Publisher's Note — July 12, 2019, 10:47 am

American Greatness

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on July 2, 2019. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Where does it come from, the obsession with American greatness that was once again on display as Donald Trump launched his reelection campaign? With a small modification—“Keep America Great” instead of “Make America Great Again”—Trump reiterated his faith in this vapid concept before a rally of his supporters in Orlando, Florida, on June 18.

First of all, we should ask why “America” is not considered great in the first place: why did the country need to be reassured of its greatness by a real estate crook and reality-television star? Of course, a country isn’t a person—although it’s true that the humanization of a nation has been a time-honored method of shifting the political conversation employed by almost every politician in every period of our history. All the same, one may believe in a “body politic” that possesses a soul, a psychological history, and a spirit. Without conceding that there’s anything at all logical in Donald Trump’s fatuous rhetoric, we can nevertheless acknowledge that America is in fact sick, that in its inmost depths it is guilty of a grievous error. Where does that feeling come from?

The first cause for doubt regarding America’s alleged greatness goes back to slavery, which was legal in the ostensibly “united” states during the first century of their national existence. Devoted as they were to freedom and to the equality of all men, how did the Founding Fathers permit, how could they have permitted, such a hypocrisy? Many books have sought to answer this question, but it’s not my goal here to assess the guilt of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, two great revolutionaries who owned a great number of slaves. From 1861 to 1865, the United States of America, torn apart by slavery, underwent a bloody war that cost the lives of some 750,000 soldiers. The aftermath of that extraordinary carnage presented the best occasion in our history to redeem the national soul, tainted by having sanctioned the exploitation of people of African origin—4 million living at the beginning of the war.

The assassination of President Lincoln, himself an important soldier in the cause of freedom, spoiled the dream of a society truly based on equal justice for all. Lincoln’s place in the White House was taken by his former vice president, Andrew Johnson, a fierce supporter of the Union, but at the same time a declared enemy of equality for former slaves. Faced with a Congress dominated by a faction then known as the “Radical Republicans,” this accidental president did everything he could to hobble the program of Reconstruction, which not only would have given black males all the privileges of citizenship but could even have confiscated certain portions of the Southern plantations and redistributed them to the new freedmen in the form of small patches of land.

Johnson’s opposition to Reconstruction encouraged the former rebels to take back their dominant status, and anti-black rioters in Memphis and New Orleans together killed about 100 people who had supposedly been liberated by the war and were theoretically protected by the United States Army. The president’s racism and obstruction led the House of Representatives to institute impeachment proceedings against a president for the first time in American history. In her recent book about Johnson, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation, Brenda Wineapple narrates the lamentable outcome of the trial in the Senate, where Johnson was acquitted by a single vote, that of Senator Edmund Ross, who had probably been bribed.

Ross’s reputation has benefited from a hagiography published in 1956 by the young John F. Kennedy, who treated him as a hero and a man of principle for having thwarted the dangerous Jacobins who were attempting to destroy the balance of power between Congress and the executive. For the future president and his ghostwriter, Theodore Sorensen, the worst of the radicals was Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a noted abolitionist whom Kennedy describes as “the crippled, fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican movement, master of the House of Representatives, with a mouth like the thin edge of an ax.”

In fact, Stevens remains one of the most amazing characters in American history, especially as an unwavering supporter of the Founding Fathers’ failed ideals. Eric Foner, author of the leading scholarly book on Reconstruction, reminds us that Clemenceau considered Stevens the “Robespierre” of “the second American Revolution.” That having been said, according to Foner, “Even those who disagreed with [his] policies could not avoid a grudging admiration for the man and his honesty, idealism, and indifference to praise and criticism…” Stevens was not just the friend of the liberated slaves, however; he was, along with his colleague Senator Benjamin Wade, the champion of all the poor, black or not, and among the latter, especially the Chinese and the Irish. His legislative proposal, which would have given each freed slave about forty acres of land, confiscated from within the states of the former Confederacy, scared Northern capitalists too. Karl Marx was strongly impressed by the proposed policy and paraphrased one of Wade’s speeches in Das Kapital. The subtitle of Foner’s book Reconstruction is America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, and it’s here that a reader can find the “greatness” lost and distorted by Trump. Reconstruction, subverted by the violence of white Southerners and the weakening of Northern resolve, finally collapsed—and it took nearly a century for a civil rights campaign to once again rise to the fore of the country’s consciousness. But it wasn’t only blacks who suffered the consequences of this failure. The egalitarian dream and the promise of economic justice that were at the heart of Reconstruction failed as well—a failure that reigns among both blacks and whites and is still poisoning us today.

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Constitution in Crisis·

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America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

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In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

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I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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