America’s confidence in its electoral integrity will overshadow the shadow Donald Trump tried to cast over it at Debate III. Many of those watching suddenly froze, as if on a ship trapped in dangerous icy waters – like the Titanic about to go down or the Mariner’s ship in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Our democracy – our ship of state – has always been kept safe by the Constitution, the rule of law, and an electoral system that guarantees peaceful transfer of power. But there has also been a spirit, an amorphous pride, which has kept our ship moving forward despite the inevitable storms of history. And that spirit – something beyond patriotism – leaves most of us feeling lucky and optimistic.
Coleridge’s epic poem – published over two hundred years ago – chronicles a journey that parallels our belief in democracy. Like the metaphoric albatross did in Coleridge’s poem, our faith protects our ship of state as it sails on through dangerous international and domestic waters. It helps the ship break through and “split” apart dangerous icy waters. That hovering bird gave those sailors their needed confidence to survive. That is, until the Ancient Mariner shot and killed it with his crossbow.
Our own national bird, the Bald Eagle, has a similar unconscious function today, and Donald Trump is making a concerted effort to become our Ancient Mariner. He took aim at America’s democratic spirit when Obama defeated Romney in 2012, claiming that Obama was illegitimate because he wasn’t born in the US.
As the presidential election approaches, Trump intensified his destructive rhetoric – screaming that our election is “rigged.” He keeps trying to kill the albatross/eagle, but so far has been unsuccessful. Chris Wallace twice gave him the opportunity to lay down his verbal crossbow but he didn’t. He refused to say he would not try to kill the creature that embodies our nation’s unique place on earth.
Hit or miss, the consequences of his murderous rage against democracy will affect us beyond November 8. Unlike Coleridge’s mariner, Trump won’t be able to kill our bird, our majestic bald eagle. His screams that the “system is rigged” will neither bring us down nor curse our vibrant and resilient nation as it navigates treacherous waters. His hatred of losing and his need to blame everyone but himself will be his downfall. And it will be up to the good sailors of our ship of state to drown his threats of violence.
The dead albatross hung on the mariner’s neck for the remainder of the voyage. While I think Trump will not be thus burdened, since he is virtually incapable of experiencing guilt, the GOP may suffer from bits of that albatross for years to come.
Since 2009 the entire Republican Party refused to accept having a black president. Trump gave voice to that refusal, loud enough to paralyze his 16 primary opponents. What he said aloud was what his fellow “sailors” felt in private: How could a black man be allowed to captain of our ship of state? And, starting next year, how can we elect a woman to do the same thing?
Our ship’s rigging is rigged, but the election is not.
The poem Churchill read to FDR in 1940 – when he asked for America’s help to defeat Hitler – is most apt:
“Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Hangs breathless on thy fate!”
All decent citizens were horrified by Trump’s demagoguery, as Churchill was by Hitler’s.
And yet we sail on.