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Rod Watson: Today's America leaves little to give thanks for

Rod Watson

After giving thanks on Thanksgiving for family and friends, I think I’m done.

That truncated sense of gratitude is a far cry from when I grew up, grateful not only for the day off from school but also for everything else the occasion was supposed to commemorate – most notably an exceptional nation that evolved from a band of immigrants who celebrated a successful harvest with people who didn’t look like them.

But four centuries after that first Thanksgiving, we’ve come full circle. Instead of sitting down with those of a different culture, we waste tax dollars sending U.S. troops to the southern border to keep out women and children with brown skin. The taxpayer toll? One estimate put it at $42 million to $110 million, while others pegged it at up to $200 million.

Now the troops are suddenly being brought home, which leaves the question of which is worse: Genuinely xenophobic racism or the misuse of the military in a political stunt?

In fact, we used to celebrate "American exceptionalism," a social conceit no doubt shared by every other populace – proof of the very vacuousness of the concept.

But even if you wanted to believe it, that is no longer possible. Instead, we’ve become just another country under a leader who embraces nationalism and has a solid 30 to 40 percent base, in large part because of it.

In undermining one of the things that made us exceptional, we’ve morphed more and more into just another Austria, with its anti-immigrant Freedom Party getting enough support to become a junior partner in the government. Or just another Germany, where its nationalist Alternative for Germany party has become the largest opposition bloc and has Chancellor Angela Merkel on the run. Or just another Denmark, where the far-right Danish People’s Party has become the second largest party in power and the country passed a law allowing the seizure of migrants’ assets.

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In trying to turn away the tired, huddles masses seeking an asylum hearing, the United States can no longer celebrate being any better – let alone "exceptional."

Combine that with a leader who openly envies murderous dictators because they are "strong"– Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, China’s Xi Jinping – and reflections on U.S. democracy evoke more apprehension than thanks.

What those strongmen – and our wannabe – also have in common is a contempt for any media that tries to hold them accountable, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to bar a CNN reporter and his constant incitement against the media at rallies.

It’s a far cry from Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted preference for the press over government. And even if Jefferson later came to abhor his newspaper critics, as one historian told the Washington Post last year, "Jefferson never said about the press what Trump says about the press."

How long can any democracy last if the public is only told what the government wants it to hear?

And what about that government?

We used to teach kids that principle matters. What can we tell them today when 27th Congressional District voters said retaining a GOP seat by returning Rep. Chris Collins to office was more important than saying "we’re better than that" and rejecting someone under indictment?

We teach kids not to bully. Yet the only way we can accomplish anything internationally is by bullying smaller nations. We get cooperation on Iranian sanctions not through the power of our ideals but by threatening companies economically if they don’t go along. One administration ago, the United States was "leading from behind" – as in pushing other countries to do more. Now we can’t lead at all; we can only coerce.

We teach kids the value of honesty, pointing to our very first president, the cherry tree and "I cannot tell a lie." Now we give them a national role model who cannot tell the truth.

And E pluribus unum?

Not only are we more divided politically and ideologically, but financially, too, thanks to a tax cut its authors wouldn’t even run on because the public recognized that its benefits flowed disproportionately to the wealthy.

For instance, a Tax Policy Center analysis showed that a household earning $1 million or more would get an average cut of $69,660, or a 3.3 percent income boost, while households earning $30,000 to $40,000 would get a cut of only about $360, or 1.1 percent.

The upshot: If you’re in well-to-do class, you can enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixins’ lined up around the turkey.

If you’re in the middle or working class and you still voted for Trump, Collins & Co., you are the turkey.

Even that 2.9 percent wage gain the Labor Department recently announced – trumpeted as the largest in a decade and validation for trickle down – was less than it seemed. The department also announced that annual inflation was 2.3 percent. That means higher prices eroded most of the gain, yielding working people a tiny, belated reward that stands in sharp contrast to the soaring stock market that emerged from the ruins of the 2008 recession.

The United States has long been notorious for its inequality. The tax cut will only make things worse in a nation supposedly founded on espoused notions of equality, acceptance, honor, the rule of law and the greater good.

But if one man can destroy in two short years what it took centuries to build, maybe the foundations that evolved after Plymouth Rock were never as strong as we liked to pretend – or to celebrate on days like today.

The one cause for optimism is that many of the districts that helped reshape the House of Representatives were well-off suburban areas where voters nevertheless sought to re-establish those ideals that long bound us together.

If that trend continues, maybe at some point I’ll be able to give thanks again.

Just don’t ask me right now.

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