Connecting dots
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Connecting dots

I’m a child of the Reagan era, the America I grew up in is receding into the night

Portrait of the author in France circa 1978, with a Liberty sweater bought in New York

My name is Frederic Guarino, I’m 43 years old. Born in Paris, France, I first moved to America in the summer of 1982. I’m a child of the Reagan era, of “Morning in America” and “the Shining City on the Hill”. The America, of which my eldest son is a citizen (he was born in 2007 and is a proud New Yorker), the America I knew growing up in suburban New Jersey, seems to be slipping away.

I’ll cut to the chase and come back to this America of the Stranger Things era later. My politics is overt and clear: liberal in the classical sense, I awakened to politics as an Alex P. Keaton-type fan of the Reagan revolution, marvelling at the Great Communicator’s command of words “Tear Down This Wall” and his pragmatism — his summits with Gorbachev were not what his GOP base at the time was comfortable with. Yes, there was a time when the President knew how to tell his base that he knew best, as Jon Meacham reminded everyone on a recent cable tv appearance.

As a young political enthusiast I supported Bush 41 in 88/92 and couldn’t see Dole as a worthy President in 96, though I’m no fan of both Clintons. In the late 90s I worked in US media in New York, spending my days in the halls of TIME and Newsweek as a war photographer’s agent with Sygma (later Corbis Sygma). I had moved to my native France when 9/11 happened but all my friends were in New York and I ached for them. I was back in my city when 2004 offered a glimmer of hope as an energetic young state senator at the DNC painted a hopeful picture of a re-united America. An Obama supporter from his declaration on that cold morning in Springfield in 2007, I was immensely proud to see an African-American accede to the highest office in the land. I didn’t keep rose-tinted glasses throughout his 2 terms and like many others, was troubled that Obama kept the overextended National Security apparatus intact, the one the Washington Post’s Top Secret America clocks at 1M+ top secret clearances. By 2016 I had moved to Montréal, where my second son was born, and had become a citizen of Canada. My interest in US politics remained strong and I saw 2016 as an election with 2 bad choices, with HRC as an experienced candidate without the ability to weave a narrative to cut through the negative coverage.

It’s now 2018 and on this 387th day of Trump’s Presidency the time is right for reflection and to list how different today’s America is from the one of my youth.

1- The political climate is toxic and corroded by Big Money and an overall mistrust in institutions

I read the Starr report on the day it was made public and can readily understand what Noah Rothman means when he says his generation aspired to a higher standard at the Presidency than what Bill Clinton offered. It was clear in 1997–00 that US democracy was on an increasingly difficult path, the 2000 election ending up as having been concluded with the intervention of the Supreme Court. The Bush years saw the left go all apoplectic and the Obama years was a mirror image with the GOP, whereupon leader McConnell intoned that it was his party’s goal to make Obama a one term POTUS. 2016 pitted 2 candidates with the highest negatives ever recorded: Trump atomized the primary and belittled (literally) his 15 opponents, while HRC was clueless (as always) to the grand écart she had to perform between her Goldman Sachs paid speeches and her stump for Main Street America. The corrosion was exacerbated with the SCOTUS Citizens United decision, which allows billionaires like the Koch brothers to publicly vow to spend $400 million to push their agenda without anyone batting an eyelash anymore.

2- America’s values, of a welcoming place for all to come, seem in tatters

The immigration “debate” is very personal to me. My father’s family hails from Sicily and emigrated to nearby Tunisia in the early 1900s as France was building up infrastructure (sound familiar?).

The 1985 obituary for John W. DiGate — the firstborn son of my great-grandmother’s Nimfa older brother

A fast growing America beckoned with opportunity in the early 20th century and my great-grandmother Nimfa’s brother Rosolino emigrated to NYC in 1904 at age 18. She tried, unsuccessfully, to reunite with her brother, but was refused by US immigration in the early 1920s because of poor eyesight. My own father Serge, who Nimfa helped raise, was always attracted to America and moved his family to New Jersey in the summer of 1982. We lived successively in Fair Lawn and Clifton. In Fair Lawn we were one of 3 non-Jewish families on our street and I grew up amongst a diverse set of Eastern European Jews. Our immediate neighbors the Feldmans taught me about the 12 Tribes.

In speaking about this piece with Jonathan “Yoni” Knoll I realized I needed to share what 23andme and JTest revealed to me a few months ago: I have Ashkenazi heritage from Russia and Ukraine in my family tree and some Sephardim as well. Now I understand why every rabbi I’ve met questioned me on my heritage and could not believe I was not a Jew. Around 1986 Russian Jewish refugees moved to our street and I befriended their son. I learned through him what every day life in the Soviet Union was actually like in the early 1980s.

When I see that in 2018 the immigration “debate”, Democrats included, has morphed into how to mechanically reduce legal immigration, the message is clear to the rest of the world: don’t come, we don’t want you. That’s NOT the America I grew up in, I’m sad to say.

3- American soft power, a combo of financial primacy, technological leadership and cultural exports, is waning

The early 20th century saw the United States develop a very rare combination of natural resources, huge and growing domestic consumer market and ingenuity personified by the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford for industry, JP Morgan for finance, whose leadership was checked by trust busting TR Roosevelt, whose Presidency remains one of the most consequential. 1917 cemented the primus inter pares status of America vis a vis Europe, which descended into tragedy in 1939. The 75 years since then were marked by a Pax Americana which is now waning. While its technological and cultural leadership remains at its apex with the FAANG (Facebook Apple Amazon Netflix Google), the specific combination of hard military power and diplomatic soft power is in danger of durably receding. No Imperium throughout human history has ever outlasted its welcome and the signs are clear the world is getting ready for a de facto multipolar “organization”.

America’s “brand” is being challenged like it’s never been in recent decades. The Trump administration’s very public splits between a firebrand, know-nothing POTUS and his much tamer Cabinet, demonstrate that multiple voices breeds chaos and a loss of influence.

I consider myself a cultural American, it’s the country where I came of age in the 1980s and where I started my professional career in the late 1990s. I have deep family roots there and many friends. I can echo The Godfather’s opening scene monologue on its virtues and laud its uncanny ability to rebound. Nevertheless, the America I knew then seems to be receding into the background, lulling itself into ill-advised isolationism and unnecessary culture wars.

The jury’s out whether or not its leaders are able to understand the depths of the issues corroding its society and are ready and willing to speak truth to its people, who have been coddled for way too long into an exceptionalism, all of which will seem quaint once the Imperium has receded.



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