I’ll just come out and say it: Jimmy Carter was right.
Yes, the last truly Christian President of America tried to bring Christian values to what we are increasingly told by those on the far right is a Christian nation. He spoke of a confidence of crisis, and that if we all work together, we can lick this thing and become great again. And how did this supposedly Christian nation respond? By spitting Carter’s goodwill mission back into his face, with an extra dose of bile by way of their vote for the economic huckster Ronald Reagan. Brother Ron’s Traveling Salvation Show rolled into town (as I have talked about before) and called out “roll up, roll up! See what’s wrong with America, and feel validated when we tell you it isn’t you!”
So we’ve spent 30 years now in this selfish, nihilistic America, where everyone hates everything that isn’t directly beneficial to them, cutting throats and stepping on necks to get ahead in an America that represents more the fantasy of Ayn Rand and the reality of Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie than it does in any way resemble the teachings of Christ. How did America simultaneously take a hard turn into such cruelty and barely-concealed hatred while claiming the moral high ground and professing to defend the very values that their programs have helped destroy? The answer to that question is the defining rhetorical and political question of the last age, and it is time now for my generation, for our generation to finally give a definitive answer. The hypothesis has been promoted, the experiments have been done, the data has been collected, and conclusions must now be drawn by the Millennials on the experiment that has colored their entire lives.
It should not be surprised to many in my generation that the conclusion is not a positive one: wages are stagnant, inequality is higher than ever, and America is poised on the cusp of establishing its own inherited aristocracy, resembling more and more the European feudal systems we had originally fought the War of Independence against. Again, I ask, how did we get here? The answer involved two concepts that might not seem out of place in a children’s television program, but which are fundamental concepts that should not be lost as maturity sets in. Often, the biggest problems have simple answers, and in this case it all comes down to the idea of kindness versus hate.
It starts in 1964. Fresh off a historic shellacking in a Presidential election, the Republican party finds itself struggling. They are finding themselves in danger of becoming a permanent minority and completely falling out of step with the times. What’s worse, they are finding themselves split between Southern and Northern factions: the South, formerly a Democratic stronghold, has seen their number start to shift to Republican candidates because of Lyndon Johnson’s support for desegregation and anti-racism legislation. To the north, the wealthy, pro-business Republicans of Coolidge, Harding and Hoover are seeing themselves taxed more than almost ever before. At peak, under the moderate Republican Eisenhower, taxes on the wealthiest were 90%, and now that darn LBJ is going to continue soaking the rich to pay for his Great Society. What’s a Republican party to do?
In 1968, they nominate a fairly surprising choice for President: Richard Milhous Nixon, last seen sulking off after losing a gubernatorial bid in California back in 1962. Nixon, as a man and as a President, is a nearly endless font of interest for historians: he’s the tough on crime Republican who also founded the EPA, he’s the historic China-goer who also increased bombing in the Vietnam War, and overall he’s a good argument for stating that yes, America has had mentally troubled people in elected office, albeit undiagnosed. Paranoid, untrusting, and thoroughly pessimistic, Nixon seemed ill-fit for the highest office in the land, so much so that President Eisenhower often undermined his own Vice President. However, Richard Nixon was an ambitious man (so much so that it would be his downfall at Watergate) and unlike his close loss to Kennedy in 1960, there wasn’t going to be any limitations to what he would do to assume that office this time around.
And so the hate began. Formerly Democratic Southerners first started gravitating to the Republican ticket in ’68, where Nixon’s aforementioned “law and order” platform was clearly intended to have a racial bias. His intonation of the “silent majority” again played on the not-yet-healed, and still-not-yet-healed-today wound of racism and desegregation that stood as a black mark on American history, no pun intended. It was called the Southern Strategy, and with Nixon’s ’68 campaign, the message was clear: I will protect you, Old White America, from all of the frightening change that is being laid upon you. Your world is changing, but if you vote for me we can try as hard as possible to hold back the tide.
Now, over 40 years later, they are still standing astride the waves, but now the water is at their waist, when once it was at their ankles.
That’s the tricky part of basing your entire party platform on hatred: hatred of the other, hatred of the not-like-you, the not-from-here, the not-as-fortunate. Hatred is like a gasoline fire: it burns hot, but quickly, and spends all of its fuel, needing to be replenished almost constantly. That is why you’ve seen the Republican line get hotter and hotter in its hate since Nixon’s era. We went from Nixon’s coded messages of “law and order” to Jesse Helm’s “White Hands” television ad to Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” or the “Sanctity of Marriage,” an institution that fails 50% of the time. Most distressingly, the present day features the bluntest hate yet, where the first African-American President is portrayed as an ape, castigated during the State of the Union, questioned on his ability to be a “real American” to the point of demanding to see a birth certificate, called a “boy” by other elected officials, told that he’ll have to “shuck and jive” and “throw spears,” and a milieu of other awful slurs. Most perplexingly, President Obama, the man who bailed out private auto companies and private banks, is held firmly in the minds of many Americans as a Communist. Such counter-factual thinking and blatant disregard for reality seems bizarre when looked at without the proper context. The fire of hate is burning out, and it constantly needs more to satisfy it. Much like drug addicts, modern far-right maniacs must constantly up their dosage to get the same feeling and satisfaction, to the point where we are now burning tires, plastic, whatever can be found close at hand to fuel the fire of hate that regrettably sustains our modern American Republican Party.
And what of kindness? It is mocked by the right-wing hate machine specifically because it seeks to disarm their dogma of ever-increasing hate and war and violence. As I’ve mentioned before, it was kindness, not hate, that rebuilt Europe after World War II and kept it safe from a resurgence of fascism. It was kindness and forgiveness that rebuilt Japan and Korea into economic powerhouses, and it was even kindness that brought the Confederacy back into the Union following the American Civil War. Kindness does amazing things, and best of all it is self-replenishing. Like a pure spring of water, kindness is constantly refreshed because, well, it feels good to be kind. After the horrors of a World War or a Civil War, or even a shock like the Great Depression, the fire has burned itself out, but the water still flows eternally, sustaining America rather than consuming it.
An America governed by kindness can do great things. It was the kindness of Kennedy that created the Peace Corps and put a man on the moon. It was the kindness of FDR that saved people from starving and gave them purpose again. It was the kindness of Robert Kennedy and Walter Mondale and Lyndon Johnson who saw the horrors of poverty in our own nation and fought to rectify it. Kindness builds bridges; hate burns them down. Kindness is an America where people don’t have to worry about getting sick, or worry about keeping their house or providing for their family. We can do such great things if we carry on the legacy of kindness put down by men like Roosevelt and Carter and Mondale and the Kennedys.
Living by the universal values of kindness put forth by President Carter is tough, but it is the right thing to do. Carter truly believed that if America rose up and defended those values, in deed as much as in word, that it would save the country. Unfortunately, he lost an election asking all of that of the American people, but History has borne him out as correct in the long run. It is a frightening proposition to trust others, to give to others and possibly not get anything in return or, worse, have it blow up in your face… but that is the risks we must take to make the world better. If you lock yourself in your house while your neighbor’s is burning, you may be safe for now… but the fire of hatred always needs more fuel, and your house is right next door.