President-elect Joe Biden has invoked a mantra we typically hear during periods of domestic turmoil: “The scenes of chaos in the Capitol do not reflect true America, do not represent who we are.” This thinking reinforces the perception among many Americans that the United States of America is exceptional among the world’s nations, and it is our manifest destiny to assume this unique status. Sadly, in the Trump era, we are indeed exceptional, but for all the wrong reasons.

The “shining city upon a hill” has become an elusive fantasy, one that, as Washington Post columnist Ishaan Tharoor suggests, “overstates (our) moral influence” and, especially now, understates the depth of our dysfunction and decline. Those clinging to the “exceptionalism” label must recognize  this is Cold War rhetoric, and a euphemism for “America First” that serves no useful purpose at this  critical juncture in our history.

In large measure, the grievous social animus we are experiencing has characterized our society for much of its history. Since the country’s founding, we’ve had a tradition of tension among citizens in different regions who brought varied cultures, religions, values, and goals. Press Herald Staff Writer Colin Woodard’s description and analysis of the disparity of worldviews (in his book “American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America”) reveal disunity, distrust and disharmony, fueled by Calvinist fervor, that have persisted for 400 years.

Europeans’ “discovery” of America, often fueled by nativist racism, fostered hostilities not confined only among themselves. The lust for land and security instilled a warrior mentality that has characterized American society to the present. Native Americans were the initial victims of this aggression, resulting in their systematic extermination, part of U.S. government policy that persisted until 1890. Indigenous self-governance was denied, Indigenous nations were forcibly relocated, sacred lands were taken and treaties were violated.

Concurrently, the importation and enslavement of millions of Black people perpetrated violent social, economic and political systems that have persisted to some degree until the present. This dynamic ultimately fomented a civil war, a profound rift that many historians argue has never healed. Despite Emancipation and Reconstruction, the anticipated enfranchisement of Black citizens was denied, especially during the dominance of virulent white nationalism from 1865 to 1965. Freedom and equality were sabotaged by lynching, massacres, segregation, discrimination, voter suppression, racially biased trials, excessive prison sentences and unregulated police violence against people of color.

Not content to limit its aggression to its own shores, the U.S. has engaged in global militarism, imperialism, colonialism and occupation. We have the largest military budget and force in the world, maintaining a global military presence in 170 countries, with installations in over 70. Our reach spans the Indian Wars to the Iraq War.

Our citizens and police are increasingly weaponized, our gun ownership and homicide rates are without parallel. These tensions have morphed into resentments and threats, now exacerbated throughout the country by the pandemic, most noticeably in the politicization of masking. Ironically, many who eschew law and opt for disorder do so under the guise of patriotism. Increasingly, our social and political rancor essentially constitutes a “cold war,” culminating, at least for the moment, in the horrific events of Jan. 6, incited by the commander in chief and enabled by the complicity of many members of Congress.

Can such a catastrophic event somehow bring us some sense of reason and reconciliation? Because 74 million Americans enthusiastically voted to re-elect a man who espouses divisiveness and violence; because, following the storming of the Capitol, 147 Republican U.S. senators and representatives still felt that contesting Electoral College votes was the patriotic thing to do, it is difficult to be optimistic, although those wistful enough to invoke platitudes allude to the promise of our “better angels” prevailing. Though our nation has accomplished much over its 400-year history, can we ignore a legacy that has fostered events that have prompted so many to now ask: “How could this aberration possibly happen here?” In this context, can we be hopeful about our future as a democratic society?

At the opposite end of the Mall from the Capitol is the memorial to the leader who, over 150 years ago, called for a “more perfect union.” We obviously have not yet achieved that elusive goal.

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