Know Your Fears

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My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
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When A Party Divides: The Democrats in 1860

Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan as cocks fighting to the death.
This masterly drawing from 1860 captures the terror and ugliness of the break-up of the then-dominant Democratic party.  At the time, the Democrats were by far the nation’s oldest political party.  In fact, since the break-up of the fitfully successful Whig party a few years earlier, the Democrats had faced only a fractured opposition, a situation that the emergence of a new, national, anti-slavery party was about to change.  Shortly before this print was struck, the nascent Republican party had met in a convention at Chicago, where they had chosen an outlier, Abraham Lincoln, as their presidential nominee.

The Democrats had flourished by being laissez-faire on slavery.  They stood for a limited federal government, which, in their view, meant leaving slavery and slave-owners strictly alone.  The entire party had been organized around the goal of keeping the federal government from ‘interfering’ with slavery, a goal which enjoyed broad appeal in both North and South.  As slavery became more controversial, however, it became more difficult to rally around this leading idea.  Democrats had controlled the White House since 1852, but who could they put up to succeed the incumbent president, James Buchanan, an elderly former diplomat, who alone could conciliate the party’s fractious northern and southern wings?

In the presidential election of 1860, Democrats watched their party collapse, as its leading figures fought one another for the nomination and the power to chart the party’s future.  By Election Day, the Democrats had split into three parts, backing three rival candidates, opening the way for Lincoln’s unlikely victory.

Stephen Douglas, the strongest of the Democratic contenders, was so controversial a pick that the Democrats’ first nominating convention in Charleston, adjourned without selecting anybody.  Douglas had kept his lead through 18 ballots but could not muster the support needed for victory.  The party convened a second time in Baltimore, where Douglas was finally nominated. His opponents rebelled.  Fire-eaters who wanted a more vociferously pro-slavery candidate bolted to form the Southern Democratic Party, choosing Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their nominee.  A third faction, alarmed at the prospect of a national schism over slavery, eschewed these choices, banding together to form the Constitutional Union party, with Tennessee’s John Bell as their nominee (and the northerner Edward Everett as his running-mate).

The Democrats’ crisis hinged on a failure of leadership and ideology.  The party’s main idea was exhausted and untenable, while its chief figures, though able and patriotic, stubbornly clung to incompatible strategies.  None had the genius, nor the humility, to reconcile the party’s increasingly discordant aims.  Even as the crisis unfolded, observers knew it signified diminishing prospects for ‘the Democracy.’  The party was going to be smaller and weaker, a reality that the creator of the Currier and Ives ‘cartoon’ captures very effectively.

In the ensuing election, Lincoln would win, though receiving just 39.8 percent of all the votes cast.  The Democratic vote would have swamped him if combined.  Douglas won 1,380,202 votes; Breckinridge, 848,019; and Bell 590,901, for a total of 2,819,122, whereas Lincoln polled just 1,865,908.  He won in the North but nowhere else, leading Southerners to style his an illegitimate presidency.  By Lincoln’s inauguration, the Southern states had begun to secede.  With the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the American civil war got underway.

Democrats felt justified in breaking with their party, but, in all of American history, no election-year choice proved more costly.  The Democrats feared the end of slavery, but, had they ignored their differences and rallied around Douglas, the transition to freedom might have been far less catastrophic and bloody.  Lincoln would not have been elected, and the Civil War as we know it might not have occurred.

As it was, an estimated 620,000 Americans lost their lives.  The Democratic party was dishonored and eclipsed.  It was not until 1885, with the victory of Grover Cleveland, that a Democrat again occupied the presidency.

Image from this source.

The cartoon, published just after Stephen Douglas’s nomination at Baltimore, portrays the struggle within his party as a life-or-death blood sport.  The triumphant ‘Illinois Bantam’ (Douglas) crows over a prostrate ‘old cock’ symbolizing President Buchanan.  The old bird is dying, his great size signifying the power of a united party.  Douglas, flush with victory, boasts of his ability to beat both Lincoln and Breckinridge, the head of the strongest rival Democratic faction.  But just as the victorious Douglas is much smaller than the tough old bird he defeated, so Breckinridge is much smaller than he.  The ‘Kentucky chicken’ looks openly afraid as his handler puts him in the ring.  On the left is a philosophical figure who might represent the machine politicians of Tammany.

The State of the Union? The President Was Too Hyped to Care

President Obama after the State of the Union (January 2016 screenshot), © Susan Barsy
I was disappointed in President Obama’s final State of the Union address.  Though I am generally appreciative of the president, in this instance he did a real disservice to the nation, wasting a key opportunity to acknowledge the true condition of the land, the economy, and the citizens.

How refreshing it would be to hear a factual State of the Union address, where the essential aspects of our collective existence were candidly enumerated, realistically described.  Though thoroughly out of fashion, an address so styled would reassure Americans that the president sincerely cared about their pain and discontents, that the guy at the top identified with what they were experiencing.  Offering such recognition consistently and in a heartfelt way is only right, given that the prospects of many Americans are shrinking.  Particularly imperiled is the prospect that Americans will enjoy personal autonomy and independence: that they will stay free of debt, realize their potential, and, as they mature and grey, have enough to sustain themselves and their families.

Instead of frankly acknowledging the trade-offs that the government constantly makes for the sake of global supremacy and national pride, the President exhorted citizens to ’embrace change’ and take comfort in the fact that ‘The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth, period,’ and that ‘We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.’  Reasserting the vision that catapulted him to office in the first place (remember Change You Can Believe In?), President Obama urged Americas to have faith in the beneficent nature of change itself.   Even as he paid lip service to some of the nation’s glaring problems, his tone remained unduly up-beat and celebratory.  In the end, his platitudinous tone made me sad and uneasy.

Contrast his speech with Pope Francis’s somber eloquence when he similarly addressed a joint meeting of Congress last fall.  While the pope, too, paid homage to American dreams, his speech stood out for its moral discernment and honesty—the precision with which he outlined the great problems facing America and the world. His observations were at once compassionate and unflinching.  Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a pope and a president, but, in such a case, the president’s take on the nation comes off as almost callous, as willfully out of sync with the people he leads.

Running to see Taft

photo taken from the train during Taft's 1908 whistle-stop campaign.
It occurred to a photographer traveling with William Taft during the 1908 presidential campaign to take this picture of the people of De Witt, Nebraska, running to catch up with Taft’s slowing train.  Taft, a Republican and then vice-president, was running to succeed Theodore Roosevelt.  It was the hey-day of the whistle-stop campaign, which Roosevelt had taken to new extremes.  In an age when newspaper was the nation’s reigning mass media, seeing a leading politician in person was rare and precious.  In a small town, the visit of a future president generated universal excitement.

The image registers photography’s growing ability to capture the spontaneous action of everyday scenes.  Despite the movement of the crowd (and the train), the camera captures the running townspeople and the setting with remarkable clarity.  A woman in an enormous hat smiles while shielding her eyes from the sun; the flags’ stripes flap crisply over others as they run;  in the distance, a retreating train billows exhaust.  A decade earlier, such a photograph would likely have been an impossible blur.

Technical advances had widened the scope of photography, which in turn began comprehending more of the scene: not just frozen dignitaries but the living, breathing citizens they aspired to lead.

Image: from this source.

The Only Time President Roosevelt Ever Consented to Pose Before a Kodak

The Only Time President Roosevelt Posed for a Kodak (1903; courtesy of the Library of Congress)
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car.  The year is 1903.  The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.

By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody.  Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy.  The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.

Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys.  Who was the photographer?  Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time?  Did he even consent?  His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.

Image: from this source.