(CNN)It should be morning again, in America.
The unemployment rate matched its lowest level in half a century. North Korea is talking peace. The fear of imminent terrorist attacks that haunted the 2000s has ebbed. While many troops are still in harm’s way, the US no longer has tens of thousands of soldiers waging vast land wars in the Middle East.
“We have such a great country right now,” President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday.
“We have some of the best economic numbers we’ve ever had as a nation and that goes a long way and we’re building something very special.”
Yet the United States is a long way from the fabled sense of security encapsulated by Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” re-election ad.
America is not at ease with itself. And it’s putting the rest of the world on edge.
There have been more dangerous and polarized moments in American history — but it’s tough to recall a time when political discourse was so mean, and so dispiriting.
This week, the White House could not bring itself to condemn a racist attack by Roseanne Barr, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters. Comedienne Samantha Bee did say sorry — but only after calling the President’s daughter Ivanka a “feckless c***” — in what was just the latest explosion of angry and divisive rhetoric that punctuates most days in the Trump era.
With the economy roaring, things ought to feel more comfortable.
But in a turbulent time, kids now talk openly about the possibility of being shot at school. A new study in the journal Science suggests deepening polarization made Thanksgiving dinners up to 50 minutes shorter in politically divided families last year.
A special counsel is burrowing deep into a young presidency. Trump’s own revolt against the boundaries of his power has the country perpetually on the cusp of a constitutional crisis.
“We are seeing a culture begin to seriously erode for our children and our grandchildren. It is happening,” Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich said on CNN this week.
Who is to blame?
The biggest question in politics is how much is Trump responsible for the distemper?
Well, he didn’t invent political divisions and bare-knuckle politics.
Presidents — with the possible exception of George Washington — have cursed for eons, and politics has never been for the easily offended. After all, an opponent once called former Vice President John Nance Garner a “labor baiting, poker playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man.”
But the vitriol is constant these days. Insults and controversies erupt every hour.
And there’s no question that Trump, who called Mexican immigrants rapists, mocked a reporter with disabilities and branded protesting NFL players sons of bitches, has coarsened political discourse.
Many critics believe he’s abandoned the notion that presidents should offer a moral lead. And Trump’s winner/loser life calculus explains why he’s ignored Americans who didn’t vote for him.
His presidency functions in a riptide of chaos and acrimony — in fact, its bewildering pace and emotive whirl may be what it needs to survive.
Its existential purpose is tearing at societal, racial and cultural fault lines to ensure its foundation is replenished by outrage and anger from Trump’s ever loyal base.
His relentless churn leaves no time for reflection, or connecting the dots of a noxious political environment.
And anger begets anger. Trump’s opponents start to adopt his own unchained rhetoric — often on Twitter — and barriers of decorum and decency are overwhelmed.
Yet for Trump’s supporters, the disruption and shattered norms and outrage among establishment power centers in politics and the media in Washington is proof that he is doing exactly what they hoped he would do. For them, the old system and ways of behavior were so corrupt, dysfunctional and distant, that just tearing them down is enough.
In many ways, Trump inherited a political environment ripe for exploitation after two decades of turmoil.
Social media, the balkanization of the news industry into ideological fragments and gerrymandered congressional districts are often blamed for the bitter political tone.
A financial crisis a decade ago left deep economic dislocation and though jobless numbers and housing markets have recovered, many Americans are still worse off and hurting. Mechanization is ravaging traditional industry. And an opioid crisis is scarring the heartland.
Twice in the last 20 years, on Sept. 11, 2001, and with Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election, America’s enemies have exploited its freedoms to attack it, igniting furious debates about US institutions and values that scorched national unity.
All of this is the backdrop to Trump’s surge to power in 2016, when he turned bitterness at a political system that had no answers for many Americans into a populist crusade.
At the time, many Trump supporters saw his vulgarity as proof he was an authentic scourge of the establishment.
But in office, he’s worsened national dislocation by making lying and the peddling of conspiracy theories a central political strategy. His presidency is rooted in an assault on the institutions — like the Justice Department and the FBI — that underpin American public life. And he’s turned on America’s friends abroad, launching trade wars with Europe and Canada.
‘Bad for the country’
This week, Trump — in his escalating effort to discredit the special counsel probe — accused Robert Mueller of plotting to meddle in the midterm elections. It was a move that threatened to cast doubt on the integrity of the polls, and for his supporters, the result, should Democrats win.
A source familiar with discussions inside Trump’s legal team told CNN’s Jim Acosta this week that the President would sharpen the attacks heading into the fall elections.
“That’s bad for the country,” the source said, adding that “it’s likely to get worse.”
Trump’s constant barrages may actually also be depriving him of some of the credit he is entitled to claim for the healthy economy.
At the end of 1988, when the unemployment rate hit the lowest point of his presidency, at 5.3%, Reagan’s Gallup approval rating stood at 63%. Bill Clinton hit 66% at the end of 2000, when unemployment was at 3.9%.
In the latest CNN/SSRS poll, Trump was at 41%, and it stands to reason that his disruptive, norm-busting behavior is largely to blame.
Still, Gallup’s famous poll of national mood has 37% of Americans satisfied with the direction of the country, the highest level since early August 2005. However, 62% are dissatisfied.
Given the depth of current political divides, and the hankering of Democrats who want revenge for 2016, as well as Trump’s determination to ignite the anger of his base, it seems unlikely the political fury will end soon.
At the end of another tumultuous political year, 1968, which was characterized by assassinations and social unrest that makes 2018 look tame, the nation united in awe as the astronauts of Apollo 8 beamed back stunning photos of Earth, humanity’s common home, after beating the Soviets to become the first men to orbit the Moon.
With the space program in hiatus, it’s tough to imagine another event that could ease today’s political tempest and unite Americans in the same way.
The moment when then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois vowed there “is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America” seems far more than 14 years ago.
In his new book “The World as It Is,” Obama confidant and speechwriter Ben Rhodes says his boss wondered after Trump’s victory whether his vision of a politics freed of its tribal divides had been wrong — or premature.
“Sometimes, I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” Rhodes quotes Obama as saying. Many conservatives differ with the idea that the 44th president was a conciliator or a unifying force. But someday, probably decades hence, perhaps some other politician of either party might risk a campaign based on the idea that Americans are more united than divided.
Another leader soon to exit the stage, John McCain, is also pining for a time when political acrimony was less intense.
“Before I leave, I’d like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations,” the ailing senator from Arizona writes in his new book, “The Restless Wave.”
“We are citizens of a republic made of shared ideals forged in a new world to replace the tribal enmities that tormented the old one.”