Why is America longing for a time that never was?
President Obama did what everyone expected from him during his last speech. He showed decency, persistently appraising the formidable qualities America projects on itself. Given the bizarre circumstances of the current situation, with an ultimately unqualified person approaching the presidential throne, one cannot help but feeling reality is copying film and fiction, applying the worst possible twists and neglecting any plausibility.
In his 2012–2014 TV series, “The Newsroom”, Aaron Sorkin kicks off the first episode with a podium discussion hosting the series’ main character, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). Forced to answer a college sophomore’s question: “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” he responds with an outburst, explaining why America isn’t the greatest country on earth anymore. “It sure used to be.”, he adds with a touch of melancholy, just when the strings set in.
The show was a two time Golden Globe nominee and won the Emmy — rightfully — as it is probably one of the best dramas about journalism in recent years and one of Sorkin’s most understated masterpieces.
Throughout the U.S. presidential elections I felt reminded of “The Newsroom”, particularly of this scene. It is fiction versus reality; but despite its morality-glorifying moments and the sometimes nostalgic dedication to the Fourth Estate, I couldn’t help but clinging to the fiction instead of accepting the sobering reality.
Why is it so important that America is the greatest in everything? Was it used to be on the winning side for too long? Is it the stereotypically quoted cowboy- and machoism mentality? Knowing many Americans who don’t possess the slightest hint of this trait, I wonder if the cliché still has a standing.
For me, it is about identity and pride. America has lost its dignity in the last few decades. Its decline began with the Vietnam war, and maybe long before. Such things don’t come overnight, but they have tides, and currently America’s identity is going through its greatest crisis.
It is this distorted and nostalgic image, glorifying a mythological America anchored by “how it was supposed to be” — our imagination of what America’s forefathers wanted, which creates this artificial memory in our minds, like a longing for a golden childhood.
The Declaration of Independence was meant to cut ties from oppressors and at the same time it formed the funding stone for said American identity: the belief in the potential of a newborn, freed nation that is looking forward, armed with willpower and the ability to overcome the worst conditions.
It is this elusive idea that was hijacked by an immoral man who did nothing to deserve justification to be America’s next leader. A grab of power that takes advantage of a nation’s melancholy, a deep longing for its own fiction.
Trump himself probably doesn’t fully grasp why this worked out so well. But he understands cause and effect. He simply did what he always does when he feels his audience is drinking the Kool-Aid: pouring out more.
Trump wasn’t the only one abusing America’s mourning over its imaginary qualities. Every politician (and their writers) need to strike this tone to get to the hearts of Americans, to move them, to speak to their memory of an America that never was.
Good journalists have done it too. It wasn’t just the notion of achievements like the mission to land on the moon that made America great. It was the spirit of getting there, The ambition to be a better version of itself, as it was envisioned in the speeches of J.F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and captured by the media, so it would live on as a vocal repertoire best suited for reality distortion, aspiring to the idea of how America is perceiving its own nature.
Combine this bent and twisted ideology with angst and desperation, and you have the nationalist climate that enables forces to be put in motion as they were present in Germany’s 1933; a nation which mourned its mythological greatness and was thirsty for a supreme leader, full of promises to make its pain go away.
In the famous opening scene of “The Newsroom”, Will McAvoy has seemingly shut down. Sorkin uses the first minutes of his brilliant drama to introduce us to a character that has closed his case long time ago, a news anchor who has replaced his core beliefs with wits and charms that play off easily and don’t require him to reveal his true nature.
It is a sign from the audience, a woman holding up two statements written in big letters, that is disrupting his comfort, so he feels inclined to respond to the podium moderator’s piercing insistence to properly respond to the question, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”.
“It isn’t.” one sign says, “But it can be.”
Perhaps what America needed was not a saviour, but the worst possible scenario, a situation that will with certainty lead to disaster. What else would it take to disrupt our comfort?