Bringing the energy and hope to stare down Trump and his movement.
Nations, like people, may change somewhat, but not in their essential characteristics. The United States is defined by space and hope. It is an optimistic country of can-do strivers. They took the risk of coming to a new land. They are suspicious of government, inclined to self-reliance. Europeans ask where you came from. Americans ask what you can do.
The Declaration of Independence posited a universal idea, that human beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans, then, embraced an idea, however flawed in execution, when they became a nation. Their government, whatever else it does, exists to safeguard and further that idea, in the United States and beyond.
President Trump, in the name of making American great again, has trampled on America’s essence. He is angry, a stranger to happiness, angrier still for not knowing the source of his rage. He is less interested in liberty than the cash of his autocratic cronies. As for life, he views it as a selective right, to which the white Christian male has priority access, with women, people of color and the rest of humanity trailing along behind for scraps.
Adherents to an agenda of “national conservatism” held a conference last month in Washington dedicated, as my colleague Jennifer Schuessler put it, “to wresting a coherent ideology out of the chaos of the Trumpist moment.”
Good luck with that. One of the meeting’s leading lights was Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. Lowry’s forthcoming book is called “The Case for Nationalism.” Enough said. The endpoint of that “case” is on display at military cemeteries across Europe.
Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Trump is a self-styled nationalist. The “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants at his rallies have chilling echoes.
Lowry holds that “America is not an idea” and to call it so is a “lazy cliché.” This argument denies the essence of the country — an essence palpable at every naturalization ceremony across the United States. Becoming American is a process that involves the inner absorption of the nation’s founding idea.
The gravest thing Trump has done is to empty this idea of meaning. His has been an assault on honesty, decency, dignity, tolerance and civility. On this president’s wish list, every right is alienable. He leads a movement more than he does a nation, and so depends on fear to mobilize people. Any victorious Democratic Party candidate in 2020 has to counter that negative energy with a positive energy that lifts Americans from Trump’s web.
I watched the Democratic Party debates among presidential contenders through a single prism: Who can beat Trump? In the end, nothing else matters because another five and a half years of this will drag Americans into an abyss of moral collapse.
Yes, how far left, how moderate that candidate may be is of some significance, but can he or she bring the heat and the hope to stare Trump down and topple him is all I care about. That’s the bouncing ball all eyes should be on, with no illusions as to how vicious and devious Trump will be between now and November 2020.
With reluctance, because he is a good and honorable man of great personal courage, I do not believe that Joe Biden has the needed energy, mental agility and nimbleness. Nor do I believe that the nation of can-do strivers I described above is ready for Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism.” Forms of socialism work in Europe, and the word is widely misunderstood in America, but socialism and America’s essence are incompatible.
Elizabeth Warren’s couching of a campaign for radical change as “economic patriotism” is a much smarter way to go, and her energetic advocacy of ideas to redress the growing injustices in American life has been powerful. Still, I am not convinced that enough Americans are ready to move as far left as she proposes or that she passes the critical commander in chief test.
Kamala Harris does that for me. The California senator is a work in progress, with
- uneven debate performances, and policies, notably health care, that she has zigzagged toward defining. But she’s
- tough, broadly of the center,
- has a great American story, is passionate on issues including immigrants, African-Americans and women, and has
- proved she is not averse to risk. She
- has a former prosecutor’s toughness and the ability to slice through Trump’s self-important bluster.
Last month Harris said Trump was a “predator.” She continued: “The thing about predators you should know, is that they prey on the vulnerable. They prey on those who they do not believe are strong. And the thing you must importantly know, predators are cowards.”
Those were important words. It’s early days, but Trump’s biggest electoral vulnerability is to women. They have seen through his misogyny at last, and they know just where the testosterone of nationalism leads.
MS. TIPPETT:You know, I start in this place with everyone I interview, whoever they are. If they’re a quantum physicist or a theologian. And I just wanted to hear something about the particular spiritual background of your childhood. Did you have a devout Jewish upbringing?
RABBI SACKS: I was the oldest of four boys. My father, who had come to Britain as a refugee from Poland at the age of six, had to leave school at the age of 14, so he never had an education — not Jewish or secular. My mother had to leave school at the age of 16. So my parents didn’t know that much. What they did have was a great love for Judaism. And, you know, I tend to think that’s the greatest gift you can give a child. Wordsworth said it beautifully. “What we love, others will love, and we will show them how.”
