by Barbara Slavin
At a dinner this Memorial Day weekend, guests reflected on the moments when Americans had been most united.
For the older folks, the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the unifying trauma. Everyone remembered where he or she was when Kennedy was shot as he rode in an open convertible through Dallas, Tex. The entire nation sat glued to the television for days as Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself assassinated and Kennedy was laid to rest after a state funeral overseen by his grieving young widow.
Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, went on to a landslide election and pushed through social legislation that transformed the American landscape on civil rights and care for the elderly and poor. But divisions re-emerged over the Vietnam War and cultural mores, leading to the polarization of the era of Richard Nixon. To some extent, we are experiencing the echo of those divisions today.
For the younger guests this Memorial Day, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were the moment when Americans coalesced. Like their parents when Kennedy was killed, they were in junior high and high school when tragedy struck. This time, foreign hijackers turned civilian passenger jets into missiles, killing 3,000 innocent people in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa.
For a brief time, partisan bickering stopped and a country still recovering from the contested outcome of the 2000 presidential elections came together to mourn the dead and confront the perpetrators. President George W. Bush visited ground zero and a mosque to show that bigotry would not define Americans even as he mobilized U.S. military forces to remove the regime that had harbored al-Qaida.
Unity frayed when Bush went on to invade Iraq, which turned out to have no weapons of mass destruction but equally destructive ethnic and sectarian divisions. That disastrous war in turn inspired the candidacy of Barack Obama, who promised hope and change. In recent years, however, the nation has folded in on itself again, seething with anger and resentment reflected in this year’s sour campaign season.
Observing the candidates who have emerged from the primaries, it is hard to be optimistic that Americans will again find common ground, barring some horrific new tragedy.
The country is divided between those who see government as the salvation and those who see it as the problem, pushing political correctness at their expense. Increasingly, Americans live in separate cultural and ideological worlds hardened by their social media profiles which filter out those with whom they disagree.
The divisions have been exacerbated by the tenor of the primary campaigns of both major parties, which has been unusually harsh and in some cases, degrading and even delusional.
Donald Trump, who clinched the Republican nomination last week, seems incapable of reaching out even to members of his own party and continues to denigrate those who have not embraced his candidacy, including the Republicans’ only two minority women governors, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico. He has not stopped insulting Mexicans or Muslims, threatening to reinstate torture of terrorist suspects or to start a trade war with China.
Most dangerous of all, Trump repeats outlandish conspiracy theories that used to be confined to supermarket tabloids, but now are a common feature of the world-wild (sic) web. His suggestion that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was associated with Kennedy assassin Oswald and his resurrection of a long-discredited falsehood about the suicide of former Clinton aide Vincent Foster stand out as particularly reprehensible.
Hillary Clinton, who is on track to secure the Democratic nomination after the California primary next week, is trying to act presidential while contending with crude character attacks from Trump and persistent criticism of her policy judgments by Democratic rival Bernie Sanders.
Clinton talks about unifying the country but is widely distrusted and even despised by some for a lack of transparency and perceived tendency to operate according to her own rules — whether it comes to having a private email server when she was Secretary of State or refusing to release the transcripts of speeches she delivered for hefty sums to Wall Street investment firms after she left office.
Pollsters say that they have never seen an election in which the two major candidates are regarded so negatively by so many Americans. As a result, whoever wins is likely to face significant governing challenges and a lack of consensus about the direction the U.S. government should take in both domestic and foreign policy.
Given the heavy weight of the United States in international affairs, non-Americans are also watching the campaign with understandable consternation.
Particularly if Trump wins, there is uncertainty about what the real estate magnate would do.
Would he intervene more aggressively in the Middle East to defeat the group that calls itself the Islamic State or retreat from Obama’s modest deployments in Iraq and Syria and let Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey fight over the fate of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad while refugees continue to flee to Europe?
Would Trump really raise tariffs on goods from China, which is already facing growing economic problems as manufacturing jobs go to lower wage countries and debt accumulates from excessive government spending? Would he really build a bigger wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and how would he pay for it if Mexico refused?
How would Trump or Clinton handle a popular uprising in Saudi Arabia if oil prices remain depressed or a nuclear crisis provoked by the world’s most frightening dictator, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un?
The upcoming presidential debates will be obligatory viewing for American voters and a large overseas audience as well. But what if the candidates keep trading insults and fail to present credible ideas for managing if not resolving domestic and global ills?
When the arguing is over and the voters have had their say, will the winner do everything possible to reach out to those on the other side or denigrate them as losers?
On this Memorial Day, it is important to remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died to keep the United States a country where people are free to disagree but the president is supposed to speak not for partisan or personal interests but for the nation as a whole.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.