John T. Broderick: I always felt that America was moving forward – now I feel it slipping away

I don’t know about you, but my stress level dropped while President Trump was on his working vacation. It was a vacation of sorts for me, too, from all the White House chaos. I’ll bet the press enjoyed a few days off as well – at least until the president began to hurl insults and threats at North Korea’s diabolic leader about all-out nuclear war. But I admit it grabbed my attention. I’ll bet it grabbed yours, too.

In fact, I found myself reflexively pricing out bomb shelters online, which is something I haven’t done before. Anytime that is on your schedule, it is not a good day.

When I was in grade school during the Cold War, I relied on the nuclear fallout protection of my classroom desk. I am too big to crawl under a desk these days and besides, they may not be as protective as my fourth-grade teacher advertised, although she was pretty convincing.

But I confess that I miss the comic (if off-color) relief of the Mooch. He lasted only 10 days but what an entertaining time it was. When the media needs to bleep out language from the White House communications director, you realize a different day has dawned. I’ll bet the Mooch’s grade school nuns were none too pleased with his colorful language. The nuns I remember from my Sunday School years would have called both the monsignor and my parents if I ever spoke like that. In fact, excommunication would probably have been threatened, and I would still be doing penance. But I miss the Mooch. I’ll bet you do, too.

But it is too easy to beat up on the president and his staff every day, although his random tweets and curiously misguided and, sometimes, misinformed statements are an easy target.

Since the election I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what is bothering me about the new administration. Sure, the president has raised eyebrows by declaring every negative story about him as “fake news” or by attacking senior officials in his own Cabinet or insulting senior members of his own party in Congress, as well as the former FBI director (not to mention our national security folks) or even by hiding behind ever-changing “accurate hyperbole.”

But it is too easy to blame the president for what I’m feeling. The president’s often inexplicable conduct and sometimes regrettable and insensitive statements may just be a symptom of a more pervasive problem. That’s what is really eating at me.

I have always believed that the America of my childhood, with its great strengths and many imperfections, was moving inexorably forward, albeit sometimes haltingly, toward “a more perfect union.” Over my lifetime I have been witness, I thought, to so much advancement.

I believed that Americans shared common values and common aspirations.

I believed that we took pride in America’s envied status as a melting pot and were stronger for it.

I believed that the Statue of Liberty’s compassionate call was intrinsic to America’s character and promise.

I believed that racism and anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism were consigned to the trash heap of history or at least to its shadows.

I believed that white-hooded people clutching Confederate flags had died off or would be too ashamed to come out in public if they hadn’t.

I believed that African-Americans at last had secured an unimpeded and equal right to vote.

I believed that women had rightfully advanced and that sexual preference was no longer a job killer, a disqualifier for the American Dream or a risk to personal safety.

I believed veterans would finally be honored by our government by high-quality health care.

I believed that Gold Star mothers deserved a unique and respected status for their painful sacrifice and that the disabled in our society were at last free from taunts, ignorant behavior and barriers of all sorts.

I’m no longer so confident.

Unless things change, and change soon, the “more perfect union” will become only a paper aspiration. America needs to shake itself awake and deal with the anger, disillusionment, coarseness and fear increasingly visible and often fanned for partisan or financial gain. I feel we are losing our way.

Our core values as Americans both define and guide us as a free people and are envied across the globe. But nothing is guaranteed. If we sit by and allow them to be tarnished or questioned or denigrated, we will live to regret it. But precious few respected voices are speaking up.

That’s what keeps me up at night. I hope it keeps you up, too.

(John T. Broderick, Jr. is the former executive director of the Warren B. Rudman Center, UNH School of Law.)

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