RABBI SACKS:No, actually. In 1990, the BBC asked me to give the Reith Lectures. They’re given once a year. There are six lectures on radio, first given by Bertrand Russell in 1948. I was only the second religious leader to give them, and I called them “The Persistence of Faith.” It was probably the first response to Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history. You know, the Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet Union had collapsed, end of Cold War. Everyone was seeing what he foresaw as the, you know, seamless spread of liberal democracy over the world.
And I said no, actually. I think you’re going to see faith return and return in a way that will cause some problems because the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world. So that was in 1990, the year before I became Chief Rabbi. Nothing that’s happened since has surprised me, though it has saddened me. Religion is a great power, and anything that powerful can be a force for good or, God forbid, for evil. But it’s certainly fraught and dangerous and needs great wisdom and great — if I can use this word — gentleness.
MS. TIPPETT:And so I’d like to draw you out on how Jewish experience and Jewish tradition — you know, what resources and vocabulary that might bring to this global moment, which is not merely uncertain, but certainly marked by change, which is stressful for human beings. One of the ways you’ve talked about that, not uncontroversially, is about the approach you see deep within Jewish tradition to difference.
RABBI SACKS:Yeah. It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves. Today — certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America — walk down the average main street and you will encounter in ten minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime.
So you really have this huge problem of diversity. And you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is, we’re very familiar with the two great commands of love: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might; love your neighbor as yourself. But the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box — 36 times, said the rabbis — is love the stranger. For you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Or, to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you’re a stranger. This sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us — we are not threatened by them — that needs cultivating, can be cultivated, and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear.
Oh, sure. I mean, you take — you know, I’m really not very good at sort of operating machines, so I fall back on that old aphorism, “When all else fails, read the instructions.”
MS. TIPPETT:Right. [laughs]
RABBI SACKS:And here we are reading those instructions afresh through the eyes of quantitative and experimental science and discovering what the great traditions of wisdom were saying three or 4,000 years ago. We now know that it is
- doing good to others,
- a network of strong and supportive relationships, and
- a sense that one’s life is worthwhile, are the three greatest determinants of happiness.
And, you know, somehow or other, against our will sometimes, we are being thrust back to these ancient and very noble and beautiful truths. And that we can now do so in a fellowship — awkward, perhaps, and embarrassed — between religious leaders and scientists and social scientists.
RABBI SACKS:Yeah. Well, let’s not try to describe this as 21st-century radical theology. It always helps if we can locate it in sacred texts. So for me, here is a moment where the hero of the Book of Exodus is a young man called Moses and the villain of the Book of Exodus is somebody called Pharaoh. But it’s Pharaoh’s daughter who, at great risk to herself, saves the life of this young baby who she knows immediately is a Hebrew baby, that she says so, and she knows her father has decreed that every male Hebrew child shall be killed. So at great risk to herself, she takes this child into her home and brings it up. So now we have the daughter of the biggest villain of the book who is responsible for the saving of the life of the hero. Now if that doesn’t challenge our paradigms, I don’t know what does.
You can find God in the other side, and that is something the Bible is doing quite a lot. After all, there’s only one perfect individual — well, perhaps two, if you like — in the whole Bible and neither of them is Jewish. One is called Noah and one is called Job and neither is Jewish. Noah comes before Judaism. Job is what I call every man. Then you look at all the prophets of ancient Israel, and they spent a lifetime preaching to the Israelites, and nobody listened. God sends one prophet, Jonah, to non-Jews, the people in Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s traditional enemy, the Assyrians. Here, all he does is say five Hebrew words, one English sentence: “In 40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed.” And they all repent. So it turns out that non-Jews are better at listening to Jewish prophets than Jews are.
MS. TIPPETT:[laughs] Right. So there is this paradox, this very interesting recurring threat of otherness and …
RABBI SACKS: The Bible is saying to us the whole time, don’t think that God is as simple as you are. He’s in places you would never expect him to be. And, you know, we lose a bit of that in English translation. Because, when Moses, at the burning bush, says to God, “Who are you?” God says to him three words: “Hayah asher hayah.” And those words are mistranslated in English as “I am that which I am.” But in Hebrew, it means “I will be who or how or where I will be,” meaning, don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. And one of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.
