Roger Miller’s musical version of Huckleberry Finn, “Big River,” features a song sung by Huck’s alcoholic, abusive father, Pa, in which he rants about “goddam gov’ment” that expected him to do such things as obey laws and pay taxes. New Hampshire’s motto used to make me think of guys like him. But in the blog “Live Free and Die,” I shared my revelation that such people, who make up a good portion of the Trump base, are not just a bunch of isolated backwoods bumpkins. They are a multitude; an American type. In my Southern neck of the woods, many of them are descended from the unruly, ultra-religious Border Scotts who opposed English control of their homeland for centuries (when they weren’t busy fighting among themselves.) They and others like them were the ones who formed militias to fight England’s “gov’ment” in 1776. These rough and ready revolutionaries were proud that prissy English lords regarded them as rabble and criminals. Today’s militias, composed of their descendants, are fighting against our own government. Absent this huge segment of our society who glorify coarseness, toughness, crudeness, lawlessness and ignorance we wouldn’t have had to suffer Donald Trump and his congressional lapdogs.
Out of the 1776 revolution emerged a political system that glorified the individual over the state. Each of us is a king, as good as anyone else, master of his fate and ruler of his own domain. No government is going to mess with our rights and freedom. This attitude is not without its virtues, but if you take it too far and refuse to accept social programs and reasonable controls, government can’t do its job of promoting the common good. (Refer to blog, “Reflections on the Pursuit of Happiness.”)
After suffering through the Great Depression and two world wars, my parents’ generation appreciated the virtues of a government that facilitated “The Good.” Without such a government, we all suffer, not just the downtrodden. During the hard times of the 30’s and 40’s, the nation was disposed toward trusting government even at the cost of some individual freedom and personal wealth. Before that concept ran out of steam, the Civil Rights Act was passed and Medicare came about. We even came close to a national health care system.
But, as the nation prospered, participation in the consumer economy replaced personal sacrifice as our primary duty to the country. Memory of the the bitter years faded. A period when greed and selfishness were regarded as virtues ensued. My self-absorbed, overindulged generation abandoned social norms and celebrated personal freedom to an extreme. Government come to be regarded as an enemy bent on sending us, for no purpose, to our deaths in the jungles of Vietnam. What trust in it that was left evaporated in the streets of Chicago and the hallways of The Watergate. Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll replaced dignified comportment and manners. The Gingrich-Reagan crowd caught the wave of this zeitgeist to enhance their share of power and wealth. They actively fostered the idea that “gov’ment,” was an evil. Reagan famously said no one should welcome the words, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Giving “handouts” to the lazy underclass was bad for them, in fact immoral. Controls on industry to limit their political power, financial abuses and adverse effects on health and safety put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of prosperity. The foxes were perfectly capable of guarding the hen house.
Meanwhile, the white, Christian descendants of the heroes of the revolution saw their hegemony slipping. Out of fear, racial and religious prejudice, and rejection of social progress that challenged traditional and religious values, they simultaneously removed themselves from the mainstream of society while exerting outsized influence on it. They homeschooled their children and pushed their version of “God’s law,” along with today’s Republican party, upon the land. This culminated in our current ultra-conservative, religiously biased Supreme Court. Evangelicals, blue collar America, big business and their facilitators in all three governmental branches are, like Pa, thumbing their noses at government and impairing its ability to promote the common good.
This confluence of events elevated a person like Pa to the presidency. He set out to discredit government completely. Despite his electoral defeat, he may well succeed.
Americans have always glorified outsiders who spurn laws, norms and the establishment. Settlers who decimated indigenous peoples, gunslingers of Western lore and murderous gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde. Why? Because they do whatever they damn well please. “Don’t tread on me,” say these outlaw heroes, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Well, they’re getting both. That would be fine with me if a lot of innocent people weren’t dying in the process. After I wrote “Live Free and Die,” a friend reminded me he once heard New Hampshire based folksinger, Tom Rush, remark, “Live Free or Die? Are those our only two choices?”
It would seem reasonable to hope that the Covid crisis might wake us up to the fact that too much freedom and too little “gov’ment” can be fatal. But since when has reason governed our politics? The “Pa”s of the nation mandated the GOP to sabotage anything good the new administration attempts to do. That mandate has already been put into action. Yes, we can hope, but it may be wise to gird ourselves for disappointment.