I wonder if anyone but me remembers that during the years after the end of World War II, there were a lot of US Army jeeps on the streets of New York. I was a very little boy at the time, and I remember being lifted up to sit in them by friendly GIs. And do you remember those photographs of the American soldiers as they were being hugged and kissed by the thin, desperate-looking Europeans whose cities they’d liberated? Do you remember those warm, sunny American faces? Those sincere, open faces? Those boys looked like gods or angels who had swooped down from the sky on their jeeps to save the terrified world. Everything they’d actually done during the war, everything they’d seen—the hand-to-hand combat, the firebombing of cities, the piles of corpses—it was all swept away in the glow of victory.
And for the next twenty years, we were dazzled by the never-abating, mind-boggling cascade of prosperity and consumer magic lifting up the middle class. Political speeches overflowed with generosity and altruism. Were people said to be suffering somewhere in America? Were people suffering anywhere on earth? Our politicians won votes by promising to help them. Americans seemed addicted to the feeling that their country represented goodness, decency, and kindness in a world where evil had almost prevailed.
Simultaneously, on the very same days that our generous politicians made those altruistic speeches, they huddled for hours with scientific geniuses, working out plans for nuclear war. They would often declare that they hoped they would never be forced to make the terrible decision to carry out those plans. Still, day after day, they carefully decided which missiles to build, they chose the targets and tried to estimate the number of people who’d be killed by each strike. And also at the same time—though this was less well known then—they made some plans that actually were carried out in foreign countries, governments to be overthrown, leaders to be assassinated, dissidents and rebels to be quietly disappeared.
I was seventeen when John Kennedy was elected president, and I was thrilled by his speeches promising the total eradication of poverty on earth and peace between nations, self-government, and economic growth across the globe. But as the decades passed, and I entered my forties, I became more curious about what my government was doing in distant lands. I read books, I talked to people, I even traveled, and I was astounded by the atrocities I learned about—unspeakable massacres perpetrated in my name, and for my benefit, and paid for with the money I’d provided in taxes. I realized that people like Noam Chomsky had been writing for years about all of these things, but the American public had refused to listen—they seemed to be asleep. I was desperate, frantic, to help wake them up. That was the only way the horrors could be stopped.
A couple of decades later, just after my sixtieth birthday, photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published, photographs that showed American soldiers, their faces grinning with sadistic pleasure, not liberating people but actually torturing them, and so, at last, just as I’d hoped would somehow happen, the American public was finally compelled to see what crimes their government was capable of committing. But with few exceptions, the American public responded with bland indifference and even acceptance. The amazing improvements that the US economy had brought to the average middle-class family year after year had begun to arrive more slowly, and many citizens were not as in love with their lives or their country as they once had been, nor were they as pleased as they once had been to see themselves as benevolent Christmastime gift-givers to people in need. The idea that we all were eager to help our fellow humans didn’t ring true anymore. In fact, that sort of rhetoric embarrassed people and made them feel bad, because it spoke of a compassion that they knew they didn’t feel. America’s addiction to believing in its own goodness was quietly fading away, and the old words that President Kennedy used had become increasingly nauseating to a lot of people. People were not inspired, people were not breathing in self-esteem, when they heard the old phrases. And then Donald Trump came along and was elected, and he left that rhetoric far behind. He said goodbye to it.
The country had been brutal for a very long time, from the beginning actually. And now the rhetoric began to mirror reality.
Now that I’m seventy-six, when I remember the way I used to feel—when I think about how important it once seemed to me to tell people the truth about the crimes in which we all were implicated—well, that all seems quaint and sad. It turns out that by the time the American public learned the sorts of things I’d felt they needed to learn, by the time they came to look in the mirror, what they saw there didn’t look so bad to them. And so, yes, an awful lot of people don’t get upset when they hear Trump talk.
On the contrary, they seem to feel a great sense of relief. Trump has liberated a lot of people from the last vestiges of the Sermon on the Mount. A lot of people turn out to have been sick and tired of pretending to be good. The fact that the leader of one of our two parties—the party, in fact, that has for many decades represented what was normal, acceptable, and respectable—was not ashamed to reveal his own selfishness, was not ashamed to reveal his own indifference to the suffering of others, was not even ashamed to reveal his own cheerful enjoyment of cruelty…all of this helped people to feel that they no longer needed to be ashamed of those qualities in themselves either. They didn’t need to feel bad because they didn’t care about other people. Maybe they didn’t want to be forbearing toward enemies. Maybe they didn’t want to be gentle or kind.
In a world in which the rich want permission to take as much as they can get without feeling any shame, and many of the not-rich are so worried about their own sinking fortunes that they find it hard to worry about the misery of anyone else, Trump is the priest who grants absolution. In a way, he seems to be telling his followers that perhaps compassion is just one more value of the elite culture that he and they hate, like speaking in long sentences and listening to classical music.
Barack Obama seemed to love the old rhetoric, and he may have been despised by Trump and his followers not simply because he was the first person of color to become president, and not simply because of the elegance of his speeches and the refinement and sense of self-respect evident in his demeanor, but because the words he used somehow harked back to the ethical aspirations expressed by President Kennedy (never mind that neither he nor President Kennedy lived up to them).
Over the decades of my life, America’s morale has declined, I’d say. There was a dignity to feeling kind and good. It was enjoyable. On the other hand, the lack of connection between what we felt we were and what we actually were was dangerous and led to the death of a lot of people. Personally, I have nothing to complain about in regard to my country. America has always been good to me, and so it’s really hard for me to believe that Donald Trump’s face is the true face of America. If I look back at my own life, I’d have to say that the sunny faces of the soldiers in postwar Europe, the friendly faces of the boys who lifted me up to sit in their jeeps, seem like better representations of the way I’ve been treated, and so for me those faces really do seem like the face of my country. But for those countless others, in the cities and towns of the USA and in countries far away, to whom America has not been good, the face of America has always and forever been the face of Donald Trump.