The cultural roots of our political problems.
It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.
Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.
That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy:
- Take over an existing company for a short period of time,
- cut costs by firing employees,
- run up the debt,
- extract the wealth, and
- move on, sometimes
- leaving retirees without their earned pensions.
Romney became fantastically rich doing this.
Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country.
Mitt Romney refers to unwavering support for a finance-based economy and an internationalist foreign policy as the “mainstream Republican” view. And he’s right about that. For generations, Republicans have considered it their duty to make the world safe for banking, while simultaneously prosecuting ever more foreign wars. Modern Democrats generally support those goals enthusiastically.
There are signs, however, that most people do not support this, and not just in America. In countries around the world — France, Brazil, Sweden, the Philippines, Germany, and many others — voters are suddenly backing candidates and ideas that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. These are not isolated events. What you’re watching is entire populations revolting against leaders who refuse to improve their lives.
Something like this has been in happening in our country for three years. Donald Trump rode a surge of popular discontent all the way to the White House. Does he understand the political revolution that he harnessed? Can he reverse the economic and cultural trends that are destroying America? Those are open questions.
But they’re less relevant than we think. At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.
The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.
The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy:
Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.
But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.
One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.
Members of our educated upper-middle-classes are now the backbone of the Democratic Party who usually describe themselves as fiscally responsible and socially moderate. In other words, functionally libertarian. They don’t care how you live, as long as the bills are paid and the markets function. Somehow, they don’t see a connection between people’s personal lives and the health of our economy, or for that matter, the country’s ability to pay its bills. As far as they’re concerned, these are two totally separate categories.
Social conservatives, meanwhile, come to the debate from the opposite perspective, and yet reach a strikingly similar conclusion. The real problem, you’ll hear them say, is that the American family is collapsing. Nothing can be fixed before we fix that. Yet, like the libertarians they claim to oppose, many social conservatives also consider markets sacrosanct. The idea that families are being crushed by market forces seems never to occur to them. They refuse to consider it. Questioning markets feels like apostasy.
Both sides miss the obvious point: Culture and economics are inseparably intertwined. Certain economic systems allow families to thrive. Thriving families make market economies possible. You can’t separate the two. It used to be possible to deny this. Not anymore. The evidence is now overwhelming. How do we know? Consider the inner cities.
Thirty years ago, conservatives looked at Detroit or Newark and many other places and were horrified by what they saw. Conventional families had all but disappeared in poor neighborhoods. The majority of children were born out of wedlock. Single mothers were the rule. Crime and drugs and disorder became universal.
What caused this nightmare? Liberals didn’t even want to acknowledge the question. They were benefiting from the disaster, in the form of reliable votes. Conservatives, though, had a ready explanation for inner-city dysfunction and it made sense: big government. Decades of badly-designed social programs had driven fathers from the home and created what conservatives called a “culture of poverty” that trapped people in generational decline.
There was truth in this. But it wasn’t the whole story. How do we know? Because virtually the same thing has happened decades later to an entirely different population. In many ways, rural America now looks a lot like Detroit.
This is striking because rural Americans wouldn’t seem to have much in common with anyone from the inner city. These groups have different cultures, different traditions and political beliefs. Usually they have different skin colors. Rural people are white conservatives, mostly.
Yet, the pathologies of modern rural America are familiar to anyone who visited downtown Baltimore in the 1980s: Stunning out of wedlock birthrates. High male unemployment. A terrifying drug epidemic. Two different worlds. Similar outcomes. How did this happen? You’d think our ruling class would be interested in knowing the answer. But mostly they’re not. They don’t have to be interested. It’s easier to import foreign labor to take the place of native-born Americans who are slipping behind.
But Republicans now represent rural voters. They ought to be interested. Here’s a big part of the answer: male wages declined. Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.
Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.
This isn’t speculation. This is not propaganda from the evangelicals. It’s social science. We know it’s true. Rich people know it best of all. That’s why they get married before they have kids. That model works. But increasingly, marriage is a luxury only the affluent in America can afford.
