’s own home-grown strain of hate flared so dangerously in the middle of the gubernatorial campaign?  In the Republican primary, George Zornick writes, “Corey Stewart ran an offensive campaign based heavily on Confederate nostalgia and almost knocked off former RNC chair Ed Gillespie for the nomination.”  Gillespie staved off Stewart by less than 45,000 votes.  Various publications report that Stewart’s campaign consultants, Reilly O’Neal and Noel Fritsch, became the owners of BLP soon afterward.   Both men had also worked on Alabaman Roy Moore‘s US Senate campaign, which failed amid allegations that he stalked and molested underage girls.  Fritsch and O’Neal are wide-ranging political troublemakers, who help the alt-right by casting aspersions on liberals and other proponents of racial and sexual equality.

The dangers of inflaming such divisions became clear at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, when a mêlée broke out between white-supremacist groups and their opponents, culminating in an act of domestic terrorism in which at least forty people were wounded and one person was killed.  (See this Wikipedia page for details and videos of the event.)  The assembly of so many extremists, armed and rallying around a symbol of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, left many Virginians (and the nation) painfully uneasy about the extent of militant intolerance in the state.  Where was Virginia heading?

The vote in Virginia’s November 2017 gubernatorial election by county. Northam (the victor) in blue; Gillespie in red. Source: Wikipedia.

Northam’s solid victory in November 2017 represented a general rebuke to factions stoking divisiveness and hatred.  On Election Day, Democrats and others opposed to Trump and alt-right extremism went to the polls in remarkably high numbers.  Turnout was the highest it had been in twenty years.  Nonetheless, the campaign exposed a thick sediment of bitterness over race and emancipation that had lain unresolved for many years, arguably since the time of the Civil War.

As Donald Trump joined with leading Democrats in condemning Northam as a racist, the alt-right nearly succeeded in making Northam indistinguishable from the very extremists he battled and triumphed over in the campaign.  When politics makes such strange bedfellows, be wary indeed.

The Toxic Vibe at Antietam

A view of "Bloody Lane" from the observation tower.

Every Civil War battlefield is poignant, preserving within itself a base, murderous vibe.  Each speaks to us in its own way of American folly.  Nowhere is the vibe more toxic than at Antietam.

What led Americans to murder one another there in record numbers?  They had lost patience over a complex problem that they failed to solve politically, and each set of murderers would be damned before they would see their opponents prevail.  And so they were.

In a quiet corner of rural Maryland just off the Potomac River, legions of Union and Confederate soldiers—Americans all—converged in cornfields and country lanes outside Sharpsburg, shooting, bombing, and bayoneting one another in a merciless bloodbath.  It was just one day in a civil war that lasted four years and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, scarring their families and traumatizing a proud, optimistic nation.  There in the vicinity of Antietam Creek, on September 17, 1862, some 23,000 Americans were wounded or killed.

Masses of dead Americans lying in a field after Antietam in 1862

They were the victims of party politics.  The lofty language Lincoln and others used to give meaning to the Civil War tends to obscure the truth that the war was a travesty, a rebuke to the pretensions of republican government.  The Civil War was the nasty afterbirth of a colossal political deadlock that upended the political system and plunged the nation into catastrophe.  We rarely acknowledge the deeply shameful character of this domestic rumble. The nation’s leadership class so failed the people that at last they and their states lost patience, gave up negotiating, and gambled on settling their differences by force.

When the Civil War broke out, the United States was a young, forward-looking nation.  Its people were migratory and accustomed to risk.  They were experimental, improvisational, adept at breaking with established ways.  Yet, when it came to slavery, their leaders were blinkered.  They were irresponsible and cowardly.  (Historian James G. Randall once dubbed them “the blundering generation.”)  In the first half of the 19th century, when other countries were advancing toward the gradual abolition of slavery (often in their colonial possessions), a generation of American leaders proved incapable of finding a peaceful way past white Southerners’ longstanding reliance on negro slaves.

