appealing to baser instincts
Franklin Roosevelt, Donald Trump, and Nelson Mandel
Franklin Roosevelt, Donald Trump, and Nelson Mandela

I’m no historian, but from the perspective of advancing age, I find fascinating that certain societies produce just the right leaders at just the right time.

Think Abraham Lincoln, for example, who evolved during his presidency from defender of the Union to emancipator of the oppressed, a transition marked by the Gettysburg Address, perhaps the greatest oration in American history.

Think FDR, who, despite his infirmities, shepherded the U.S. through back-to-back crises: the Great Depression and the Second World War. In the bargain, FDR envisioned a future worth living and fighting for, a future with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Think Winston Churchill, whose stirring wartime radio addresses—“have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”—steeled the British spine sufficiently to repulse Hitler against all odds, especially during the Battle of Britain, when “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Think Nelson Mandela, the only man on earth capable of preventing South Africa from descending into civil war following the end of apartheid.

And then sometimes a nation gets it exactly wrong, producing just the wrong leader at the wrong time. Think Donald Trump.

At a time when we are more divided than ever, Trump has exploited race, religion, gender, and ethnicity to further divide and conquer.

At a time when the mainstream media has fallen into “infotainment,” succumbed to “false equivalencies,” and “normalized” Trump’s pathological behaviors, and at a time when we drown in fake news, Donald Trump is further undermining the legitimate functions of the fourth estate. By praising Vladimir Putin’s intimidation of journalists (including assassinations), by threatening harsher libel laws and law suits, by berating news outlets that call out his lies, and by choosing as his chief strategist Breitbart’s right-wing propagandist and white nationalist Steve Bannon, Tweeter-in-Chief Trump seeks to preemptively eviscerate all critical analysis of his positions and actions.

At a time when bullying is endemic in middle and high schools, we have elected to highest office a Bully-in-Chief, whose gut response to any criticism, regardless of validity, is a juvenile one: to brand the source a “loser.” With President Trump, the ‘’Bully Pulpit’’ will take on literal meaning.

At a time when the viability of the planet hangs in the balance because of climate change, the Denier-in-Chief has appointed as Energy Secretary and Secretary of State persons determined to release every last molecule of hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

At a time when the middle class has been decimated by forty years of trickle-down economics, and the majority of Americans have lost faith in the American Dream, Trump is already shoring up the stranglehold of the oligarchy by stuffing his cabinet with Wall Street banksters and corporate cronies.

And at a time when the world seems poised on hair trigger, Trump proposes enhancing our nuclear arsenal beyond the current stockpile of 4,500 warheads, sufficient to reduce every major city in the world to cinders many times over.

“Make America Great Again” may seem a winning slogan to many, especially those hard-working Americans who’ve been left behind despite their best efforts. But it’s doomed to fail. Our nation is great only when it is good, and Trump has won office by appealing to our baser instincts rather our better angels.

Early indications are that Trump will govern using the same scorched-earth strategy by which he was elected. Accordingly, his transition approval rating has plummeted to historic lows.

Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, millions of Americans—through the Women’s March on Washington, Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution, a revitalized Occupy, or the Indivisible movement, among others—are organizing to resist Trump’s misguided efforts to restore American greatness by returning us to the Dark Ages of nuclear brinksmanship, rampant racism, gender inequality, carbon intensity, and “gilded-age” economics.


Editor's Note: This story also appeared at the Huffington Post and an abbreviated version of this editorial appeared in the Daily News-Record of Harrisonburg, Virginia, on January 7, 2017. Image: Franklin Roosevelt, Donald Trump, and Nelson Mandel via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS—ORIGINAL SOURCES L TO R, RESPECTIVELY: FDR PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, MICHAEL VADON, SOUTH AFRICA THE GOOD NEWS
513f6saxU8L._SL160_ The author's book Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit (Praeger, 2012) further explores the interface between science, mythology, spirituality, and meaning. According to Ursula King of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol, Dave Pruett's Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) "opens up [an expansive worldview] of true audacity and grandeur that will change your thinking forever."
Dave Pruett

Dave Pruett

Dave Pruett, a former NASA researcher, is an award-winning computational scientist and emeritus professor of mathematics at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, VA. His alter ego, however, now out of the closet, is a writer. His first book, Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012), a "love letter to the cosmos," grew out of an acclaimed honors course at JMU that opens up "a vast world of mystery and discovery," to quote one enthralled student. For more information, visit