I’m deeply troubled by the display that has just unfolded in Washington, DC where President Donald Trump, in defiance of all tradition, turned America’s birthday into a US taxpayer-funded campaign rally.
It was countered by a rally of opponents, who denounced his policies – especially the separation of families and incarceration of asylum-seekers on our southern border.
These events put into sharp focus the fact that there are two Americas.
It is more deeply divided than at any time since the late 60s and early 70s, when it was torn apart by the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement.
The issues that separated America 50 years ago have never really gone away.
Polls show that on a range of social, economic and political issues, Americans live in two different realities.
Called, by some, a partisan divide, it is, more accurately, demographic in nature.
On the one side are young people, minority communities and educated women, while on the other is a grouping largely of the white, middle-class, middle-aged and men – many of whom claim to be “born-again Christians”.
Donald Trump didn’t create the rift that is so obvious in today’s America. It’s more accurate to say that he was created by it.
The manner in which he conducted his campaign and his presidency not only preyed off of this divide, but also added fuel to the raging fires.
He has courted white nationalists, fuelled nativism and xenophobia – fostering fear and resentment of “others” like blacks, migrants and Muslims – and portrayed America as a victim taken advantage of by other nations.
His rhetoric, in speeches and tweets, have increased the rancour that has come to characterise our national discourse.
He routinely demeans his opponents, insulting their intelligence, their looks and their manhood.
Many were shocked by his abuse of late Senator John McCain and stunned when he broke with Presidential protocol and engaged in a derisive partisan attack on Democrats, while addressing US troops stationed at the Demilitarised Zone in South Korea.
Now we have the campaign rally at the Lincoln Memorial.
National celebrations, like the 4th of July, are supposed to be occasions to put aside differences and recall the founding principles that brought the nation into being.
They are supposed to play a unifying role.
I remember reading a study by the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in which he discusses how the religious, ethnic and class divisions percolating in Java in the 1950s impacted a funeral.
The funeral ritual, as it had developed over time, was intended to bring together the diverse elements of the family and neighbourhood of the deceased and, at least for a time, create unity.
In observing the funeral, Geertz noted that the centrifugal forces unleashed by changes underway in Java were so strong that instead of unifying the community, the funeral exacerbated the divisions leading to a further fracturing.
Just as I was troubled by President Trump’s insistence on the presence of tanks on the Mall, having jets and bombers fly overhead, and giving a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with reserved seating for Republican officials and campaign donors, I was also disturbed by the counter demonstrators who carried huge inflated balloons, one of a baby Trump in a diaper and another of Trump sitting on a toilet.
What remains to be seen is whether the US can put this evil genie back in the bottle and find a way forward to rebuild some semblance of national unity.
I fear that it will not happen anytime soon.