Having watched the History Channel docuseries on George Washington and having completed further research, I could not avoid the conclusion that the “Father of our Country” had foreseen the dangers we now face. After leading the nation to liberty and setting the standard for future presidents, he offered some advice to all Americans in a prescient farewell letter. Though I’m certainly not the first to look at his letter in context with the current state of our union, the obvious warnings bear repeating.
In particular, Washington stressed that Americans must remain united in order to maintain our liberty. At the same time, he warned of the three greatest threats to our unity: Regionalism, Partisanship and Foreign Interference.
It now seems clear that, despite his warnings, we have fallen victim to all three.
Regarding regionalism, Washington feared that loyalty to states and geographic regions would lead to factionalism – that people would vote for their self-interests rather than for the good of the union. Of course, we now see evidence of factionalism in references to the “coastal elites” and to “flyover country.” Such attitudes are at the heart of the so-called grievance politics that resulted in the election of Donald J. Trump. We also see factionalism reflected in congressional decisions, such as former Speaker John Boehner’s demand that the Pentagon build unneeded Abrams tanks in his state of Ohio. And in Arizona’s battle to maintain airbases for the outdated A-10 Warthog against recommendations from the Pentagon.
As for the dangers of partisanship, Republicans have led us down that rabbit hole for the past five decades. It’s not that Democrats are entirely blameless. But Republicans have taken every opportunity to suppress votes and disenfranchise voters as evidenced in the recent Wisconsin primary. Not only did they endanger lives by insisting that the election take place in the midst of pandemic. It sets up the likelihood that many of those who stayed home or who were unable to wait in long lines will have their names purged from voting lists for this fall’s election. Republicans have used their control of state houses to gerrymander districts to ensure their re-election. They have also used the filibuster, parliamentary tricks and dirty money to stuff the courts with ideological judges, and to block the initiatives of their Democratic rivals. But none of that compares to the hyper partisanship that Trump has displayed by calling the COVID-19 crisis a “Democratic hoax” and by favoring Republican-controlled states with medical supplies during the pandemic!
Even worse, mountvernon.org explains that Washington feared partisanship would “open the door to foreign influence and corruption” resulting in decisions on “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms.” He feared that it might lead to the election of “those in league with foreign conspirators.” Of course, that’s exactly what happened in 2017 when Trump was allowed to take office after soliciting and receiving help from Russia during the campaign. If you read the Mueller report, that fact is undeniable. The collusion with a foreign government was breathtaking in both its scope and breadth. But Trump didn’t stop there. Almost immediately after winning the public relations battle over the Mueller investigation, he again sought help from a foreign government to undermine a political rival. An action that led him to be only the third president in US history to be impeached.
Finally, Washington warned us to guard against would-be despots who would use parties as “potent engines…to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” Of course, we’ve already seen that in the Trump administration. Trump has almost entirely and repeatedly ignored the interests of the majority of Americans who voted against him. He has used the national treasure as his personal bank account. And he has removed anyone who has failed to show their undying loyalty. Loyalty to him. Not the nation. It’s frightening to think of what he might do if he manages to retain office.
Given how Washington’s warnings have gone largely unheeded, I was astonished to learn that Washington’s farewell letter is recited annually in the United States Senate, a tradition dating back to the Civil War. Maybe some year, Republicans will actually listen to the reading. That’s assuming their actions don’t destroy the nation first.