Today is the true first day of the Trump administration. Up to this time, all that he and his representatives have said has been rendered meaningless by their constant contradictions and weasel words. Think, for instance, of the promise by Trump that all Americans will be insured for medical care and then his Secretary of Health and Human Services announcing that all Americans would “have access” to medical insurance. We are thus left to judge them solely by their actions. All the rhetoric — “America First,” “We will win,” “the government is about you” — now gets its real meaning from their actions.
So how do we judge this administration and the Republican Congress that has espoused it? I suggest two possibilities. The first is by its ability to satisfy our own personal wants and needs. Those who voted for this administration objected to the Affordable Care Act because it cost too much and it did not provide adequate insurance. They also wanted lower taxes, a more or less constant Republican campaign promise. They also wanted more job opportunities and higher pay and benefits.
The second possibility for judging this administration is by its effectiveness in promoting the American ideal, which is presented in the Declaration of Independence as the founding notion of our nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain alienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …” True enough, the founding fathers excluded, in practice, from “all men” a substantial majority of the population, but the ideal is just that, an ideal, and as such it is clearly meant to cover all human beings.
This second possibility stands in stark contrast to the first. That possibility asks, in essence, what this administration will do for me. I want a high-paying job. I want all-inclusive insurance. I want to pay less in taxes. As for you, as long as I get what I want, I will agree to let you have whatever you want. The measuring stick, however, is me. This is the so-called morality of self-interest. I say “so-called” because it is self-contradictory. Morality is that which I owe to others. A dedication to self-interest necessarily entails a denial of any such obligation.
The second possibility — the American ideal — has often been misinterpreted as a commitment to my own personal liberty. It is mistakenly seen as an announcement that I can do whatever I want, with the tacit correlative that the best way to get what I want is usually to not violate the liberty of others. Freedom, in other words, is defined as license, and that definition perverts the entire meaning of the American ideal. To measure the rights of others by whether or not they serve your own is, at base, a complete denial of the American ideal.
That ideal is a bold and brave and earth-shaking commitment to respect and serve the rights of every human being. Not just those of my race or my locale or my social or economic status or my religion, but every human being on the planet. That colossal ideal is what brought the poor and the hungry and the oppressed of the world to these shores: the knowledge that they would be freed of the chains forced upon them by their birth or their beliefs. It is the inspiration for those words that stirred us long ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Self-interest is not an ideal. It is, in fact, the denial of all ideals. The primacy of self-interest is the root of all conflict. It is the mother of injustice. It is the breeding ground of war. It is the very antithesis of the American ideal.
If, then, we are truly Americans, we should, we must, measure the actions of those presently in power by whether they foster a world that respects all human beings or whether they operate on a fundamental policy of self-interest. If self-interest prevails, the founding notion of America will fall from an ideal to a mere advertising campaign.