Political conventions are not forums for truth – any more than movies and dreams are. They are where you go to hear a story. And this time around those stories couldn’t have been in starker contrast.
Last week, at the Republican version in Cleveland, America was a tale told by George Orwell in his blackest, most pessimistic mood. Donald Trump warned the terrified conservative hordes that America is: “at a moment of crisis for our nation”. Where: “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life”.
This week, at the Democratic convention, President Obama presented a different America. He didn’t ignore the tragedies events, but choose to focus on: “What I have also seen, more than anything, is what is right with America.”
America is not a wasteland. It is not the country Donald Trump portrayed it to be with a litany of statistics – mostly cherry-picked, spun, and made up from whole cloth. It is not a disaster.
However, the President was not above polishing the facts to divert from some hard truths. His version of America, rooted in Effort and success, imagined an American people of mythic resolve and pluck. A people steeped, no matter what their origin, in the perfection of American values.
American reality is somewhere in the middle. But philosophers, psychologists, and kings, know that if you imagine goodness, if you radiate optimism, if you express hope, you inspire and ennoble. You appeal to the better angels of man’s nature.
When Abraham Lincoln memorialized dead soldiers in the Gettysburg Address, he did so during America’s greatest crisis. The American way of life was in doubt. But he commanded the “world” to: “never forget what they [the union and confederate dead] did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
It was the worst of times, yet Lincoln saw the best in these mortal enemies’ effort. They are words that still inspire. Words that have outlived all the naysayers.
In the depths of the Great Depression, another President was called upon to lead America to higher ground. FDR did not ignore the dangers America faced in 1933. But he spoke to the essential greatness of America and its people:
“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it.”
And Ronald Reagan – even though he warned of the “Evil Empire” radiated genial sunniness. Famously talking about America as a “shining city upon a hill”.
Great American Presidents have not sugar coated hardship, but they have placed their faith in the essential strength and purpose of the American people. As Harry Truman put it “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination, and unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”
But Trump has no such faith in our citizens. Instead, he says, “I am your voice. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order”. Even God was relegated to the bench.
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