‘Like the Logbook Entries of a Doomed Sailor Stranded at Sea’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Franklin D. Roosevelt at his inauguration in 1933, with the famous line “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” A reader, 23 years old, wonders how today’s fears compare with those of other eras. (Wikimedia)

The day held a number of important-seeming shifts in the dynamics of the presidential race, one of them favorable for Donald Trump and the rest not.

Working in his favor: of course the endorsement by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who six months ago had condemned Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants and in recent weeks had been coy about committing to Trump. Working the other way:

  • the WSJ interview in which Trump condemned a judge based on his Mexican heritage;
  • Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy speech in San Diego, which was the most effective presentation I can recall from her and which minced no words in declaring Trump unprepared, temperamentally unstable, and dangerous if placed in command;
  • Trump’s own angry, rambling presentation before a half-full audience in San Jose, California (where many people were presumably watching the Warriors), which seemed different from his usual skill in reading and rallying a crowd, and may have indicated that Clinton’s attack had gotten to him. I’ll add a link when I see one online. Update here is the link. If you watch even a little you’ll get the idea.

We’ll see where this all leads. Will Trump regain his bearing and EQ? Will Clinton get in her own way again? Still five months to go.

***

For now, let’s start with some of the mail that has poured in. This first is from a reader who is now in medical school, in the northeast, and who is responding to this previous item on Trump.

This line stood out to me: “Through my conscious lifetime American society has seemed on the verge of blowing up at least half a dozen times. The episodes have passed; the caravan moves on.”

Despite being a longtime Atlantic reader (and as of a few months ago, a subscriber!) [thank you!], I suspect that at 23 I am on the younger end of your readers. To me, the present political situation is remarkably alarming, as it is the first real moment where I have genuinely feared for the state of America.

I was eight when 9/11 happened, and I remember my struggle to understand how two entire skyscrapers could be laid low. But of the subsequent fear I remember nothing.

I remember nothing of the debates leading to the war in Iraq, though I clearly remember the darkest days. But even then I knew that while the situation was grave, the nation itself was not at risk. I remember a blog of The New York Times declaring “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” as the song of the day as a Wall Street investment bank collapsed (Lehman Brothers, I think—though I haven’t been able to find the post).

But even then, while things looked dire, I trusted that the lessons of the Great Depression had been heeded, and outright crisis would be averted.

Yet now, with what I have wryly taken to calling “the current political situation,” I have genuinely lost faith.

I am a first-generation American, the son of Chinese (now Americans) who left China in the years just before Tiananmen. My girlfriend is Hispanic and Mexican-American. In a rhetorical climate where “Mexican” has become an epithet and China is the evil empire cheating America out of her greatness, I cannot help but begin to feel “othered.”

Your Time Capsule series reads to me like the logbook entries of a doomed sailor stranded at sea, futile missives to a distant, unknown future to catalog a final struggle. I am aware of past historical events that should be on par with Trump’s rise and the febrile GOP partisanship (e.g. the Cuban Missile Crisis, Goldwater’s nomination, the fight for desegregation, the Kent State shootings, the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention), but they lack to me the visceral immediacy of the present situation.

Of course, the polls, economic indicators, conventional wisdom, and betting market predictions all strongly suggest that Hillary Clinton is the strong favorite in the general election. But “strong favorite” still leaves far too much of a chance that Donald Trump would become President.

For those for which this is their first rodeo, what are your thoughts on the other “half a dozen” crises that America has weathered in your lifetime, and what advice might you offer?

For now I’ll say about this last: Good question, very well set up. I will think about the answer. You can send your own to hello@theatlantic.com.