“To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s”

Yesterday, in my Journalism course (which is half history and half practicum), I introduced my students to Tom Paine. We were discussing advocacy journalism and I read from them passages from Common Sense and The American Crisis. I talked about how Paine had carefully set his work to be as inclusive as possible. He clearly wanted to appeal both to the backwoods of the recent ‘War of the Regulation’ in the Carolinas and to the more established (and particularly the more monied) citizens of Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond and Charleston. The way he used the concept of God, for example, was as broad and inclusive as he could make it.

Though we think of Paine today as having been on the fringe of the group we call The Founding Fathers, he was much more central to the Revolution itself than all but a few of them. His ideas may have been too far to what we now call “the left” for the Virginia planters, among others, to allow his voice to be a direct and participatory influence on our founding legal documents, but his impact was still felt.

When it had counted most, he had managed to help bring people together. His lines at the start of the first of The American Crisis essays still convey power and commitment:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

Like so many lines from Shakespeare, some of these are used so often that they’ve become clichés.

As I was reading them yesterday, I thought about our contemporary political situation. I thought that none of the current candidates for the presidency but one is trying to speak broadly, to enfold all Americans in his rhetoric. And that one is, of all people, Donald Trump. In his inchoate and bumbling way, he actually believes, at least, that he can do the best for everyone—and can lead everyone. The rest are interested only in approaching pluralities and, ultimately, 50%-plus-one.

Now, I would never vote for Trump for anything beyond class clown. He is a showman and not an administrator… oh, the list of reasons can go on and on, punctuated, at the end, by his ridiculous head of hair. But he is onto something that is making our politicians, as a group, seem even more puerile self-serving than normal. They are constantly calculating and surround themselves with people whose only goal is electoral victory. Trump doesn’t appear to care. As he says, he can say whatever he wants—and it will have no impact on his popularity… as words of his since the day he announced his candidacy have shown.

All of those predicting his downfall after each ‘inappropriate’ statement are assessing him within a sterile framework of gamesmanship, one that has no interest to him or to his supporters. It is Trump his supporters like, not his positions. What they want is someone who can thumb his nose at the rest of the politicians and get away with it.

In that sense, it is not even Trump they like, but the middle finger they imagine Trump is giving ‘the establishment.’ Trump is simply the embodiment of frustration.

Thing is, it’s really rather easy to complain; it’s much harder to provide anything constructive. And that, too, is part of the problem. All of the politicians who have promised to do everything from making Obama a one-term president to ridding the nation of abortion and homosexuals have failed. Trump doesn’t promise anything that anyone believes: ‘Make America Great Again,’ everyone knows, is simply an empty slogan, a way of saying ‘go away’ to all of the other politicians. That’s his trick, take empty promises to the extreme where everyone knows them for what they are.

Paine, on the other hand, saw a goal, a real one, and a way to it, one that required getting all sorts of different people to work together. That succeeded.

No politician today has both of these things, a goal and a plan. And Americans know it.

One of my least favorite pundits, David Brooks of The New York Times, had an op-ed yesterday of nostalgia for Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. He says they were chosen because of “sunny confidence, joy and neighborliness.” It was not so simple, in either case, but Brooks does have a point. His problem, however, is that he sets Trump and Bernie Sanders against the rest of the candidates, saying the others should let “Trump and Sanders shout, harangue and lecture.” He does not recognize that the other candidates already have been, for the most part, rejected by a huge swathe of the American public. Having these politicians suddenly respond “with warmth, confidence and optimism” isn’t going to change that.

Brooks ends by claiming that the “candidate who has the audacity to change the emotional tone of this whole election will win the White House and have a shot at rebinding the civic fabric of this nation.” None of the current crop (on the Republican side, most certainly) can do that; none has the sense of the breadth of the American experience that will allow them to speak to everyone with the strength and passion that Paine exhibited at the time of what really was the American crisis.