When We Seem More Broken than Not

Hello from my office,

It is not by accident that I am writing this on the day following the 245th Anniversary of the foundation of the United States Marine Corps and on Veterans’ Day at a few minutes from the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month. I am hurting. I am disillusioned; and I am stunned by where we are as a country. As a Marine, I joined the service as a 17 year old, yes, wet-behind-the-ears, barely 115 pound, naive NW Iowa boy. Did I join because I had this overwhelming desire to be patriotic? Simply put: NO. Vietnam was drawing to an end. My mother and I were at odds over everything, and I mean everything, and I had no idea why or how I would attend college. It seemed out of my league, both academically and financially. So on a lark one day, as I have noted before, I skipped school and with a senior classmate found myself at the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in downtown Sioux City, Iowa. He was considering going into the Marine Corps, so I tagged along. Amazing what that day created. Within about three months I went from having no direction to finding myself standing on the yellow footprints of MCRD-San Diego. Yes, for those here, East of the Mississippi, I was a Hollywood Marine.

My time in the Marine Corps would change the trajectory of my life. It could have done so even more had I been a bit more thoughtful. Suffice it to say, I would have gone to college on the government’s dime, come out as a Second Lieutenant, and retired at 37 had I thought carefully about what was offered, twice. I was pretty stupid, but it has turned out okay in the long run. Bootcamp was a shock and so were many of the other things that would happen to me, but it changed me in two important ways. The first is a sense of patriotism and love of country, but simultaneously an understanding of the complexity of our federal government. I will say more about that below. The second was an understanding of the importance of discipline and the necessity of it. Both of these realizations, of these lessons, are paramount in the uncertainty of what is occurring in light of this contested election (I will give some deference to those supporting President Trump at this time). Our government, all the way to the White House, was reeling when I was in the Marine Corps. We had both a Vice President and a President resign while I was in the service. That was unprecedented in our nation’s history. There is a lot more than merely tax evasion on the part of Vice President Agnew, but rather a dishonesty that began when he was in Baltimore. You can look it up, but what is probably more amazing is the scheme followed him to the Office of the Vice President because he was still receiving kickbacks for his actions from years prior. Second, there might be an irony that it was Agnew that would place then Candidate Richard Nixon’s name into nomination at the Republican National Convention. What is most interesting, particularly for me, is that as the investigation by the U.S. Attorney into Vice President Agnew gained steam in Maryland, both President Nixon and H. R. Halderman (the White House Chief of Staff) worked to assist the then Vice President to shut the investigation down (if it sounds familiar to present day, it should because the parallels are striking). That was our Executive Branch in the mid-1970s. Of course, eventually both Agnew and Nixon would resign. It was a dark time in our nation’s history and it would usher in the Presidency of James Earl Carter, who is certainly not one of the most effective Presidents, and one of only four (if the election holds) to be voted out after one term. However, Carter has become a statesman perhaps like no other since holding office (and that is supported across the political spectrum).

Let me return to the idea of patriotism and its complexity. I have what I would call an aversion to any sort of blind, unthinking, unquestioning patriotism or analysis of our government. Much like I noted in my last blog about our national psyche, most have no sense of the complexity of what it means to be patriotic. Complicating that is a national ethic which has moved toward situational versus some “more set of principled” ethic. This sort of struggle moved me to have a conversation with the Philosophy Department chair here at Bloomsburg. He helped me see there is a utilitarian aspect to this or more simply, something pure Machiavellianism. The issue is how is it we have become so Machiavellian? That might turn is back to the example of Agnew and Nixon, and certainly President Trump’s assertion of absolute power as President and a protective cocoon from prosecution would support that position. The reality of the President’s position is not anything probably anyone, maybe even he himself, has a complete handle on, but there is little doubt that there are a number of concerns about his legal issues and his financial status. In addition, depending on these two issues, I believe there is reason to believe he will consider running for re-election in 2024, or at the very least playing a significant role in that election. Patriotism is believing in and supporting your government, but it is also being honest about abuse of power and calling it out when it occurs, and that is not a partisan thing; it is the how democracy works. Bad behavior, unethical behavior, unlawful behavior should be called out regardless a person’s political bias. However, there is another aspect of patriotism that is a selfless action, something that comes from deep inside, it is that willingness to sacrifice for the whole, up to and including the giving of one’s life. This is what I came to realize by serving in the Marine Corps. It is more than an ideal; it is more than a concept; it is the reality of every single grave anywhere in the world, be it in France, in Arlington National Cemetery, Ft. Snelling, or even in Graceland Park Cemetery in Sioux City, Iowa, where three people, whose flags from their coffins are presently in my living room: my uncle, my father, and my sister. While the three of them were not killed in action, a person I knew was. That is a sobering, humbling, and profoundly eye-opening reality. Losing your life at 19 because you answered the call to serve is not something we can quite fathom, even when you see it happen.

