As I think of America’s current political impasse(es), there are two quotes that come to mind. Charley Russell wrote a story about a teamster who harnessed his mules, then picked up a two-by-four and whacked the lead mule in the head. “First, you’ve got to get the mule’s attention,” he explained to a startled bystander. And the other expression my very own mother’s, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” wrote former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas. That’s where getting the mule’s attention comes in, and anger is an easy way to do that. The American electorate, after having been lied to by both major political parties, gets angry and elects an outsider to lead the nation. It helps that the outsider has, if not a lot of anger himself, an incredible ability to keep the public’s anger hot. Unfortunately, it’s kept hot by exploiting that which can divide us rather than unite us. That’s a far cry from leadership, and even further from statesmanship.
But that’s OK with a disaffected electorate, whether they’re protesting against Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war, Carter’s “giveaway” of the Panama Canal, or the elitism of the political class, in general. That’s because the anger is the easy part.
But you can’t ignore the harder part. I will tell you, free for gratis, that I am a whiz at taking engines apart, but I am not a whiz at putting them back together. So, after the engine is apart or anger has had its desired effect of getting the mule’s attention, then what? There has to be a plan to fix what’s just been broken, and that is where keeping angry fails us.
Anger is a seductive emotion; you don’t have to be reasonable, responsible, and certainly not respectful. When you are angry, you are right! You have the power and the stage. But all during that anger there has to be some kind of undercurrent of civility, something that will allow the powers that be to sit at the table with the angered. I will tell you from painful and personal experience it is hard to work with someone who has belittled you publicly. Once you get the mule’s attention, you still have to depend on the mule to get the wagon moving.
This is what diplomacy is for; it’s a method of getting your point across and at the same time getting some cooperation from the other side. War, I should point out, is considered to be one of the tools of diplomacy.
Diplomacy is getting people with whom you have some disagreement over to your side and keeping them there. A secret to diplomacy is good manners. This is easier if you use honey; we are seeing what the use of vinegar is accomplishing. I can think of no argument to support the rudeness of our president towards the leaders of nations with which we have fought side by side for centuries: Canada, England, France; or toward those which we have liberated from tyranny and as a result of diplomacy have formed strong bonds, like Germany.
America rebuilt Europe after World War II. Literally rebuilt it. We rebuilt it not just for our allies, but for our former enemies. Why? There were two basic reasons; one, because we are a decent, friendly and helpful people. The other; because Americans are not fools – we looked to prevent the anti-democratic Communists from taking over Europe by filling the void, which was better than sitting on our hands. The results were easy to assess, you had the poverty and repression of communist East Germany and the robust economy and freedom of democratic West Germany side by side for all to see.
America won the gratefulness of the free world with that attitude. We cannot condone the casual insults to our trusted friends and the warm embrace of our untrustworthy enemies. Russian leaders have been ruthless dictators for centuries, Lenin and Stalin ordered millions to prison and death. And now, there is Putin.
When Trump, leader of the greatest nation in the world, cozies up to ruthless dictators and insults long time friends, something is very wrong.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator, and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at the Missoula Current.