President Trump’s first trip overseas is now in the books. His itinerary took him from Riyadh to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Rome, Vatican City, Brussels, and Taormina and Sigonella, Italy. Photos of him with the likes of King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Netanyahu and placing a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem were downright surreal. The whole thing was just … so … international. I even texted a friend this: “Did you know that Donald Trump was president? Not president of Trump Inc., but president of the United States.” Whether it was a success or not depends on who you ask, I guess. But no one can deny the optics. President Trump stepped out of the television and into his new role as world leader. That he chose the east for this trip was no accident, either. It was an opportunity for the president to reaffirm the country’s leadership along with espousing and promoting a message of solidarity. What I appreciated most was the sense of sincerity.
Regardless of how successful President Trump’s first trip abroad may or may not have been, the outright collision of popular culture, our current American political climate, and the volatile east was impossible for me to ignore. The visuals of our just-inaugurated president in these far-away places, with men in traditional east clothing and in incredibly weighty moments, for me at least, conjured other far-away visuals from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. As fate would have it, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading books from the revolutionary era that dates from the Spanish Civil War early in the Twentieth Century through the Cuban Revolution and the Cold War. I haven’t devoted a great deal of time, any time for that matter, to the Spanish Civil War. But from what I gather, there was essentially an ongoing revolution beginning in 1918 with the first World War through the Spanish Civil War which gave way to World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, and Cuba. Even though we’ve been led to believe that all wars are ultimately about money, this period of history actually seems more motivated by political philosophy than finance and power.
The Spanish Revolution has become the most interesting to me as it relates to our current state. Ultimately between the competing factions of communism and fascism, the Spanish Revolution has its origins in extreme nationalism that emerged as a result of creeping liberalism. As the central government leaned more and more left, the military led by General Franciso Franco attempted a coup with some degree of success. The “some” part of this is what embroiled Spain in its 3-year revolution with Germany and Italy supporting the nationalists and Russia supporting what was left of Spain’s legitimate government.
It’s important to note that the democracies sat this one out. They opted neither to join the nationalists or the progressives. While private citizens (even including Ernest Hemingway) from US. France, and England contributed to the efforts of the Spanish government in its fight against fascism, the states as sovereigns remained neutral. And the choice of these citizens? This is what’s fascinating to me. Just about anyone from any democracy that wanted to join the fight in Spain was likely going to fight on the side of communism against the more natural enemy of democracy, extreme nationalism in the form of fascism. In this context — and others such as Germany in the 1930s – nationalism came in way short on the “healthy nation” scale. Certainly not condemning national pride, history has shown us that nationalism in its extremity, dare I say radicalism, can lead down some dark paths.
As I’ve immersed myself in this revolutionary stretch of the Twentieth Century I can’t help but wonder if we’re on the edge of another such season, though surely not as violent in its swings. The American electorate surprised many of us with its reaction to encroaching liberalism. We saw some of the same tendencies in France’s national election and even now surprises from Great Britain. And here we are almost exactly 100 years later with a president elected on the high tides of nationalism. I wouldn’t suggest there’s anything magic about 100 years, but I would suggest that we as humans have short memories. I’ve read that every 5th generation is tainted by a tragic brush of forgetfulness. (My summary.) That is, say, the Baby Boomers studied under the World War II generation but failed to steep their children in a helpful historical or cultural context. The children of the Boomers then would have little to pass on to the fourth generation about what was learned in the 1940s. In this very human, somewhat twisted drama, the fifth generation is vulnerable to the same destructive conclusions and reactions as those that embroiled us in the era of turmoil that stained most of the Twentieth Century. Historian Joseph Ellis in his book American Creation, referring to the framers of the Constitution, notes how our Founding Fathers put into place a means for fueling a perpetual revolution yet, with its various checks and balances, might manage to avoid sudden and destructive turns. I’ve always appreciated that sentiment from Ellis and such foresight of the Framers. I’m just not sure I’m as confident in the populace.
Does history repeat itself? Although it may appear so, to say that history repeats itself personifies “history” to an unreasonable level. History is neutral and abject. What we mistake for a cyclical history is humanity simply falling into the same mistakes. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think the two things are different. My point is that the problem is not with historicity but the human condition. Can we change it? I guess we’ll see. But maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe the right question is this: Where will we put our adoration? Based on what I see run through my feeds every day we are, collectively, in a perpetual process of deciding what or who we will worship and more and more it’s landing, in some form or fashion, with our government. In what or who we will put our trust and hope. This question gets to matters of our heart, energy, and trust. An interesting “revolution” would emerge if we opted to pursue the original vision for America that exhorted the individual to become greater than governments had allowed to that point in history as opposed to our relatively recent obsession with simply being on the right political side. So many of the posts I see on social media remind of CS Lewis’ conclusion: We are far too easily pleased. Dare to be more than liberal or republican, than democrat or conservative, than progressive or pragmatic. This is a revolution of spirit.