COLUMNISTS

Are we trying to destroy America? From Tucker to Trump, we're doing a good job of it.

As a conservative, I am pained to say the worst abusers of our civic health tend to line up on the right.

Tim Swarens
USA TODAY

In "Sea of Tranquility," Emily St. John Mandel's new novel, the United States no longer exists. In its place is a collection of recognizable but independent nations – the Atlantic Republic, United Carolina, the Republic of Texas, the city/state of Los Angeles.

Somehow, the ties that bind the land of the free from sea to shining sea have been severed and unknown forces have balkanized America's remnants. (Like Mandel's best-known novels, "Station Eleven" and "The Glass Hotel," the themes of "Tranquility" center on how humans cope with catastrophe and loss, and not on the mechanics of disaster.)

Implausible? Today, perhaps. But not so much if we plot America's current trajectory 200 years into the future, when a portion of Mandel's story is set.

The health of America's civic body

Like a middle-age guy who likes cookies too much and exercises too little (stop looking at me), many Americans take the health of our civic body for granted. Yet, that body has suffered one bruising blow after another in recent years. 

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The brutish election of 2016. The still-angry politics of the pandemic. The murder of George Floyd and its aftermath. The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, encouraged by a president who refused to accept a clear electoral loss. And this week, the sneak attack leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion about the most emotionally charged of issues, one that has divided Americans for decades.

Former President Ronald Reagan's unrestrained love for America and for Americans is striking and still inspiring more than 30 years later. No leader from either party speaks with such eloquence and pride about our country these days.

How much more abuse can we take? How much more strain will we pile atop our already buckling political, legal and judicial systems before something irreparable snaps?

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I wish I could say I see signs that we've had enough, that our leaders and their followers (that would be us) are ready to drop our weapons and try to work out our differences together. 

But I don't. Does anybody?

The worst offenders are on the right

As a conservative, I am pained to say that the worst abusers of our civic health tend to line up on the right. We have no shortage of mean-spirited, nasty progressives eager to start the next Twitter war. But on the right we have anointed leaders like Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson, whose disdain for norms of civility and propriety appears boundless, and we have tolerated even lower lights such as Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, so tasteless and obnoxious that they further taint even the seediest venues of public discourse. 

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Somehow, those of us on the political and social right have gone from Ronald Reagan's vision of a "shining city upon a hill" and George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light" to Trump's "grab 'em by the (blank)."

Conservatives have anointed leaders like Tucker Carlson whose disdain for norms of civility and propriety appears boundless

As I wrote this column, I reread Reagan's farewell speech from what seems like two lifetimes ago. The departing president's unrestrained love for America and for Americans is striking and still inspiring more than 30 years later. No leader from either party speaks with such eloquence and pride about our country these days.

Reagan's farewell warning for America

But I also noted this warning: "Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in presidential farewells, and I've got one that's been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I'm proudest of in the past eight years, the resurgence of national pride that I called 'the new patriotism.' This national feeling is good, but it won't count for much, and it won't last unless it's grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge. … We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise – and freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection."

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Grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge. An understanding that freedom is special and rare.

As an American who has more days behind him than ahead, I'm not ashamed to admit that sections of the late president's speech made me cry. Not so much because of what was said then. But because of how much we've lost in the years since.

We're tearing down, not building up America

We are now so intent – on the left and the right –  in tearing each other down, on attacking at every opportunity, of measuring success by the results of the next election and not by what is right, that we have abandoned any understanding that freedom is fragile.

I am passionate in the belief that every human life is sacred and of unmeasurable value. I pray for an America where a culture of life permeates our policies and institutions. I am committed to the preservation and protection of freedom in America and abroad.

I also know that ruthlessness in defense of such principles is not virtue. 

What is the state of this union that has absorbed so much pounding of late? Not as strong as we once were. Not as steady as we need to be.

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Perhaps we'll turn off Twitter long enough to think about the consequences for our neighbors and our nation of what we say, how we act and whom we elect. Perhaps there's time to repair the damage.

The days feel short.

Tim Swarens is deputy opinion editor for USA TODAY.