All holidays far from home strike a somber note. That is when I most feel my expat status, this being only the third Independence Day since I moved to Greece. But there is an additional dimension this year, concerns for the country where I was born and raised viewed with anxiety from the land of our fathers. This cannot be a cheery article. It’s like celebrating the birthday of a sick friend – when you are a doctor. Dangerous symptoms cannot be ignored.
When facing a crisis, personal or collective, denial is not a strategy: America is in trouble. It is also not a time for misplaced politeness. Usually, politics are best kept out of holiday messages but while America has always overcome its challenges, this time we are handicapped with an unprecedented dearth of leadership.
How did this happen?
America had problems in 2016 and we were addressing them in a rapidly changing world, but change itself is terrifying and many people believed a ‘savior’ was needed to secure the future – or turn back the clock. My closest friends said to me, “I voted for Trump to shake up Washington.” My response was: “It’s one thing to shake things up, another to screw things up.”
Before 2020 I warned my numerous Greek friends who idolize Donald Trump that we were lucky the clueless man they put in the White House had not faced real national and global crises. After COVID-19, the pandemic’s economic impact, and the reaction to the killing of George Floyd, we now face three.
But it is not just these palpable crises that are most disturbing, but some other shifts. For example: it’s become impossible to have a political discussion without rancor.
I am often asked if I might return to the States and my answer is always: “No. I lived a blessed life there and now I count my blessings here.”
But even if I decided to go back – will I be returning to the same America, or will I find that “You Can’t Go Home Again”?
A headline this week shouted that America is not so much being laughed at as pitied. Devastating.
And how ironic! Friends were telling me for years that America was being “pushed around” (in fact, the U.S. built the Post WWII international system for … the U.S.) and that “the world was making fun of Obama.” That was nonsense – during his presidency the need for American leadership was still keenly felt and appreciated. Obama was not a great president, but he was a solid one who projected American values in a positive way and defended our interests. It was because he pushed back on Putin’s Ukraine ambitions that the latter targeted our Democracy. And the photo of Obama comforting a teary-eyed Merkel is unforgettable.
America’s standing in the world will be restored – but after how long?
The United States always wrapped its prestige abroad with moral pride – we would show the world how to build not just a prosperous, but also a just society – on the 4th of July 1776 we wrote those thunderous words in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.”
Yet the latest outbreak of anger against pervasive racism in America is as bad as ever – and only four years ago my friends said one of their reasons for supporting Trump was that the nation was being divided by Obama (!) and that racism was a false issue – but they didn’t ask Blacks and Hispanics. Some say the death of George Floyd will finally lead to reforms, I hope so.
My other concern is with our other foundational document, the Constitution.
My friends succumbed to the dark fantasy that America was so badly broken (was there really a deadly immigration crisis?) that only a man like Trump could fix it – that’s why they tolerated his un-American authoritarian streak. One of the things Trump did was expose a dangerous flaw in our Constitution – if a President controls the Senate, he is untouchable. With control of the House, he or she could do almost anything. Sinclair Lewis’ book It Can Happen Here seems more prophetic every day – Trump drafted a blueprint for dictatorship.
I have a partial fix for that, by the way. To convict in the Senate after impeachment (and with the 25th Amendment), there should be not a 2/3 vote, but 50%, including 5 members of other party. That would give us the circuit breaker against corruption and foreign influence we always thought we had.
My final fear is shared by many. The economic wounds of the first lock down can be cured – but a second?
I am a natural optimist. That comes from my DNA and from growing up in America. No one can take that away from me, so I will conclude with best wishes to all for a happy 4th of July – and God bless America.