Much of what is happening in our country, post-election, regardless political position, is being argued by both sides as an issue of democracy and fingers being pointed about honesty, transparency, and ultimately about our ethics as a nation. I am reminded of what Kellyanne Conway referred to as alternative facts when reporters inquired about Sean Spicer’s comments about the numbers at the inauguration of President Trump almost four years ago. Remember, the questions were raised because of photos and not merely because of what someone had written. Numbers and alternative facts have been a hallmark of President Trump’s tenure as President. Again, I could layout a laundry list, but that is not the point. I think it is important to understand that alternative facts, cherry-picked facts, any fact do and does. Facts are suspect. Not in some post-modern way, some Nietzschean argument that nothing has actual substance, as it might seem I am asserting, but rather political facts are not scientific facts and vice versa. The very word fact itself is loaded (and not as in the continued explosion of cannabis laws passed and in this cycle, it was Montana, Arizona, Mississippi, and South Dakota, not liberal bastions, btw). What constitutes a fact? Terms like disinformation, misinformation, hoax, fake news, and a host of other terms or phrases all do the same thing. They sow mistrust, suspicion at the very least, and on the other end, they can create division, vitriol, and some of the very things we see occurring now. Please know, I am not saying this only happens on one side of the political aisle, but I do believe we are in a place unlike anything in my lifetime. That is really the rationale for my title. Certainly in both the 2016 and the 2020 elections, the polls have left a bit to be desired. However, within 24 hours of the election Sec. Clinton stated, “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” There were claims of fraud in 2016, mostly by the President-elect at the time, which is a bit ironic. Of all the investigated claims, only four were found to be accurate (Bump, Washington Post. 1Dec2016). Of course, there has been the continual claim that there were 6 million fraudulent votes, but Sec. Clinton only won by 3,000,000, so there are some possible issues. As we continue to count, in both Republican and Democratic states, the trend, turing red to blue because of mail-in votes, continues. Part of our struggle is what we expect from our politicians. Do we expect honesty, transparency, fairness? Perhaps in our ideal little corners we do, but more likely, we understand that there is some issue with our politicians, but we would like to fall into a camp where we believe the majority of them are reasonable, logical, principled. And yet, those are the mainstream. I believe what we are seeing now is more and more who fall out of the mainstream. That is certainly indicative of President Trump. Time and time again, he has been held up as the people’s politician, the person to whom the average person can more easily relate. The person who has their back. Why? In part, building off my last post, because people find his message rhetorically accessible. They perceive his passion as something they can appreciate or as someone who cares about them. What studies show is his language level, his rhetorical level, is about fourth grade. This is not a dissing of the President, but rather explaining why he has been so effective.

Certainly, the argument rages as to whether or not he is a Republican, a nationalist, a populist or none of the above. Arguments can be, and have been, made for each of these. If the President is a populist, which is one of the more (maybe not the most) likely options in my opinion, that is an important point. All politicians bend facts at some point. They reorder them; they take them out of context; and they know the necessity of spinning them. That is reality, but most often the mainstream do it is a manner that is difficult to argue or claim them as lying (at least without digging down). Studies show that populists, on the other hand, are not afraid of lying or even being exposed in that lie (Morrissey, Griffith University). However, if you might believe they are not calculating in what they say, again, studies will show something much different, and the rationale for that falsehood has a different purpose. Again, Morrissey argues there are two important considerations. First, the lies are not meant to be accepted by the general public, but rather to appeal to a particular element of the electorate, and without doubt, there is an incredible effectiveness to this strategy. Second, the lies and their acceptance have a profound consequence on political discourse. There is still an underlying belief that political discourse is at its core true. It would be easy again to ask the simple question: why would you lie about something so ridiculous? but that assumes the wrong question. The more important question is why tell that particular lie at that particular time? Let me note a dystopian novel many of us read at some point (Orwell’s 1984) and the story might be instructive. Orwell used phrases like “war is peace, freedom is slavery, or ignorance is strength” and the totalitarian government used propaganda to rewrite history at will. The use of the phrase “alternative facts” by Conway caused an unexpected renaissance for the novel as sales soared more than 9,500% (Amazon). Lies always have a reason, and a lie’s chief end is deception (Bok). What is more complex when considering this is not all deception is necessarily wrong or evil. Much could be said here, but allow one example. Parents might be very angry at each other, but will often mask that anger when in front of their children, particularly if the child is small. That is deception, but is it wrong? Probably not, for a number of obvious reasons.

