Home 2016 elections We Weren’t Living in a Fool’s Paradise. America Has Changed.

We Weren’t Living in a Fool’s Paradise. America Has Changed.


In a strong post-election piece titled “Farewell, America,” on billmoyers.com, Neil Gabler wrote this:

If there is a single sentence that characterizes the election, it is this: “He says the things I’m thinking.” That may be what is so terrifying. Who knew that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans? Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities? Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power? Perhaps we had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we aren’t.

In some ways, this election does reveal something that had been hidden. “Who knew…?” A kind of darkness has been gathering for a while that Trump’s campaign and now his election have made more visible.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that what has now been revealed — all these “”hatreds [that] lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility” — was always there, but only hidden. Just as it is important to recognize how powerful are the forces of darkness in today’s America, so also is it essential that we understand how today’s America has grown darker than the America many of us have long known.

That the balance of power between good and evil in a civilized society can shift — for better or for worse — was the point of the piece I chose a year ago as the one piece intended to draw readers to my then newly-published book, WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World– and How We Can Defeat It.

The piece bore the title, “Cry The Benighted Country: What’s Gone Wrong in America.” And I’d like to present it again here.

Understanding how things change helps put Gabler’s “Who knew?” in perspective. And understanding the dynamics that have led to this deterioration might help illuminate what it will take to climb back out of this dark pit into which Trump’s election has plunged us.


Cry the Benighted Country: What’s Gone Wrong in America

“Make America great again,” Trump says. Not a bad idea, but first we need to understand what’s gone wrong.

In every society, both constructive and destructive forces are always at work. But the balance of power between those forces is not constant. Such factors as the quality of its leadership and the impact of its national experience can strengthen either the best or the worst in a society.

Consider, for example, the peoples of Great Britain and Germany at two points in the twentieth century.

In 1910, a time of relative stability before the outbreak of World War I, British society and culture might have been judged moderately healthier than the German — as a result of a somewhat more orderly history over the previous several centuries and of the more democratic structure of power in Britain. But the difference between them was not dramatic.

Thirty years later, the balance of power between the forces of light and darkness in the two nations had become starkly different. In Britain, the words of a new leader, Winston Churchill, summoned forth the best in the British people — their courage and their commitment to defend humane values.

In Germany, against which those values then needed to be defended, the leadership of Adolf Hitler was bringing forth the worst elements of German culture. While Churchill was inspiring the heroics in his people (in “their finest hour”), Hitler was turning many of his people into moral monsters — his “willing executioners.”

Many of us in America today sense an adverse shift in the balance of power between the elements that have made our nation great, and those that tear down what’s best about our nation. Some dimensions of this shift can be seen in three key elements of the American body politic.

First, Liberal America: taken as a whole, does it convey its values in an inspiring way? If one compares what we have heard from recent Democratic leaders with the words FDR spoke to the nation — words captured in his great 1940 “I see an America” speech, and those engraved in the granite of the FDR memorial in Washington — the change seems unmistakable. The moral and spiritual passion has largely been drained from Liberal America, weakening the power of its values to shape our society.

(The Pope’s recent speech to Congress provides another demonstration of how liberal values — compassionate concern for the well-being of all, and cooperation for the common good — can be articulated with power and resonance.)

When it comes to the political right, who among us — not captive inside its propaganda bubble — can fail to see what a destructive force has taken over the once-honorable Republican Party?

One would be hard put to find, from the past 15 years, instances of that party’s actions that have improved rather than damaged America. Among the hundreds of talking points that Republicans have injected into our national conversation, one would also be hard put to find many that have been more truthful than deceptive.

It is here we have paid the greatest price for Liberal America’s loss of moral and spiritual passion. The response from the liberal quarter to the rise of this destructive force on the right has been woefully inadequate.

This combination of the destructiveness of the right and the weakness of the left has resulted in one of the most profound crises in American history. It is a time when, as the poet Yeats said, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are filled with a passionate intensity.” A time when, as a result, the lie has too often defeated the truth.

This bring us to the press, whose essential job is to tell us the truths we need to know in order to function as competent citizens.

