If the racially motivated killing of five Dallas cops at a rally protesting racially charged police brutality tells us anything, it's that we desperately need a different, better conversation about race, public policy, and everything else that unites and divides us in 21st-century America.
Yet judging by the remarks delivered at the memorial service in Dallas for the dead and wounded by President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, that won’t be happening any time soon. This isn’t because the American people have hardened their hearts to one another, reverted back to age-old tribal allegiances, or become too absorbed in our own problems to empathize. It’s because we’ve been led by people—including and perhaps especially Bush and Obama—who have hollowed out any possible faith and trust we can have in our leaders.
Across more than a dozen major institutions in American life, reports Gallup, confidence in everything from banks to organized labor to business to media to government has slumped for a decade and is at or near historical lows. Especially when it comes to government, the problem is not us—it’s them.
Consider Obama’s speech. Along with a spare and truly powerful recitation of the lives of the slain and a call for mourning, he characteristically slipped into the gaseous, abstract, and solipsistic rhetoric that has marked most of his public speeches: “I believe our sorrow can make us a better country. I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace. Weeping may endure for a night but I'm convinced joy comes in the morning.”
Yet at the same time that he called for unity—“We can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right”—he couldn't resist tossing in divisive and objectively false non sequiturs that had nothing to do with events in Dallas, Minnesota, or Baton Rouge: “We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”
Say what? The Dallas shooter was a former vet, not a child, and gun violence has in fact declined massively in the past 20 years. The shooters in Minnesota and Baton Rouge were cops, not gang-bangers. He also claimed “we choose to under-invest in decent schools,” despite a near-tripling of total per-pupil expenditures in real dollars over the past 50 years. The falsity of such claims is less important than the fact he felt compelled to toss them into a memorial service that was ostensibly designed to depoliticize recent horrors.
But this is how politics gets done, under Republicans and Democrats, in this godawful century: Never let a serious crisis go to waste, as Obama’s chief of staff, now catastrophically reining as mayor of Chicago, once said. In today’s America, there can never be a reprieve from partisan politics, because for its practitioners that is all there is to life.
On a bigger scale, Obama has casually discarded the people’s trust and confidence time and time again. He was the anti-war president, wasn't he, right before he tripled troop strength in Afghanistan and signed off on a record number of mostly secret drone strikes in countries with whom we are not officially at war? He told us all that he would end executive-branch overreach and curtail systematic abuses of privacy and civil liberties, right before he created an extra-judicial “secret kill list” and prosecuted more government whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined. He would run "the most transparent administration" ever, a claim so obviously false that it was a punch line long before Hillary Clinton was let off the hook despite “gross negligence” in using a personal email server while secretary of state.
None of this is to suggest Obama is particularly awful or terrible in dissembling and disappointing Americans’ hopes for a straight-shooting, honest and open leader. He's simply following the example set by George W. Bush, which is precisely the problem.
Like Obama, Bush’s comments at the Dallas memorial had moments of high-flying rhetoric, such as when he remarked, “At our best, we know we have one country, one future, one destiny. We do not want the unity of grief, nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection and high purpose.” This, from a president whose first attorney general, John Ashcroft, equated dissent after the 9/11 attacks with treason ("to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve") and whose administration argued that torture was legal or that it wasn't torture but even then it was legal.
Bush left office the most disliked president in recent memory not simply because he regularly contravened his campaign promises by vastly expanding the size, scope, and spending of government but because he surrounded himself with duplicitous, smarter-than-thou allies such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
At the start of both Bush’s and Obama’s terms in office, Americans gave them the benefit of the doubt, and each quickly squandered the gift. They are major reasons why 69 percent of Americans view “big government” as “the biggest threat to the country in the future.” Throw into the mix a seemingly endless procession of obviously untrustworthy and unprincipled congressional leaders whose positions on everything from war to executive power to filibuster rules regularly change depending on whose ox is being gored and the result is a legitimate crisis of authority. For God’s sake, we're currently witnessing Speaker Paul Ryan justifying his support for a presidential candidate he says participates in objectively racist thinking.
To be sure, Obama’s personal approval rating has been cresting 50 percent over the past few months for the first time since forever. Exactly why that's the case is far from clear, especially since fully two-thirds of us believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Which suggests that contra Obama, there won't be joy in the morning, or more justice and peace, until citizens of all races and creeds, and all ideologies and classes, have at least a dim hope that the people representing them care about more than transitory power and momentary advantage. The ugly race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, two candidates who have historically high disapproval ratings, suggests something approaching permanent midnight.
Which isn't to say there aren’t honest politicians out there—for example, Democrats such as Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Jared Polis and Republican Senators Rand Paul and Jeff Flake routinely stand against their own parties and cheap tactical opportunities—but they are few and far between. Until our leaders inspire us not through occasional speeches given in the shadow of tragedy and loss but through the hard work of earning and keeping our trust, any sort of morning in America seems forever at bay.