Once upon a time, back in the 1840’s Charles Dickens wrote to his friend William Macready that America was a “low, coarse, and mean nation” and moreover the United States was “driven by a herd of rascals…Pah! I never knew what it was to feel disgust and contempt, ’till I travelled in America.”
Some of Dickens contempt for the former colonies was mercenary: American publishers refused to pay him royalties on his books sold in the US. There’s nothing like being cheated to effectively stir the pot of enmity, and Dickens, for all his virtues, was no exception when it came to fashioning willfully clouded judgments. (One also thinks of his less personal failings, his master-slave hostility to the people of India or his support of torture in Jamaica.)
It’s easy to kick a democracy, especially one that purports to be a classless society. It’s always been a piece of cake to misunderstand America. After all, the United States routinely seems to bear Dickens out. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is as low, coarse, and mean an affair as we’ve seen since the 18th century—yet these characteristics have always been present, not only in our politics, but in how we talk about them. In 1856 Walt Whitman wrote an essay about the Fillmore, and Buchanan administrations and said the presidency itself had become beastly:
“History is to record these two Presidencies as so far our topmost warning and shame. Never were publicly displayed more deformed, mediocre, sniveling, unreliable, false- hearted men! … The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States. The cushions of the Presidency are nothing but filth and blood.”
Our “topmost warning and shame” is a terrific phrase since it encapsulates the chief liability as well as the virtuous wager confronting any man or woman who assumes America’s highest office, which is it’s absolute visibility. If one prefers wit to truculence one can do no better than H.L. Mencken who said:
“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Our nation’s political life has always been concerned primarily with what we do as opposed to what we say. Nixon correctly understood this and dubbed his voters “the silent majority” in 1968 a year that is still unsurpassed for violent rhetoric and brutality in the village square.
America’s words are circumstantially low, coarse, and mean. Where else in the world can people behave this way? We’re entitled to be low, coarse, and mean. Americans are also perfectionists: visionary, celebratory, and affirming. Even as Whitman wrote the passage above he also wrote:
SAUNTERING the pavement or riding the
country by-road, here then are faces!
Faces of friendship, precision, caution, suavity,
The spiritual prescient face—the always welcome,
common, benevolent face,
The face of the singing of music—the grand faces
of natural lawyers and judges, broad at the
The faces of hunters and fishers, bulged at the
brows—the shaved blanched faces of ortho-
The pure, extravagant, yearning, questioning artist’s
The ugly face of some beautiful soul, the hand-
some detested or despised face,
The sacred faces of infants, the illuminated face
of the mother of many children,
The face of an amour, the face of veneration,
The face as of a dream…
We don’t have so much guidance on which to rely when it comes to assessing and cataloguing the worst in us—we’re either anguished or panicked in the face of it. What is surreptitious in the American psyche is also foundational—slavery, religious intolerance, xenophobia, so present are these building blocks of our national DNA we’re caught repressing them, then admitting their corrosive effects when they flash on the giant outdoor movie screen of our political theater. Trump is an instructive figure, as vituperative and ugly as any of our worst public figures from Andrew Jackson to Joseph McCarthy or Curtis LeMay. What matters finally is whether we choose to be Dickens or Whitman. I think we’re a country of sacred faces, faces of veneration.
If history is a guide Americans will not be electing Donald Trump, even as they may find many practical or potential faults with Hillary Clinton. The latter is merely imperfect; the former offers a detested and despised face. As a citizenry in a fulsome democracy we still understand the difference.