For more than a decade, we have been living through of one of the most politically dangerous periods in American history:

  • An extraordinary presidential assault on the rule of law (2001-09), including the torture memos, which provide a template any future president can use to break any law with impunity;
  • A massive transfer of power from the people to Big Money, aided by Supreme Court justices willing to sweep away precedent and contort the Constitution to bolster the power of the corporate system;
  • The deliberate sabotage of the government for political advantage by the opposition party, which refuses to do the people’s business in a determined campaign to obstruct the president, resulting in the least productive Congresses of modern times;
  • The crippling of the nation’s ability to respond to the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced — climate disruption — by those who refuse to heed the most urgent warnings ever issued by the scientific community.

All these unprecedented and degraded political developments are manifestations of the same coherent, destructive force damaging the nation.

Yet much of the press on which our citizens rely for their understanding of events, has hardly noted how extraordinary and dangerous these times are. The unprecedented has been treated as normal, the scandalous as acceptable.

It was not always thus in America. Our nation was once a beacon to the world, and could be again — but only if we can recognize, understand, and reverse the shift in the balance between the constructive and destructive forces at work in our nation.


In other words, it is indeed disturbing that a big enough portion of the American electorate voted for a liar, con man, bigot, misogynist, narcissist like Trump to make him president.

But it is only recently that a force of brokenness has so magnified the worst elements in the American consciousness that such an ugly choice by the electorate became a possibility.

  • Purple

    Clinton 34.67% Trump 59.32%

    Nearly 2-to-1 the voters of the 6th Congressional District voted for Trump over Clinton

    Do you mean to say that the voters of the 6th Congressional District are part of “a kind of darkness that has been gathering that Trump has now made more visible” ? The quote you cited basically says that the reason that people voted for Trump was because of “unconscionable” reasons. You also mention Germany.

    What should the people of the 6th take away from that ? I mean when the typical voter in the 6th reads something like that, what are they supposed to think ?

    • Andy Schmookler

      What the typical voter in the 6th district likely WILL think is that I’m a terrible person who is maligning them.

      What the typical voter in the 6th district should think is that I’m a truth-seeker, who has loved them (as described just a few days ago here in this piece: http://bluevirginia.us/2016/11/duty-hate-hillary-clinton-another-message-conservatives ), who sees that they’ve been lied to by a force that exploits them, and appeals to the least whole parts of themselves. And who is doing his best to help them align their politics with the goodness that so many of them demonstrate in the rest of their lives.

      The piece “Cry the Benighted Country” was indeed published in newspapers in the 6th District, where the typical 6th District voter could see it. I believe I have spoken an important truth here. I do not claim that I have conveyed it to that typical 6th district voter.

      For that matter, I am not sure that the typical liberal who read it understands just how much the blindness and weakness of Liberal America — which is also a big part of the picture painted in the piece — have contributed to this dangerous state of affairs in the United States.

      • Purple

        The people of the 6th district are good, hard working people who have always had it tough financially. They do a huge amount of factory work, and everything from raising chickens to processing turkeys, cattle, sheep, driving tractor trailers, cutting hair, teaching their children, working in restaurants, stocking shelves at Walmart, working at the convenience stores along I-81, nursing at hospitals, etc, etc, the same as people everywhere, except in the 6th they’re doing it for a median income of about $35k/year. Many families in the 6th have children who go on to the military, a much higher percentage than most of the rest of the state. They are good people, with good values, many brought up as Christians, and most have that special kind of humility rural people the world over are known for. They try to do what is best for themselves, their families, their communities, and their country, often times in very difficult circumstances.

        Trump didn’t mislead them, they’ve consistently voted Republican for many years, but they are the same people who put FDR in office after the Great Depression – so to suggest that they are too ignorant or ill informed to know who to vote for, or that they have some kind of moral failing is a brave assertion to make.

        I think that the Democratic party would do well to change its direction and actually try to re-start a conversation with rural people in places like the 6th, and try to figure out what it is they want, instead of ceding the entire district to Republicans. Preaching down to them isn’t helpful, I think they’ve had quite enough of that for the past 8+ years.

        Maybe instead of Democrats telling them what they should care about, they could try asking them what they care about, and listening to their honest responses. I think it might surprise a lot of Democrats to learn that a mother working on the factory floor plucking feathers off a turkey really isn’t staying awake at night worrying about whether trans people have to go to the boys or girls bathroom, she’s much more worried about college tuition, the cost of her health insurance, and whether she’s going to have a job 10 years from now.

