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Who are we as a country right now?
Bob Franken
Bob Franken is an Emmy-winning journalist. - photo by File photo

Which is it: Are the police inherently thuggish, brutish enforcers of a racist America? They have been accused of being complicit in the deaths of so many minorities, particularly from the Black community, like George Floyd. Or are they the protectors of America’s democracy, like the heroes and victims in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol? 

Who are we as a country? Not what are we, but who are we? Do we bounce from festering hatred of one demographic group to another? A hatred that explodes into violence at the behest of one ignorant bigot who didn’t deserve to be in the position of the highest level of leadership -- but was -- and now doesn’t deserve to be in the standing of extraordinary influence -- but is. Obviously, Donald Trump is that man.

He is self-centered to an extreme, not able to comprehend how the hateful words he uses, like “China flu,” can translate into discrimination against all Asians or how that discrimination might be exaggerated in the already warped mind of an assailant aroused by centuries of discriminatory cultural fantasies.

Are we the bigot-citizens who can’t let go of the prejudice that has dominated the entire Black experience in the United States? Our nation was put together partially by slave labor and has struggled sporadically to erase the stain that continues to influence our societal attitudes and the attitudes that poison our private thinking.

How about the rejection of immigrants or Muslims? Is xenophobia guiding us? In many cases, yes.

But what about those who are so aroused by compassion that they join the demonstrations and otherwise embrace whichever demographic group is under attack? Do we open our arms? A lot of us, yes.

The point is obvious. We can neither define a “national identity,” nor determine the voter instincts in an individual state. It is such a puzzle that Wisconsin, for instance, can elect as a U.S. senator Ron Johnson, who is as obvious a bigot as there ever was one, while also choosing Tammy Baldwin, an outspoken progressive. 

Johnson, of course, would deny he’s a bigot; most do. But there he was on right-wing radio -- and most of it is right-wing -- proudly proclaiming ... well, I’ll let him express his feelings about the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol and why he “never really felt threatened”: “I knew those were people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, and so I wasn’t concerned.” But then he went on: “Had the tables been turned, and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.”

Johnson’s term is up next year, and he hasn’t announced his plans. Will he run for re-election or not? Will Wisconsin have, once again, a choice between a Robert La Follette, who was the stereotypical progressive, and a Joe McCarthy, just as stereotypically the hard-right demagogue who beat La Follette in an upset? Johnson won his Senate seat by defeating incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold. Twice. Is Wisconsin repeating schizophrenic history?

And then there is Donald Trump. If he can stay out of jail, he’s a real threat to get nominated again by the Republicans. He’s the standard bearer for them and a significant chance to defeat Joe Biden.

Biden is preoccupied at the moment, and will possibly spend most of his term getting things done, which means undoing the mess that Trump left behind.

Once again, it might well be a choice between the unqualified hustler who has a remarkable self-marketing ability and the flawed achiever, who has a mediocre record of self-promotion. It would be a battle between America’s darkest instincts and its brightest. Like so many of our incessant zigs and zags, at any moment it can go either way.

Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.

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