This brings me to the crux of this particular posting. Populism is here, and the election of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris is not going to make that disappear. We may return to what many will believe a more traditional style, a more understood style of governing. Yet, it was that traditional style that people were disillusioned by. It was that more understood style that carried President Trump to an electoral college victory in 2016. And it is the Trump Administration’s use of what could be argue as populist rhetorical style that netted them north of 70 million votes in this election, so to assume that populism has no foothold in America (and the globe, for that matter) is beyond naive. I will argue populism rather than reaching out to our better angels, something I referred to in my previous blog, does precisely the opposite. It stokes of flames of discontent and fear. It pushes us toward the selfish tendencies we all have, but makes those tendencies seem reasonable, appropriate, and somehow efficacious. I will go so far as to argue that populism is foundationally narcissistic. Regardless of what some will argue about this election, the fact that Secretaries of State and Governors, regardless the party, have a sworn duty to manage elections is something we have depended on throughout our history, and it has carried us through much darker times than this. The elections of 1860 and 1864, as well as 1932 or even 1960 or 1972 are some of those moments. The election/SCOTUS project of 2000 is yet another one, and even though Al Gore would lose by only 537 votes, he would concede graciously noting that it was necessary to focus on the “unity of the people and the strength of our democracy” (History). As I write this, a dozen court cases have already been rather summarily dismissed for lack of evidence across the country. The separation of popular votes is over 5 million and the percentage of 50.8 as of this morning is the highest percentage since 1964, with the exception of two elections (ironically both elections where Biden was the Vice President on the ticket). It is also higher than any Republican win since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and actually higher than then Candidate Reagan’s blowout of President Carter in 1980 (50.7%) (Kilgore, Vision2020, 11Nov2020). As the populist President Trump is, or purports to be, it is easy to understand his disillusionment, and having watched his response to anything unfavorable to him over the last four years, his response is certainly not totally unexpected. But there is something more important here.

The Constitutional language of “We the people” is instructive. That is the nature of elections. As I have noted, I too believe it the right of legal challenge, but even as DOJ Attorney General Barr noted (and this is an entirely different concern), “Substantial allegations should be pursued.” What constitutes substantial? That is a concern also, particularly if we return to the idea of alternative facts. Yet, so be it. In the meantime, the fact that we are averaging 121,000 cases of COVID-19 a day for the last two weeks would deem the President’s contention that it would disappear after election day false. The fact that the Vice President has done nothing (it appears) to work with the task force is unconscionable. All of my Midwest relatives and friends are in the 5 states where the percentages are the worst, the very places I grew up. Regardless the outcome of the election, the Administration has a duty to the American people. Do your job. Much like the argument they used for the appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice, they have a duty to do whatever their job requires up to the last day. To only do what one wants, besides playing another round of golf, certainly supports the populist argument posited above. Concession is not required, but allowing the incoming administration access to transitional process is. It is a law. To block it, particularly in light of such statistics, is again contrary to the history of our democracy. The likelihood, and this has been argued by politicians on both sides of the aisle, of there being any sort of fraud or impropriety that could overturn more than a few hundred votes is miniscule. It is time to understand the consequence of populism and realize it is not going away. It is time to realize the clock has run out on President Trump and his election chances in 2020. Might he return in 2024? Well, it is certainly a possibility. That is for then. It is time for us to discount and repudiate the lies of this moment and move toward creating a country, which while divided might realize the importance of the bigger picture and believe we have an obligation to all people and yes, to the entire world to be the beacon of democracy we have been. It is a tarnished and struggling beacon, and not just because of this election, but it is a beacon just the same. It is “we the people” that can make it shine again, but I believe we need to point it outward and see where it goes. When we look into it, we are blinded, and perhaps that is what we have done. I have used this video before, but as we struggle as a people, I believe it captures my hurt and my hope.

Thank you for reading as always.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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