Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, is upon us. Its historical and religious roots always stir in me a special impulse to reflect on our vast nation, which would be unrecognizable to seventeenth century Pilgrims and Native Americans alike.
I like to tell foreigners that the single most important fact to remember about the United States is the number 326 million – the size of our population. In a post-industrial citizenry so immense, far-flung, and diverse one can find every conceivable opinion, way of life, and behavior. The extremes do not reflect the experience of the average American. That’s important to keep in mind, for example, both when a mass shooting occurs, and when we top the list of Nobel Prize winners or Olympic medalists. Despite the horror of the former, it is not an indication of general national decay any more than the latter reflects universal academic or athletic excellence. Everyday reality for most people is less dramatic, more moderate and, if necessary, amenable to incremental adjustment.
That paradigm, however, may be about to change. In the populist style and substance of his governing, President Trump has been relentlessly extreme, thumbing his nose at established norms and belittling -- some would say undercutting -- the fundamentals of our democracy. Now the budget-busting tax bills drafted by the Republican-majority Congress threaten to totally upset the apple-cart, conferring massive, no-strings-attached benefits to corporations and redistributing wealth upward to the richest among us, all the while savaging essential institutions of society. The likely negative effects on health care, education, charitable institutions, and local and state government will impact nearly every citizen.
Public opinion surveys repeatedly show widespread dissatisfaction with the Trump administration and with Congress. Yet first-hand encounters leave a stronger, more credible impression. Last month I gave a speech on Trump’s foreign policy to a World Affairs Council in New England. There may a nicer place to live than the charming coastal towns of southeastern Connecticut – Old Lyme, Essex, Mystic, Stonington – but I haven’t yet seen one. It seemed to be quintessentially Republican territory.
So I expected push-back when I sharply criticized Trump’s foreign policy for repudiating the internationalist framework that has served this country well for seven decades, for disappointing or even insulting allies, for isolating us on the world stage through go-it-alone trade and climate policies, and for debasing the very presidency itself by his boorish behavior and pathological disregard for the truth.
There was not a single dissenting voice. The extremely well-informed audience posed many pertinent questions, but no one rose to defend Trump or his vision of American greatness. At the reception following my talk one woman did confide, “You know, many Republicans don’t like Trump at all.” I repressed my urge to say that it would be helpful if more of them would make their antipathy public.
Trump’s presidency has had a noticeable effect on our friends and allies, and speaking with their diplomats in Washington, D.C. provides a useful “as others see us” perspective. Without exception, foreign envoys have been solicitous about our current turmoil – almost embarrassingly so. A visiting central bank official from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country which owes its existence to the U.S., told me last week “You’re still the greatest country in the world.” The experienced and talented Ambassador of Belgium in his King’s Day speech bravely stressed the common values that have united our two countries. Still another European diplomat essentially consoled me that “this, too, shall pass.” I had the weird feeling that I was being advised that if I stayed committed to a twelve-step cure my unpleasant malady would – by 2021 – be but a memory. One ambassador almost regretfully related a first-hand incident that revealed Trump’s ignorance of the basics of the U.S. Constitution, a story which didn’t surprise me, but nonetheless was painful to hear.
For years our family has had a home-and-home series for Thanksgiving dinner with cherished old friends. This year they are hosting, so on Thursday we will be heading up to Maryland for turkey day festivities. Five decades ago my wife-to-be and I first met the husband of our host couple in an intensive summer Russian language program, five weeks at Indiana University and then five weeks in the Soviet Union, all funded by the National Defense Education Act (NDEA). It was a far-sighted piece of federal legislation that yielded significant benefits to our country’s national security through highly trained individuals serving in critical positions.
I thought about the NDEA the other day when I read, to my total amazement, that one of the Republican tax-cutting bills calls for levying an excise tax on university endowments and eliminating the income tax waiver on tuition rebates for graduate teaching fellows. Our great research universities, the world’s finest, are America’s “crown jewels,” which in partnership with the government and private industry have been the incubators of countless inventions that have created jobs and spurred economic growth. Rather than weakening our universities in the misguided populist pursuit of “anti-elitism,” we should be increasing the support for them to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Undoubtedly the political pendulum will eventually swing back to a balanced set of national priorities. I only hope that the damage inflicted until then will not be irredeemable.
Michael Haltzel, European policy advisor to former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. when he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.