In a October Chestertown Spy article, I discussed the possible impact of 9/11 and President G.W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), on the American Spirit. I concluded that those years had touched latent American racism, added new targets, loosened moral inhibitions (Abu Ghraib, torture), skipped around US legal constraints (foreign interrogation sites, Guantanamo) and implied violence in service to someone’s perceived greater-good, was OK .
In 2007, a US journalist offered his thoughts on the American Spirit. Paraphrasing, he wrote it contains: renewal, idealism, a feeling America is where impossible stories get written, reinvention, the absorption of self in something larger, decency, hope … In short, a very dynamic, forward leaning, optimistic American nature. Fourteen years later, it is no longer a nationally shared vital spark.
I recalled his remarks, while reflecting on the Obama and Trump Administrations and especially when I ran across the following historical footnote. Early in the 20th Century, two Americans, Arthur Millspaugh and Morgan Shuster were appointed royal treasurers general of Iran. Our national reputation then for honesty and incorruptibility, was very attractive to a new king confronting internal turmoil and the profligacy of his predecessors.
President Bush left office in 2009 and was followed by two terms of Barack Obama’s Administration, one term of Donald Trump’s and 9 months of Joe Biden’s. Their effects on our national spirit were quite different; , the first was corrective and calming, while the second was very much not. President Biden entered office on January 20, 2021 amid a rampant pandemic that had already claimed 400,000 Americans lives, a tornado of sharply conflicting public emotions, myths with millions of believers and a warped political system. .
The Obama Administration:
In 2008, the Democratic candidate, Senator Barack Obama, was elected President, the first Black chief executive in American history. His victory excited most Americans about a better, more inclusive future and delivered a positive message to the world: racism was not a dominant national trait. But, other Americans were not happy and did their best to “make him a one term president” (Mitch McConnell) and to block his legislative agenda.
“Birtherism”had cast a dark shadow over the 2008 campaign itself. Loudly led by Donald Trump, radical conservatives asserted Obama was not a qualified presidential candidate because he was born in Nigeria and was a Muslim. The latter resonated in post-9/11 America. The release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate documenting his birth in Honolulu of an American citizen mother and a Nigerian father, did not end the whispers.
“Birtherism” arose again briefly in the 2020 election when a second Black candidate, Kamala Harris, born in California, was also accused of being an illegitimate vice presidential candidate because her parents were not born in the US. Given this is not a Constitutional requirement, the mumbles quieted.
Obama’s attitude towards American military involvement overseas was quite different from his predecessor’s. Early on, Obama announced that: “…the Global War on Terror is over. …the military and intelligence agencies will not wage war against a tactic.” He also implemented President Bush’s agreement to remove US forces from Iraq before12-31-2011, opening himself to criticism in 2014 when ISIS rampaged. However, under considerable pressure, he surged over 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, a number reduced to 5,500 before his successor took office.
Obama also issued a series of executive orders in his first months, ending the threadbare legal basis for torture, renditions etc,, thereby temporarily restoring traditional guardrails for US governance.
During President Obama’s eight years, he projected tolerance, patience, empathy and, as a one-time Constitutional law professor, a keen interest his Administration stay within strict Constitutional bounds and the rule of law. Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo were opposed by Republicans, and failed.. However, otherwise, his legislative agenda was aimed at improving the lives of all Americans, e.g. the Affordable Care Act, allowing gays to serve openly in the US Armed Forces and mandating women receive equal pay for equal work.
African Americans were thrilled at Obama’s presidency, but some believed he could have done more to advance their interests. A number of white industrial workers lost their jobs to Mexico during his tenure, affecting their attitude towards his presidency, a warm-up for the next administration. .
The Trump Administration:
In 2017, Donald Trump succeeded Obama as the 45th US President. His campaign had opened in 2015 with a preview of his Administration’s character.. He denounced Mexicans as criminals, rapists and druggies and reflected a consistent preference for white Christians in general, but definitely in the context of his immigration policies. He spent billions building a medieval wall across 400 plus miles of the Southwest US border.
Seven months after Trump’s inauguration, a deadly, demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered an opportunity to voice his tolerance for violent, armed American militias promoting white supremacy and antisemitism. Later, he tried to use Federal Forces to stifle nation-wide local protests over the white police killings of 2 African Americans: Breonna Taylor and George Floyd And welcomed the militias to keep “law and order”. .
Trump was alert to the Endless Wars. He, doubled down on ISIS in Syria and Iraq with NATO Allies and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Eventually, ISIS was pushed out of those two countries, but into others.. Along the way, he removed US forces from Northern Iraq allowing Turkish forces to attack the Peshmerga, America’s long-time allies. The Russians inserted themselves to support Syria’s Assad, established 2 bases and are still there.
In Afghanistan, he continued the Obama’-initiated talks with the Taliban and agreed to a total US military withdrawal by May 2021. The Taliban committed themselves to begin negotiations with the Afghan Government (stalled), stop attacks on US Forces (done) and prevent Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan (doubtful and ISIS, Haqqani Network are already in place). .
Domestically, President Trump reduced tax revenues by $2+ Trillion, primarily benefiting large corporations and wealthy Americans His Administration also added $7.8 Trillion to the national debt, started a trade war with China, denied global warming and withdrew American leadership internationally, e.g. the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Paris Accord, the Trans Pacific Partnership, among others.
President Trump will be remembered in history for two policies. One concerned the advent of, and response to, the Covid-19 Pandemic and the other, to his repeated attempts to reverse his loss to Biden in the 2020 election,. Trump’s Warp Speed vaccine development program was very successful, but he left distribution to the 50 states and territories. Vaccinations/testing seriously lagged and by I/20/21, Covid-19 had claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans.
On January 6, 2021 President Trump incited an insurrection and assault on the US Capitol to prevent Congress from accepting the states’ 2020 vote certifications. If successful, the Congress would have been unable to declare Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the US President and Vice President elect. They failed, but five people died and some 150 police were injured and hospitalized.
For the first time in US history a peaceful transfer of power did not take place.
Condition of the American Spirit Today:
The American Spirit has been subjected to powerful influences regularly during the country’s 245 year history. It’s been battered by wars, economic disasters and internal conflicts over sharply divisive issues, perhaps none more than slavery and its descendants. Mostly rural, now largely urban; once a small, relatively weak country to the richest, most powerful the world has ever known , now to something different. Globally envied and esteemed, now not as much. Open and accepting, now more selective and discriminating.
Earlier, Americans were uniformly proud of their country and its democratic, representative form of government, its institutions and particularly the glorious Constitution upon which it is based. We believed they were all, without question, the best ever. Now, millions consider them obstacles.
Today, the ubiquitous social media and instant communications have replaced letters, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV and conversations as the principal source of information, opinions and reinforcement. Reading is still with us, but visual impressions and emotions have been added to reflection, thought and discussion..
America’s Spirit in the fall of 2021 is in transition, but to where is as yet unknown.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.