As the esteemed essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in an essay entitled “Intellect’, “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, --- you can never have both.”
Rarely in our nation’s recent political history has Emerson’s instructive insight seemed more apropos. The country faces, on the one hand, a sense of self-satisfaction, having twice elected a black president who remains extremely popular among a large cross-section of the electorate.
Those opposing the Obama legacy have found themselves locked into a stalemate of both anger and resentment that has found its expression in deep internal conflicts within the Republican Party. House leader Paul Ryan, who currently serves as chair of the Republican Convention, which is to take place this July in Cleveland, has gone as far as to publicly express his doubt about supporting the party’s presumptive nominee. Trump’s supporters, including former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, have bitterly chastised Ryan (and others who have expressed similar doubts), and promised retribution at the polls. And even since privately meeting with Trump, the Speaker has yet to make it clear without any doubt, which way he leans on supporting the presumptive nominee.
Democrats looking across the aisle at the acrimonious debate have hardly restrained their expressions of smug glee. As commenters on the various social media sites have noted – it is the Republican Party’s own fault for failing to stop the rise of such a controversial and potentially divisive candidate.
The nominee himself has no such reservations about challenging, not only Republican dogma, but settled American foreign policy and economic policy. He has openly flirted with restructuring the U.S. debt – saying, in essence, that if America enters an economic downturn, it would be an opportunity to “make a deal.” Trump has also challenged long-standing U.S. policy towards NATO, questioning the ongoing need for such a defense pact with Europe in light of the demise of the Soviet Union, citing the fact that the U.S. is footing the military cost of commitments in far-flung regions with little or no discernable benefit to Americans. He has both opposed and supported raising the nation’s minimum wage, before most recently punting the issue off to the states themselves – saying, “let the states decide.”
While the likely Democrat nominee Hilary Clinton has largely campaigned on the solidifying and extending the Obama legacy on Obamacare, NATO, the minimum wage, and social issues – i.e., more of the same – Trump has offered something that sounds different, but that at times lacks coherency or any decipherable set of unifying principles. His message thus far has been largely aimed at a Republican establishment which has not only upheld Obamacare twice (under a conservative supreme court), but more importantly failed to advance a pro-conservative legislative agenda despite holding majorities in both the House and Senate.
And so here we are as a nation at this juncture, caught in a maelstrom between truth and repose. Liberals find creature comfort in a party that continues to advance a social agenda that squares with liberal orthodoxy – homosexual marriage, transgender rights, and a legislated minimum wage. Republicans are dealing with a potential nominee who seems to believe that everything, even core conservative principles, is up for renegotiation.
As a largely conservative party, Republicans find Trump’s infinite oscillation around economic and social issues to be deeply disconcerting and potentially disruptive. It is difficult for many in the party to imagine a path towards reclaiming ‘greatness’ – as the popular Trump campaign slogan urges – without reverting to the core set of principles that many see as having made America great in the first place: family values, fiscal discipline, small government, and individual liberty.
Emerson further asserts, while repose gains us “rest, commodity, and reputation,” it tends to “shut the door of truth.” Here is the key point around which the current U.S. election is evolving. We cannot rest on our laurels, or seek to find accommodation in old modes of thinking, while at the same time trying to fundamentally restore our nation to greatness. We cannot undergo a social experiment of rebuilding while at the same time clinging to decaying ideas, social structures and political institutions. We can either have truth or repose – but not both.
The truth we are describing here does not refer to the specific platforms or claims any of the candidates – after all, political speech is given to wild exaggeration by its very nature. What we are referring to is the process by which we arrive at our choices in the first place. What’s working and what’s not? Why or why not? These are questions that those of us who do not have the option to engage in smug self-adulation are asking ourselves.
In a sense we are entering an existential crisis in American society in which it has become clear that America’s new greatness may no longer entail being the referee of global geopolitics. As the world turns, time and events advance without our consent or control, and ideas adapted to bygone eras may need to be reexamined in light of today’s realities. And while the search for truth may be uncomfortable it is the most stabilizing and conservative principle we can call upon to aid us in adapting to an increasingly turbulent world.