Rosenberg: America was not great again in 2017

A new year generally brings with it the promise of forward progress: We at least go through the motions of making resolutions, we hope for renewed wisdom from our leaders, we take a moment to try to set the griefs and failures of the old year aside.

 

But for Americans on both sides of the political divide, 2017 promised something different: the inauguration of President Donald Trump, whose entire campaign had been built around a promise to resurrect a vision of the past that his supporters viewed with gauzy nostalgia and his opponents anticipated with dread.

Almost a year in, Trump’s agenda has proceeded unevenly. But if there was a theme to 2017, it was that America was already mired in our own history, that we’d never really managed to escape our ugliest chapters and close our painful divides.

The piece of pop culture that made this case on the broadest scale was Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’s 10-part documentary, “The Vietnam War.” The movie, which includes extensive interviews with both North and South Vietnamese veterans, makes a searing and complex argument that the American idea broke in Vietnam, and that while the nation survived the foreign and domestic agonies of the period, we did so in part by embracing collective denial, not by truly coping with the divides the war exposed.

Watching “The Vietnam War” and reading other works of history, including David Halberstam’s Korean War survey “The Coldest Winter,” were reassuring reminders that America has survived personalities as extreme as Douglas Mac-Arthur’s and Richard Nixon’s. They also made me wonder how many cycles the United States can endure, especially when these periods of extreme division compound new grievances on top of the old ones.

Burns, at least, is optimistic about Americans’ capacity to go back and do the civic and emotional work left undone after the Vietnam War. But the events of 2017 suggested just how much work there is to do in coming to agreement on the past, and how difficult it’s proving for Americans even to begin those discussions on reasonable terms.

This year intensified an already painful debate over what should be done with Confederate memorials. This ongoing argument escalated into violent confrontation in August, when white supremacists rallied in defense of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. DeAndre Harris was beaten in a parking garage, and Heather Heyer was killed after James Alex Fields Jr.’s Dodge Challenger plowed into a group of people who were protesting the racist sentiments of many of the original demonstrators.

The events in Charlottesville prompted many cities and towns to remove their Confederate memorials and even inspired some citizens to tear down the monuments themselves. But even as these changes suggested that Heyer’s death had forged a new consensus about whom we should honor with public art, the original “Unite the Right” rally in Virginia was a disturbing reminder that for some Americans, basic historical questions about the Civil War, ranging from the personal morality of Lee to the reason the Southern states seceded, remained unsettled. It isn’t merely the small group of extreme racists who made their way to Charlottesville who disagree with the clear historical record on these questions; throughout the late summer and fall, my inbox filled up with praise for Lee as a noble slaveowner and arguments for the irrelevance of slavery.

The Civil War is a seismic event that torments us even from a century and a half away, but it was hardly the only piece of the American past that returned to haunt us in 2017. An essential part of the reckoning with sexual harassment that kicked into high gear in October with the publication of blockbuster pieces about the allegations against super-producer Harvey Weinstein has been a painful confrontation with the excuses people across the political spectrum have made for men accused of assault, harassment or both in the past, from John F. Kennedy to Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton. And we have had to confront the fact that beloved art may be deeply shaped by the alleged sexual misconduct of the people who made it, from Marion Zimmer Bradley to Louis C.K.

If renewed attention to Confederate monuments makes clear that debates we thought were settled are in fact highly contested, the conversation about sexual harassment revealed that many of us have responded to high-profile stories about sexual misconduct in fragmented and even contradictory ways. To a certain extent, those jagged edges appear to be aligning into more coherent positions: For example, decades after Clinton’s emergence on the public stage, many Democrats seem to be coming to terms with the idea that it was a mistake to spend so much time and energy defending his character. That’s important work, and it’s how we learn and grow, but it’s still painful to look back at the stances we’ve taken that don’t fit together neatly into a coherent, principled whole.

This isn’t even to mention other disturbing parallels with the past, or lessons America apparently failed to learn. Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, American citizens have been devastated by another storm, and the country has largely neglected their plight. A Nixonian war on the press is back. And spiraling levels of inequality, which may be further exacerbated by a tax plan Republicans sent to the president’s desk, recall a brutal and less-fair age in American life.

Trump has learned since his inauguration that to be president is not to be king, and that to get anything done, much less a wholesale transformation of American society, is exceptionally difficult. And the first year of his presidency has brought reminders of just how much the rest of us have to endure, and how hard we’ll have to work to truly close the divides that have yawned open between us.

Maybe that’s the best takeaway from 2017. Going back to whenever America was supposedly so great is going to be nearly impossible. And getting to someplace new and genuinely better is going to be staggeringly difficult as well.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes The Washington Post’s Act Four blog.

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