These Unprecedented Times: America’s Existential Crisis
It’s become an overused epithet, “these unprecedented times,” to describe the chaos we’re experiencing, but we should recognize that there is literally no precedent for what we’re living through.
By David Todd McCarty | Thursday, August 20, 2020
In a convention speech that many called unprecedented, Barack Obama heavily criticized not just the performance of Donald Trump, but his character, as incompatible with American ideals and the very future of Democracy. It was a move he had, so far, been reticent to make in the nearly four years since Trump took the reins of power and then proceeded to destroy everything Obama had built over the previous eight years.
In the modern era, Presidents have traditionally avoided criticizing their peers, it being an exclusive club, of those who are alone in their understanding of the vast pressure the job puts on the occupant of our country’s highest office. They know how hard the job is, under the best of circumstances.
“The former president offered no thousand-watt smiles or soaring rhetoric as he exhorted voters to elect Joe Biden and warned them about the perils of giving Donald Trump another four years in the White House,” wrote Russell Berman in The Atlantic. “In a stark, sober address from Philadelphia during the virtual Democratic National Convention, a man elected a dozen long years ago on a gauzy promise of “hope and change” found himself instead turning to fear as a rallying cry. Barack Obama didn’t try to inspire Americans tonight: He wanted to scare them.”
Obama is clearly a man who understands the consequences of his actions, and the fact that he reacted to what he views as an existential threat to this country, with unprecedented actions of his own, should tell you everything you need to know about the seriousness of our situation.
This isn’t a disagreement between rivals. It’s not an ideological difference concerning policy objectives, it’s a fight for the soul of America. Trump, and those who support him, don’t represent just a different view of government, but an existential threat to democracy itself.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t,” Obama said. “And the consequences of that failure are severe. One hundred and 70,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.”
“For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”
We are in unprecedented times. We have had troubles before. Existential crises of conscience from the fight for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War, assignations and riots. In the late 1960’s it may have seen as if the country was falling apart, and it’s true the government was acting outside of the law, but the country wasn’t concerned with democracy collapsing. We made it through two World Wars and a strangely similar epidemic, but we weren’t also being assaulted by our own government. We are in unprecedented times.
This election is likely to be a point of no return for the country. We will either sink into an unstoppable decline towards authoritarianism, or we will find the strength to pull ourselves out of this dive. Either way, there is no going back. We will either fail entirely and stupendously as a democratic nation, or we will forge a new path, with the hope of finally realizing the potential of becoming a place with liberty for all.
But if we cannot find it within ourselves, the strength and will needed to meet this unprecedented level of crisis, with an equally un unprecedented level of action, we will be lost.
There are those who believe that this is but another moment, one more chapter, in the history of America. Republicans like to say that they had to endure eight years of Obama, so we shouldn’t whine so much about having to endure Trump. This false equivalency allows them to drape the same flag of precedent, of tradition, of democratic ideals and norms, over a President who has rejected every tradition, every norm, every ideal, be they democratic, Christian, or simply human.
This is not just another chapter. It is like nothing that has come before. It’s an entirely new threat, posed by an actor we’ve not seen before. You can’t use the old paradigm to understand a threat you’ve never seen before. We cannot afford to just sit back and hope it goes away. History never stops, and a critical look at it, proves that it doesn’t always work out for everyone involved. If we hope to succeed in this place, in this time, we must change the rules of game.
These are unprecedented times and they call for unprecedented action.