An enormous literature catalogs the reasons these “antebellum” statesmen failed.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the South’s colonial past. The slaveholding class perceived owning “property” in slaves as vital to Southern prosperity, which was based on export commodities (chiefly tobacco and cotton).  White Southerners also enjoyed more than their fair share of representation in Congress, thanks to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.

Northern politicians meanwhile turned a blind eye to slavery (the “peculiar” institution), in part because of the North’s own variety of anti-black feeling, but also because agitating for change with respect to slavery threatened the solidarity of the political class across the North-South divide.  No one in power could envision the US with a large free black population.

Northern Democrats, whose party was pro-slavery, were keen to steer clear of the slavery issue because they wanted to remain in power.  They wanted their party to remain dominant and keep control of the White House.  They were committed to preventing the federal government from infringing on the rights of slave-holding states or individual slaveholders.

In short, until the rise of the Republican Party in the late 1850s, slavery was an uncomfortable issue that no mainstream politician wanted to face.  Slavery, that “fire bell in the night,” as Jefferson memorably described it circa 1820, was so potentially divisive a matter that, for many decades, American statesmen conspired to keep it from interfering in national life.

Politically, this strategy of avoidance allowed northern and southern states to enjoy a balance of power.  As territories were settled and new states admitted to the Union, Congress passed various measures in an attempt to ensure that the number of free and slave states would remain equal.  The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 were all constructed along these lines.

When an initially tiny group of antislavery politicians succeeded in organizing the new Republican Party and putting their candidate Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1860, Southern legislators were certain they knew what the future held.  They were convinced that the Republicans’ success (though attained solely with the support of Northern states) presaged slavery’s doom—and their own.  Southern leaders who might have stayed in power to mitigate the effects of this untoward political development, recoiled against their minority status.  Fearful and defiant, they withdrew from national politics.  Then they went home and convinced their states to withdraw from the Union.  In doing so, they placed themselves on the wrong side of history, failing their states and fellow-citizens, and spinning a narrative of bitterness and alienation that some Southerners continue to lean on today.

Suddenly, because of all that, the residents who had heretofore ferried back and forth across the Potomac on their daily errands became mortal enemies.  Confederates blew up the bridge at Shepherdstown, Virginia, that was normally used to get to the Maryland side.  Then, after the bridge was gone, tens of thousands of troops who were part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waded across the river at night to wage war in what was called the Maryland Campaign.

Lee sought to attack and defeat the Union Army on northern soil, but, even at this early point in the war, his soldiers and he may well have sensed the terrible futility and shamefulness of their resort to violence—the civic degeneration that “freed” them to attack their erstwhile compatriots, whose ancestors had fought with theirs to attain independence in the American Revolution.  Having disavowed their faith in federal politics and the Constitution, Southern “rebels” now poured their energies into slaughtering whomever they encountered in the “bloody cornfield.”

After both sides sickened from their atrocious duties, Lee’s forces retreated back across the river into rebel territory, an admission that their aggressive foray against the defenders of federalism had failed.

In retrospect, we can see how the visceral drama and valor of the Civil War took the heat off “the blundering generation.”  We do not excoriate the political establishment of that time for failing to hang together, for their cowardly abandonment of the federal system.

Because the Civil War at last secured the great goal of emancipation, we can easily be fooled into thinking of it as a noble, progressive event.  It’s blasphemy to admit the war was a terrible disservice to the nation, which would have been better off abolishing slavery by consensual means.  The partisan and sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War exposed frightening vulnerabilities in our Constitutional system, vulnerabilities that are still there, waiting for a freak combination of circumstances to exploit them again.

Sadly, the resort to force did not “settle our differences.”  A vast change in our internal relations occurred when slavery ended, but, as for the necessary change of heart, we’re waiting for it still.  Southern slaveholders never assented to slavery’s end.  Northerners never got serious about the concessions that might have induced the South to give up an immoral labor practice at odds with the nation’s ideals.  Ultimately, enslaved blacks attained freedom despite violent Southern opposition, engendering animosities that confound Americans still.  Still, America lacks consensus on racial equality as a fact and a blessing; still retrograde elements valorize their resistance to modern popular will.