        • “Trump didn’t mislead them” – Given that Trump already is (apparently) backing off many of the promises he made during the campaign, it looks like he may have mislead everyone who voted for him.

          “they’ve consistently voted Republican for many years” – And Republicans have consistently rewarded them with the back of their hand and absolutely NOTHING that would help them improve their economic status, access to health care, education, infrastructure, environment, you name it. The question, then, is why anyone who’s not a gazillionaire would vote Republican?

          • Purple

            Why would they vote Republican, that is a good question, and its a question that Democrats need to figure out the actual answer to.

            In my limited experience Democrats always go one of a few ways with the answer to that question.

            1) They’re too stupid to know better
            2) They’re misled by talk radio, Fox news, etc.
            3) They’re evil, misogynistic, racists

            I know a lot of Republicans who voted for Trump, and I’d say one of the biggest reasons they don’t vote for Democrats is the same reason many African Americans don’t vote for Republicans – they think the party hates them, hates their culture, and hates pretty much everything they hold dear.

            Beyond that, they do have actual reasons for voting Republican. Maybe its time to start asking them what those reasons are, listening to their responses, and trying to figure out how to appeal to them in future instead of calling them names and talking down to them.

            I don’t think calling them a part of a growing darkness is really helpful.

          • “They do have actual reasons for voting Republican”

            Right, I’m curious what you think those reasons are. There’s tons of polling on this that indicates they’re drawn to Republicans’ stances on abortion (opposed), LGBT marriage/equality (opposed), gun safety measures of any kind – including those supported by 80%-90% of Americans (opposed), illegal immigration (support “building a wall and making Mexico pay for it”), shaking things up in Washington/”draining the swamp” (Trump said this repeatedly, but of course he will do the exact opposite – already has started – of “draining the swamp”), etc.

          • Purple

            Well you guys are bloggers, go ask them. I’m sure if you go out to a rural area where there is a gathering of people, sit down with some of them, and ask them with an open mind why they vote for Republicans they’d love to tell you. The key to getting the truth is listening, not telling them why they are wrong, or why the should be supporting Democrats, which is what most Democrats do. Personally I’d enjoy reading that article.

          • Andy has been doing just that for many, many years in the 6th CD. He even ran for office and talked to probably hundreds if not thousands of people. And he listened a lot. I’ve also talked to a lot of people over the years, looked at hundreds of polls, news reports, features, studies, etc. Again, I’m curious what YOU think the reasons are that people who are NOT going to benefit from Republican governance – in fact are going to be hurt badly by it – vote Republican nonetheless.

          • Jim B

            No doubt there are a lot of good people in the 6th and in my district the 7th, but there is something they won’t admit and it is racism(the present president) and sexism(the democratic candidate). They could stick it to those do gooders, the democrats, by voting for Trump. Of course there is more than that , things like gays, guns and religion.

          • Purple

            Straight from the horse’s mouth.

            Clinton crystallized it when she said “basket of deplorables”. In that one phrase she summed up the soul of the modern Democratic party and its view of rural, conservative people.

            Democrats themselves keep the lock on the rural vote for Republicans every time they say something like that on television, put something like that into print, even say it aloud while sitting in a cafe drinking coffee with one another. Rural people don’t vote for Democrats, even on the occasions that Democrats have policies they agree with, because they KNOW in their heart that the party hates them.

          • 1) You keep claiming that Democrats supposedly have a negative view of rural people, but I still haven’t seen any actual evidence of this presented. Any polling that indicates such attitudes?

            2) The “basket of deplorables” comment wasn’t about rural people, it was about bigoted Trump voters, MANY of whom come from places like Staten Island, NY and other urban, suburban and exurban areas.

            3) A much more plausible explanation for why rural voters went heavily for Trump is here: “Donald Trump owes his victory to rural voters who feel they’ve been abandoned by a Democratic Party that has become increasingly urban and liberal. That abandonment has happened in part because of Republican efforts to gerrymander Democratic voters into tightly packed urban districts, he said. Few Democratic lawmakers now represent rural districts such as Peterson’s, where voters care more about agricultural policy and trade than they do about gun control, LGBT issues or questions about minority representation.”

            4) I would definitely say that the Democratic Party has become more “corporate,” less “populist” over the years, and that is a huge mistake in terms of courting working people, no matter where they live (rural, urban, suburban, exurban, whatever).

