Everyone has a dark side, but the Trump administration has exposed the fear and anger that exists within the deepest recesses of the American psyche, former White House aide David Gergen said at a recent forum hosted by Santa Clara University.
“It’s not just our political life anymore. It has become more and more a question about our culture, whether we have a civil society,” the CNN analyst told the audience at the “Democracy in Turbulent Times” panel. “It’s a question of ethics and public morality—who will set the example for our kids and grandkids?”
America, in many ways, stands more divided now than ever, said. But, he added, the country’s political and moral fissures began even before Donald Trump moved into the White House; the forces driving Americans’ anger and anxiety run much deeper.
White Americans are becoming increasingly anxious about the growing multi-ethnic diversity, he pointed out. The Brookings Institution projects that the nation will become “minority white” by 2045, accounting for 49.7 percent of the population. Multiracial populations (non-hispanic), on the other hand, will grow 176 percent from 2018 to 2060.
“For those of us who have been privileged from the beginning or have joined the professional ranks, the growing diversity in the country is something you enjoy,” Gergen noted. “But life has been good to me. I’m not caught up living paycheck to paycheck, living on the edge.”
The income gap has widened 27 percent between American at the top and bottom of the income distribution from 1970 to 2016. White and non-college educated Americans are left behind as manufacturing industries that employ low skilled labor are disappearing.
“That causes a lot of anxiety and Trump is appealing to the fear, to the dark side and to people who feel like their kids will not grow up in the same way,” Gergen explained.
At the same time, Gergen said he believes that people cannot demonize Trump supporters, and generalize them as bigots and rednecks.
“That is not fair. There are a lot of good people in the midlands of the country,” Gergen said. “They are not racist. They are scared.”
Gergen talked about how he used to go rallies organized by the Tea Party to better understand the conservative political movement. He said he eventually realized that he went to high school with many of the attendees, many of whom were good people who simply didn’t like the way the country was being run. “We need to be more open to building bridges instead of blasting the hell out of each other,” he said.
Gergen believes that generational differences have also driven the political and civic divide in America. The Baby Boomers who govern political life experienced the Vietnam War, a war that put an axe down the middle of the generation. “We never recovered from that,” Gergen said.
On the other hand, many public officials from the 1970s were veterans who endured the crucible of World War II, an ordeal that united Americans. And their military service shaped their approach to public life—to face the ills of society in unity.
By way of example, Gergen talked about how a year after Richard Nixon was elected as a Republican congressman, the widely unpopular President Harry Truman proposed the Marshall Plan in 1947 to restore European economies that were devastated in WWII. Despite the unpopularity of the policy, Nixon and fellow Republicans supported it.
On the other side of the aisle stood another freshman from the Democratic Party—John F. Kennedy. “Nixon’s point was: when the ships are down, we all stand up together—that was what characterized the generation,” Gergen says. And that was one of Nixon’s proudest moments.