Wading through the wreckage of the dot com bomb I made a decision to attend graduate school to study business. My 10+ years as a mid-level executive at various internet technology companies, small and large, private and public had given me plenty of practical experience, and instilled a thirst for some of the theoretical underpinnings of the world in which I’d become so deeply enamored. Marketing, entrepreneurship, innovation, capitalism, free markets, and monetary policy had impacted my day to day in tangible ways, and I wanted to understand them from an academic perspective. Economics, however, was a subject which held little interest for me, and so it was ironic that it was a class in Economics that would change my life forever. Economics may have been the general name of the course, but the curriculum included topics such as corporate social responsibility, voluntary exchange, unions, government regulation, and the role of governance. Milton Freedman’s “Free To Choose,” was one of the books required, and its impact was immediate. From the very first day, the impact of the topics we discussed could not have been more profound, and I recall phoning my wife on the way home to say “sweetie, my world has changed, I hope you can bear with me.” I had become, you see, a libertarian.
As we accumulate days, weeks, months and years, our perspective on life evolves. Things we cared about at 20 are less important at 30, and by the time we’re in our 50s, many of us can look back and point to a handful of events or experiences that affected us deeply enough to have made an indelible mark. Marriage, the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, or a single day, such as September 11th, 2001, shape our ideas and beliefs, for better or worse. As a brief departure, in Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” the character, Rufus, played by Chris Rock (the first century Christian who, along with his brother Alexander, carried the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified) says, “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change ideas. Changing a belief is trickier.” Yes, I’m foreshadowing. We’ll get there in time. Back to the story though. For me, that Economics class, with libertarian doctrine as a large part of its foundation, was such an event. Long after I completed my graduate degree, it has been the one topic that still holds daily interest, inspires the quest for more understanding, and even resulted in me being one of a very small number of people privileged to have eaten dinner at a table with Dr. Milton Friedman and his wife Rose, but that’s another story.
So it goes that for the past 16 years, I’ve had little else but distain for politicians, especially presidential administrations. Being a libertarian meant I was socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. I believed that the best thing government could do for private enterprise and economic growth was to stay out of the way, and let entrepreneurs innovate. I complained bitterly about every administration from 2004 until 2020, pissing off both my liberal and conservative friends. “Hey, I’ve got no horse in the race,” I’d respond.
The night of November 2nd, 2016, I said to my family and on social media, “no matter what happens tomorrow, I weep for my country.” I found both candidates to be deeply despicable, but as a Californian enjoyed the luxury of voting for the Libertarian candidate, knowing that it would not affect the outcome; our state would vote for Clinton. Had a gun been held to my head, had it mattered, I’d have done the same. Donald Trump was wholly unfit for even the role of community organizer, and morally bereft for the role of “human being.”
I used to have a friend who was, and I’m sure remains, the prototypical Trump supporter. His source of news was Alex Jones, Breitbart, Fox News, and The Daily Caller. He mocked intellectuals, and as his radicalization progressed, began espousing views I found horrifying, from the mild (protectionist economic policy) to the severe (racist, homophobic, religious intolerance, and worse). After the 2016 election I stopped spending time with him and had not spoken with him in almost a year when circumstance required a phone conversation, one which I dreaded.
After exchanging pleasantries and handling the topic which was the reason for the call, I asked him how he was doing. A man of volcanic temper and prone to angry outbursts, he complained about something and trying to temper the tone I responded, “I don’t know, I just feel like our country is so divided….it breaks my heart.” His immediate response was that we were indeed divided, and that was, he said, a good thing. I ended the phone call as quickly as possible, but I’ve never forgotten those words.
Given all that has happened in the past 4 years, it’s important to understand that my feelings of our country’s division pre-date more acts of malfeasance, ignorance, hate, authoritarianism, treason, personal and public vengeance, and breaches of both norms and codes of conduct by the former president, Donald J. Trump. For years we watched, day in, and day out, wondering if there was a bottom. There was not, and there is not. The black hole of the grift, venality, division, and ugly demagoguery that are the foundation of the former president’s modus operandi persist, even as he remains ensconced in his underground lair in Florida.
Part of me wants to go back to the day of the phone call with my former friend. Pre-Charlottesville, pre-separating children from their families, pre-denial of a pandemic which continues to kill thousands of Americans a day, pre-politicization of wearing a mask, pre-using federal troops to fire tear gas on peaceful protestors for the president’s photo op in front of a church, and pre-dividing Americans through the bully pulpit of the presidency that inspired an insurrection.
Forget about the conspiracy theory sucking idiots who believe QAnon, the ramblings of Ted Cruz, Matt Gaetz, Marjory Taylor Greene, and Josh Hawley. Forget the Republicans who only hours after the Capitol Building was attacked, voted in favor of overturning the results of a free and fair election. Forget the whack jobs, the rabid, democratically illiterate hordes who still believe the election was stolen. We have become so divided that there are American citizens so infected with ignorance and hate that they mock Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and those who voted for them. Regardless of one’s policy views, who in their right mind would suggest that there was any real alternative to the Democratic candidates? You could certainly hold your nose and vote for them if you really disagree with their platform, but what’s disagreeable about unity? About a science-based response to a pandemic, and the exigency of a continuing economic meltdown? What’s disagreeable about real leadership, based on experience, negotiation, mutual respect, and compromise? Honestly, how in the fuck can any reasonable American apologize for Trump, criticize the Democrats in Congress, and attack Joe Biden and Kamala Harris?
I felt relief and enormous pride on Inauguration Day. I was working to clear fallen trees on our property, the result of a windstorm the night before, and listened to the ceremony on my truck’s stereo as I cleared our driveway. I held my hand over my heart and sang along with Lady Gaga and JLo, with tears in my eyes. I listened, inspired, to Amanda Gorman’s poem, and with pride to President Biden’s speech. A call for unity. I had hope.
In one short week the honeymoon ended. The Department Of Homeland Security for the first time issued a terror threat warning, not from foreign actors, but domestic. The Republicans in Congress have lowered the bar for their shameful behavior yet again. Conspiracy theories gain new and uglier energy, and Representatives and Senators kowtow to the ignorant beliefs of their constituents, ignoring their oath to the Constitution, and lacking the balls to stand up for what they know is right. Right now, there is virtually no bi-partisan unity among the people whom our country has elected to make our laws, and preserve our representative democracy. Even the most optimistic of political science historians, and public policy experts admit that unity is little more than a dream. Meanwhile, a pandemic rages, Americans die, an economy fails, and our enemies, both foreign and domestic, lick their chops.
Divided, we have indeed fallen.