That's not a pretty picture, but there's good reason Ross Douthat uses it atop his column a few days ago in the New York Times, a column I'd like to believe is helpful in our present and deep American distress. Count me among those who can't help think the 45th President of the United States shouldn't be there. Count me among those who think 45 is a living testimony to the darkness Peter warns the elders of:
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. I Peter 3Count me among those who believe that in his heart 45 has not one shred of humility. Not long ago, he was proud to say that in his entire life he'd never repented for anything.
But 45 is, after all, the President. He occupies the Oval Office and acts as the leader of the Free World. He is our commander-in-chief. I can flail about wishing he weren't, but it will do no good. What I can do is try to understand how a human being so unfit for the office of President has come to be where he is.
So these days count me also among those who would love to understand how it happened.
Ross Douthout may be a New York Times columnist, but among the Times opinion writers, he occupies the far right chair, a frequent commentator on politics, religion, and moral values. When, years ago, his family became Christians, they were Pentecostal; today, they are all Roman Catholic. Of the columnists, he's the youngest, by the way.
I don't always agree with him, but he's always worth reading, always; and what he offered up last week in an opinion piece he titled "Who Are We?" really helps me, at least, to understand.
We are, he says in that piece, pulled apart by contrary national visions of our own identity. One of them looks at the conquerors in the woodcut above and is quick to dismiss the bloody horror at their feet because the story it wants to believe is of tired and poor who made their way in a wilderness and carved out prosperity by bare hands. We made this land. It's a "settler ethos."
A beautiful new veterans memorial in my former hometown lists those Americans killed in action in all of the nation's wars. It would be shocking if it weren't so understandable, but the etching beneath "Indian Wars" tallies a thousand American dead, heroes all.
What that memorial does not recognize is the hundreds of thousands of Native people who were Americans when, often as not, the cavalry they fought were immigrants. Loads of Custer's own Seventh Cavalry were, after all, foreign born. Are those Lakota, Navajo, Cree, Iroquis, Blackfoot, Ojibwa--were they simply not Americans?
But that's not a story Trumpists want to tell, and that woodcut atop the page is graphically tells a story many white folks would rather not include in their children's history texts.
Anti-Trumpists want you to side with the victims, the dead Native men and women and children lined up on the ground like the tally of a coyote hunt. Anti-Trumpists, like me, want America to see a vision of national identity in what we haven't done right, in our national sins, our bloody history and our chauvinist, white and Christian ethos.
Some of us side with the settlers in that woodcut--they triumphed, after all; and some of us side with the victims. The vision of the Trumpists, Douthat says, can't succeed, first, "because the country has changed too much," and second, "because that national narrative required correction." I think Douthat would say that Jim Wallis's America's Original Sin isn't all wrong.
But, he also maintains that the liberal vision has not unable to incorporate anything of that settler ethos. And while Trumpists celebrate white, Christian values to the exclusion of all others, anti-Trumpists have not learned how to incorporate anything of the story 45's people champion.
It's one thing to hate those white settlers in the woodcut--they deserve loathing. But it's another not to admire the essence of the settler story. Douthat claims that if the Trumpism is to be defeated, the anti-Trumpists have to tell a story that somehow includes the narrative from which I come.
In 1847, my great-great grandfather came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, off the boat from Holland. In just a few years, his wife and four children died of disease. So he struck up the lakeshore and bought 640 acres at $1.25 an acre just a bit east and north of what is today Oostburg, Wisconsin. His obituary says, matter-of-factly, that by the time he settled on that land, the local Native people had been reduced to begging so they offered him no problems.
We must find ways to tell both of those stories, Douthat says.
Maybe it can't be done. "Maybe the gap between a heroic founders-and-settlers narrative and the truth about what befell blacks and Indians and others cannot be adequately bridged."
Maybe it can't. But here's the way he ends the piece:
But any leader who wants to bury Trumpism (as opposed to just beating Trump) would need to reach for one — for a story about who we are and were, not just what we’re not, that the people who still believe in yesterday’s American story can recognize as their own.There are no easy answers, but I think those distinctions helpful, greatly helpful.