America 2016, in 2 Quotes

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
From Donald Trump’s rally in Bethpage, Long Island, this week. The saying on that sign is not one of the quotes I have in mind. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Quote one, from Michael Cohen’s report for the Boston Globe on the big Trump rally in Long Island. Emphasis added:

A smiling old man proudly displayed to me a T-shirt that read “Trump: Get On Board or Get Run Over.” Another read: “Up Yours Hillary.” When I asked the man to pose for a picture, his wife pulled me over and told me “everything in America is terrible” — the economy, health care, the military. “Don’t you worry about your kids future?”

Quote two, in Thomas Fuller’s report in the NYT of a unanimous vote by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to mandate six weeks of paid parental leave for public and private employees within the city. (Private employees must have worked at their firm for 180 days; the rules will apply, starting next year, to firms with more than 50 employees, and eventually to firms with 20 or more.) Again emphasis added:

Scott Wiener, the supervisor who introduced the measure, said that San Francisco lawmakers had chosen to take up the issue partly because there was little hope of change at the national level.

“Whether it’s paid parental leave, infrastructure investment, minimum wage, paid sick leave or addressing carbon emissions, we know the states have to act,” Mr. Wiener said in an interview before the vote….

Gavin Newsom, the state’s lieutenant governor [and former mayor of San Francisco], said the country’s divisions were making action by the states more urgent and necessary.

The nation is alive from the bottom up,” Mr. Newsom said. “For all the disproportionate focus on Washington, D.C., there’s a whole other America out there, and it should give pause to the pessimists.”


Let’s make the obvious “to be sure” points. Of course many things in America are terrible. These start with the economic inequalities and polarization of this Second Gilded Age, and the racial injustice that is America’s original sin and ongoing challenge. Anyone who thinks (as most GOP candidates claim) that the U.S. military is weak is simply delusional; but the military too is overextended and has its problems, as I wrote about last year (“The Tragedy of the American Military”). And of course there are drawbacks when individuals, cities, and states assume into irrelevance a paralyzed national government. That’s a point Tim Egan addresses in a NYT column today, and that I try to deal with in the conclusion to  my recent magazine article.

But with “to be sure” out of the way, in these two quotes is the tension in how we think about the country.

Everyone is fully-exposed-and-more to the “everything is terrible” argument. It is much, much harder to grapple politically or through the media with the point Scott Wiener and Gavin Newsom are making: that place by place and issue by issue, many people are finding ways to cope with the terribleness and build something better. It’s difficult to register this at the national level. But it is happening, and deserves notice even in a contentious election year.