And yet, and here’s the bewildering and infuriating part, those very same affluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them get and stay married. Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy.
This is negligence on a massive scale. Both parties ignore the crisis in marriage. Our mindless cultural leaders act like it’s still 1961, and the biggest problem American families face is that sexism is preventing millions of housewives from becoming investment bankers or Facebook executives.
For our ruling class, more investment banking is always the answer. They teach us it’s more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.
Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote an entire book about this. Sandberg explained that our first duty is to shareholders, above our own children. No surprise there. Sandberg herself is one of America’s biggest shareholders. Propaganda like this has made her rich.
What’s remarkable is how the rest of us responded to it. We didn’t question why Sandberg was saying this. We didn’t laugh in her face at the pure absurdity of it. Our corporate media celebrated Sandberg as the leader of a liberation movement. Her book became a bestseller: “Lean In.” As if putting a corporation first is empowerment. It is not. It is bondage. Republicans should say so.
They should also speak out against the ugliest parts of our financial system. Not all commerce is good. Why is it defensible to loan people money they can’t possibly repay? Or charge them interest that impoverishes them? Payday loan outlets in poor neighborhoods collect 400 percent annual interest.
We’re OK with that? We shouldn’t be. Libertarians tell us that’s how markets work — consenting adults making voluntary decisions about how to live their lives. OK. But it’s also disgusting. If you care about America, you ought to oppose the exploitation of Americans, whether it’s happening in the inner city or on Wall Street.
And by the way, if you really loved your fellow Americans, as our leaders should, if it would break your heart to see them high all the time. Which they are. A huge number of our kids, especially our boys, are smoking weed constantly. You may not realize that, because new technology has made it odorless. But it’s everywhere.
And that’s not an accident. Once our leaders understood they could get rich from marijuana, marijuana became ubiquitous. In many places, tax-hungry politicians have legalized or decriminalized it. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner now lobbies for the marijuana industry. His fellow Republicans seem fine with that. “Oh, but it’s better for you than alcohol,” they tell us.
Maybe. Who cares? Talk about missing the point. Try having dinner with a 19-year-old who’s been smoking weed. The life is gone. Passive, flat, trapped in their own heads. Do you want that for your kids? Of course not. Then why are our leaders pushing it on us? You know the reason. Because they don’t care about us.
When you care about people, you do your best to treat them fairly. Our leaders don’t even try. They hand out jobs and contracts and scholarships and slots at prestigious universities based purely on how we look. There’s nothing less fair than that, though our tax code comes close.
Under our current system, an American who works for a salary pays about twice the tax rate as someone who’s living off inherited money and doesn’t work at all. We tax capital at half of what we tax labor. It’s a sweet deal if you work in finance, as many of our rich people do.
In 2010, for example, Mitt Romney made about $22 million dollars in investment income. He paid an effective federal tax rate of 14 percent. For normal upper-middle-class wage earners, the federal tax rate is nearly 40 percent. No wonder Mitt Romney supports the status quo. But for everyone else, it’s infuriating.
Our leaders rarely mention any of this. They tell us our multi-tiered tax code is based on the principles of the free market. Please. It’s based on laws that the Congress passed, laws that companies lobbied for in order to increase their economic advantage. It worked well for those people. They did increase their economic advantage. But for everyone else, it came at a big cost. Unfairness is profoundly divisive. When you favor one child over another, your kids don’t hate you. They hate each other.
That happens in countries, too. It’s happening in ours, probably by design. Divided countries are easier to rule. And nothing divides us like the perception that some people are getting special treatment. In our country, some people definitely are getting special treatment. Republicans should oppose that with everything they have.
What kind of country do you want to live in? A fair country. A decent country. A cohesive country. A country whose leaders don’t accelerate the forces of change purely for their own profit and amusement. A country you might recognize when you’re old.
A country that listens to young people who don’t live in Brooklyn. A country where you can make a solid living outside of the big cities. A country where Lewiston, Maine seems almost as important as the west side of Los Angeles. A country where environmentalism means getting outside and picking up the trash. A clean, orderly, stable country that respects itself. And above all, a country where normal people with an average education who grew up in no place special can get married, and have happy kids, and repeat unto the generations. A country that actually cares about families, the building block of everything.