By SEAN QUINTAL
In 1782, a newly formed country, acting through its nascent legislative body, adopted a Latin phrase to be emblazoned on its currency: E pluribus unum, in English, “out of many, one.” The Founders of this new nation selected the motto as it represented a unified nation that had emerged from a previous collection of 13 colonies.
In the 244 years since, that nation has grown to a population of more than 330 million, a heterogeneous collection of people from continents around the globe, many of whom look, speak and worship differently from the those who forged the country, and many of whom arrived here in chains. The nation burgeoned precisely because it represented ideals that are reflected in that Latin aphorism: We Americans are many, we are different, but finally, we are one.
That fundamental American aspiration has been tested and tried, through blood and suffering, through literal armed conflict. America has faced moments that threaten disunity and disintegration. In our most proud moments, America and its leaders have found the will and strength to manifest our ideals of unity and solidarity, and by doing so have preserved not just the nation, but its values too. America today is again living through one of those moments. And while the American people have once again found common cause, our President, tragically, has not.
Today, America faces multiple historical challenges simultaneously: a public health crisis and an economic crisis without precedent for at least a century, as well as public expression of rage at racial and social inequalities unlike anything in half a century. Despite many Americans literally marching in the streets for unity, America has a President who governs exactly as he campaigned — a belligerent incarnation of grievance, resentment and division.
In so many ways, Donald Trump has used the U.S. Presidency, not as an institution that exists for the betterment of the country’s citizenry, but rather as a catalyst for self-interest and self-aggrandizement. His cabinet and administration have functioned not to serve the public, or even his voters, but instead his own psychological needs and, of course, the business interests of himself, his family and his friends.
Trump governs for “his” people, the “real” America. In fact, Trump sees the “United” States as a problem to be campaigned against.
If we were to mark our currency with a motto for the Trump presidency, it would read: E pluribus ego. Out of many, for me.
America endures with something pure at its core. Reach down deep enough in America — past slavery and racism, through genocide and exploitation, between patriarchy and oppression — and you’ll find generosity, community and solidarity. It becomes visible in the heroic acts of our people, and is sometimes marked by the leadership of our presidents.
George Washington’s resignation as Commander in Chief emphasized the power of Congress, affirming that in this country there would be no king, and that power would reside with the people’s representatives. Lincoln, and Grant after him, endured enormous consequences for courageously fighting to implement a meaningful, inclusive and just Reconstruction of a cleaved union. FDR resisted pressures from both left and right to weld together a riven country, and in doing so, not only defeated fascism abroad, but also saved capitalism at home. Lyndon Johnson, a longtime segregationist, signed the Civil Rights Act, even as he acknowledged it would cost the Democratic Party the South.
After 42 months of a Trump presidency, can anyone honestly claim to envision Donald Trump ever putting his own interests aside, in order to unify the country? Can anyone even imagine Trump displaying the patriotic selflessness of those who preceded him in office?
If there is any sort of crisis that offers a President a clear opportunity to unify the country, it’s a public health emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the American people together, at least for a few months, in a brilliant moment that allowed us all to recognize our interconnectedness and interdependence; we were, literally, all asked to sacrifice for one another. It was stirring, inspirational, and felt like America at its best.
But rather than sound a clarion call for national unity, this President instead lied and minimized the danger to his citizens, refused to accept responsibility for his government’s ill-preparedness and its disastrous response, and then contradicted his administration’s own public safety policies when he believed it was to his political benefit. Donald Trump this month claimed that Americans who wear masks in public do so not in the interest of public health, but rather to signal disapproval of him. Now even the most basic act Americans can do to protect one another from a pandemic disease has been weaponized as a blade of division, to cut deeper the rifts Trump intentionally exploits for his personal gain, and at America’s expense.
It is obvious that Donald Trump has contempt for institutional norms; he also makes plain his malign indifference to America’s laws, and to the Constitution from which those laws derive authority. These qualities represent legitimate threats to our fragile political system. But perhaps more fundamentally, Donald Trump assaults the very ideal that has held this country through its most grave challenges: the recognition that we are all many, but we are one. This November, it will be up to us, the many, to ensure that we may remain one, united.
— Sean Quintal is vice president of laws and legislation for the La Mesa Foothills Democratic Club.