Could this be the defining moment of the 2016 election? With 100 days to go, and a bomb-throwing GOP candidate seemingly careening toward self destruction, anything could happen, but the face-off between Donald Trump and Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of slain war hero Humayan Khan, may well go down as the most memorable portrait of what this election is about.
Mr. Khan's speech at the Democratic convention was certainly the most electric not only because of its genuineness and emotion, but because of the vivid way he and his wife were able to capture something that has eluded the Democratic party for decades: a concise and pointed way to articulate their patriotism. In laying out the case against Trump, Khan not only cited the constitution, he called on the nation to remember that what defines America - a nation of immigrants - isn't the color of our skin, our religion, or our ancestry, it's our adherence to an ideal and a core set of values: freedom, justice, and equality. These were the values that gave birth to our nation, for which our soldiers fight (and sacrifice their lives), and which binds us together as Americans, in good times and bad.
I'll admit, I've been a fan and supporter of Hillary Clinton ever since she took on a Republican Congress as First Lady and passed a health reform bill that eluded her slicker talking husband. However, I wasn't particularly thrilled by her nomination speech - her list of policy "specifics" culled from the agenda of left-leaning Bernie supporters was lacking in any genuine specifics on how she was going to address our country's finances, grow our economy, or address the concerns of blue-collar workers who are flocking to Trump's nativist pandering. But she got better toward the end as she went into the international sphere - you can tell this is where her inner wonk gets most excited. It was clear that Hillary had a strong hand in constructing the four days of the Democratic convention, which proceeded much like her speech (from the far left to the wonkish and parriotic - neigh, conservative with a small c - defense of American values and presence in the world). This blend of liberal activism with conservative American exceptionalism is what I first loved about Hillary, and it's clear that Hillary's America first will celebrate a rainbow coalition that represents the modern face of America and yet defends the same principals and values that defined this country over 200 years ago. Right on!
Turn then, to Trump, who seems to relish being the model of that other strain in American culture: the ugly American, the selfish, oafish blowhard who cares only for himself. Of course he would take the bait laid by the Democrats and the Khans at the convention. My feeling is that Trump's supporters are probably, truth be told, a little embarrassed by the man, but respond to a policy proscription - curtailing immigration, cutting trade, stepping back from the world, shoring up the boarders, and investing at home - that a smarter, saner Republican might have surmised and capitalized on, if only that party hadn't been so shackled by lemming-like groupthink for the past eight years. Meanwhile, a shrewd outsider like Trump seized on a popular program prescription that was invisible to party mainstream. Oh well, as they say, you've got to dance with the girl that brung' ya.
But the reason that America has opened its boarders, taken the lumps of free trade, and stepped into world affairs is *precisely* because of its values. The values of freedom, justice, and equality don't end at the boarder. Americans see threats to their way of life, to human rights abroad, and they can't sit idly by. Americans believe in a free economy where ruling elites don't have their thumb in the pie shoring up insider deals and artificial oligarchies; they negotiate trade agreements because economic freedom and the free flow of goods - while causing pain as economies transition - ultimately do provide a better life for children able to seize upon the advantages that their talents, culture and education can bring to the world economy. Trade makes the world, as well as America, more free. And Americans welcome immigrants not simply because they are themselves the descendants of immigrants, but because we are a nation of values, and welcome anyone who shares these values and feels compelled, as the Khan's did, to instill in their children the same sense of patriotic wonder and sacrifice to these ideals that we ourselves feel.
I don't want to belittle the issues that are driving this election - the hollowing out of the blue-collar middle class, the lack of investment in our social and physical infrastructure, a tax and social safety net system that is neither fairly distributed nor realistically funded, the moral hazard created by big money in politics and excessive greed in finance that led to a great Recession and anemic recovery and still has not been fairly paid out. These are real issues that neither candidate is yet fully realistically addressing. But America, at its heart, is not a nation of whiners. When the going gets tough, Americans don't shrink from the world. They rise to the occasion, believe in their own abilities, fight for the little guy, stand up to the bully, stand up for their values, make a difference, and yes, make real sacrifices. These are core American values - values on display last week by Mr. and Mrs. Khan, two Muslim American immigrants - and they are what's really at stake in this election.
Trump, perhaps more than any other candidate, exposes why the current nativist impulse on the right - even if understandably motivated by turbulent economic times and Washington gridlock that has allowed a sustain decline of the middle class - is also deeply un-American. That he can so easily expose this through his mocking of Americans who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to our country is perhaps just the strange coincidence of this strange and slightly unhinged candidate now on our public stage. But if in the end it reminds us all - both Democrats and Republicans, as well as Independents - why we are all Americans, and what our shared values are, it may turn out to be precisely the best thing this country needed to get past this present time of entrenched partisan bickering, and find its soul again.