Three famous quotes have run through my mind as I have watched Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
The first is from the philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The second is from the comedian George Carlin: “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”
British “leave” voters and Americans who want to entrust the nuclear launch codes to an ignorant, narcissistic bully like Trump have several things in common. They are frustrated, fearful and nostalgic for the past. They also are angry, the way a 4-year-old child can get angry and smash everything in sight without understanding the consequences.
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Since the “Brexit” vote, the pound sterling has fallen to its lowest value in three decades, global stock markets have lost in excess of $4 trillion, Britain’s government has descended into chaos and Scotland and Northern Ireland are making noises about leaving the United Kingdom. Many Britons wonder how their country could have screwed up so badly.
Trump cheered Brexit. And there was this reaction from U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, a Northern Kentucky Republican and darling of the Tea Party movement.
In a Facebook post Saturday, Massie pitched a bill he co-sponsored last year, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act. It would pull the United States out of the United Nations, including its peacekeeping role and the World Health Organization.
Never mind that the United States helped start the UN, hosts its headquarters in New York, has a permanent seat and veto on the Security Council and is the organization’s most influential member. Let’s just walk away and let China and Russia run the world.
Massie’s ideas about “sovereignty” are an extreme example of the naïve thinking that fueled the Brexit vote, has propelled Trump’s candidacy and energizes Tea Party activists. It is our inner 4-year-old screaming, “You can’t tell me what to do!”
There is no better time to reflect on these issues than this week, as we prepare to celebrate the 240th anniversary of American independence.
We hear a lot on Independence Day about freedom and liberty. But what makes this holiday possible is the incredible accomplishment of two centuries of American self-government — a representative democracy that balances individual liberty with justice and social responsibility.
American government is imperfect. It always has been. Still, it is the best government humanity has ever created.
I worry about the future of America, but not for the same reasons Trump supporters and tea partiers do. I see immigration as more of an asset than a liability. To me, helping refugees is a moral obligation. I think the election of a hateful demagogue like Donald Trump is a much bigger threat to national security than Muslim terrorists ever will be.
But my biggest concern is that too many Americans have been persuaded to think of government as the problem rather than society’s vehicle for solving problems.
This is no accident. It is the result of wealthy special interests buying government influence. And it is the fruit of decades of propaganda funded by millionaires, billionaires and corporations who know that undermining government’s authority and legitimacy makes it easier for them to accumulate money and power.
The world has never been more complicated, which makes this is a dangerous time to elect politicians who offer only slogans and simplistic solutions. Government needs repair, not more damage at the hands of selfish and ignorant people.
International organizations are made up of flawed governments, so they are by nature even more flawed. Still, we are better off with them than without them. For most of history, we were without them and the results were not pretty.
The European Union grew out of hundreds of years of wars and economic chaos among that continent’s competing powers. The United Nations was created after two disastrous world wars. And you have to wonder if World War II could have been prevented if American isolationists had not rejected the League of Nations.
So what is the third quote running through my mind? It is from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”