On Easter Sunday, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban bombed a crowded public park in Lahore. Reacting to the murder of at least 70 people — the latest outrage in a string of terrorist attacks around the world — Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump took to Twitter with a simple declaration: “I alone can solve.”
Set aside the sheer absurdity of the idea that somehow, on a planet of over 7 billion souls, a lone real estate developer holds the key to “solving” extremist violence on his own. Set aside the countless ways that Trump fundamentally misunderstands terrorism, and national security in general. Set aside, even, the staggering narcissism it must take to declare oneself the sole protector of the entire human race. Set all that aside, because what Trump is saying here is somehow even worse.
That short almost-sentence — “I alone can solve” — encapsulates Trump’s central case for himself as a presidential candidate. It is an invitation to lay down our weary heads, pull up the covers, and become dependent on someone else to solve our problems. More than that, at its core, it is an argument that we should forget our most fundamental idea of ourselves as American citizens: That we are strong and responsible enough to govern ourselves.
God knows, genuine citizenship is no easy task. Done well, it’s mostly a lot of hard work, paying attention to the facts and holding ourselves accountable. It’s grappling with tough questions, and inviting honest dialogue with the people we least agree with in order to answer them. It’s frightening some of the time, and incredibly frustrating the rest. And despite our dangerous tendency to conflate politics and entertainment, it isn’t sexy or captivating (when done seriously, anyway).
But our commitment to governing ourselves is the bedrock idea that makes us Americans. Without that idea, it’s unclear why we should decide to keep on living together, paying taxes, obeying laws, and sharing a flag. And that’s no small thing; once you’ve seen a society lose its idea of itself — fall to the point that national pride is a bitter memory and national identity is a scrap for factions to fight over — you never look at the world the same way again.
I’ve seen it in Russia in the 90s, in post-Soviet Central Asia in the months before 9/11, and in the broken streets of Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria. I’ve seen the ghosts that collapse leaves behind in places like Cambodia and Tibet. There’s always the same shock still echoing behind the eyes of anyone old enough to remember how it was before, the same whisper coming from the unclean stones: There was greatness in us once.
The first time I came back from Iraq for two weeks of leave, I remember how impossibly American life suddenly seemed to me. Walking with a friend through the snowy streets of Greenwich Village, I drove her crazy stopping at every block to gape at the order of it all. The stoplights changed, and everyone followed the signal without barreling through the intersection or even pulling guns on one another. In Baghdad, achieving this simple feat seemed beyond the capabilities of an army, and often was. Here, though, some colored lights and the occasional stream of profanity directed at anyone who was considering jaywalking was somehow enough.
It was the fragility of it all that gave me pause; the civic order I had taken for granted all of my life was suddenly revealed for what it really is. We live our lives upon an infinitely precious, razor-thin floor built of our collective belief in ourselves, suspended over the abyss of our own basest inclinations. Every functioning society does. After Baghdad, I finally realized that New York is built on a pane of imaginary glass.
Of course, the genius and the audacity of the American experiment is that we do not rely on others to supply the belief that holds us up. We have no dictator to demand our obedience, no single God or cult of personality to worship together, and not even a royal family to stiffen our upper lips when the wolves are circling. We have only ourselves, our neighbors, our shared values, and whatever decency and courage and good judgment we can inspire in one another. To say that we are a free people is to say nothing more, and nothing less.
This is the source of our greatness. Our dynamism, our resilience, our endless capacity for reinvention, our commitment to the unlocked potential of every human being — all of these spring from this one source. But we cannot to afford to forget, for even the most fleeting moment, the enormity of what we are attempting, or how vulnerable what we have built remains.
Clichés aside, the price of the American freedom isn’t only paid on the battlefield, or even at the voting booth once every couple of years. Were it so easy. The price is citizenship, in the fullest and most weighty meaning of the word. It is waking up every morning and doing the often thankless job of governing ourselves. By definition, when we are no longer willing to do that job — when we turn to someone who promises to do it for us, not with us — we are no longer Americans.
Donald Trump wants us to make that deal. Don’t. Because even if you don’t value your freedom all that much, you should be afraid of what happens if the American identity dies. That’s the day the glass we’re all living on finally breaks — and believe me, it’s one hell of a long fall down from here.
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