            5) Republican policies and politicians are most certainly NOT the answer for working people in this country, definitely NOT for rural America either, as Republicans are the party of the Koch brothers, the super-rich/top 1%, who want to take away or slash many of the programs – Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, etc. – that benefit working people, rural people, etc.

            6) Again, other than the oft-repeated-without-evidence “argument” that Democrats – but not Republicans – supposedly have particular contempt for people in rural areas, I’m curious what YOU think the reasons are that rural and/or working people who are NOT going to benefit from Republican governance – in fact are going to be hurt badly by it – vote Republican nonetheless.

          • Jim B

            I am trying to think of a republican politician who really wanted to do more for the people like Ike and of all people, Nixon. None since have had the American people’s interest at heart. They have made the government a boogey man that is evil and it seems all those rural voters believe that nonsense. Looking forward SS and Medicare are going on the chopping block because the republicans are not interested in simple fixes because to raise the taxes on any one just one cent is a no no. Their fix for one part is to raise the retirement age so more people will die before they can collect.

  • Andy Schmookler

    First, I’d like to say to Lowell that I think your replies to Purple have been right on target. (And thanks– I was away for the past six hours — for saying what needed to be said.)

    Second, I’d like to respond to you, Purple, a bit further.

    There are two questions, which are properly considered separately. One question is “What is true (about the politics of our era)?” And the second question is, “What is the best way to communicate with people about what is true?”

    On the first question, I feel very, very confident that I am basically right in my assessment. After spending the past 55 years working to be able to see what’s going in in civilized systems, with access to the best training America has to offer (which began, incidentally, at home, where my father, Jacob Schmookler, was a very fine thinker about the dynamics at work in the world), and a pretty single-minded pursuit of all the helpful tools that I could find or develop, I’ve spent the past 12 years full time on seeing what I called, in 2004, “America’s moral crisis.” I have written thousands of article developing the picture as best I could, and I’ve written a book laying out an integrated picture of the dynamics I perceive. (That book is linked to in the piece above.)

    As for what’s true, I feel confident that i know what I am talking about.

    When it comes to how to communicate what I know to other people — either to liberals or to conservatives — all I can say for myself is that I work hard at it and I do my best.

    With respect to the conservatives of the 6th District, I am particularly unsure what, if anything, I could do better than what I’ve been doing. For 12 years I’ve been looking to see what anyone else has been doing that works. Nothing that I’ve seen has been clearly any more successful than my efforts, and for that matter I do not know what success I may have had.

    But I can say to you that my relationship with the conservatives of the 6th District has been important to me for 24 years, and it is something I’ve thought about more consistently, and harder, over that whole time than you might guess.

    (Again, you might get a more accurate view, Purple, of how I regard the conservatives of this area — how I see them, and how I feel about them — if you read that piece to which I gave you the link in my previous comment here. I see many of the conservatives as basically good people, who have aligned with a force that is not what they think it is, and that appeals to their least good parts.)

    My engagement with the people we’re talking about has included 24 years of doing talk radio conversations, two years of running full-time for Congress, and the past four years of publishing op/ed pieces in the region’s newspapers, from Lynchburg to the northern reaches of the Shenandoah Valley.

    I long ago made a pledge that all of my communications would be my best effort to be honest and constructive. I know well how to do honest. I use my best judgment on what will be constructive.

    In any event, I believe that the most important political task facing this nation is to find a way to get the decent people who are supporting the indecent force that has taken over the right to see things better and to re-align themselves in order to encourage the emergence of a decent conservative political party (presumably the Republican Party, having reformed itself into something that serves the nation’s good).

    No one knows how this Trump era will unfold. But it seems probable that Trump’s election — at least in the short-to-intermediate run — will further degrade the Republican Party, rather than bring about the reformation of the Party that the nation needs, and that would much better serve the manipulated and exploited “typical voter of Virginia’s 6th District.”

  • Re: Andy’s argument that Trump voters are also “good people,” I present the #1-rated comment in the Washington Post’s Tom Price article.

    “Amazing how all the ‘good Christians’ voted for the demise of the poor, the sick, and the needy…….Trump/the GOP did expose all the greed and selfishness that resides inside Republican voters….May they reap all the hate that they voted”