JFK asked what we can do for country. Trump demands it

Among the Philadelphia contingent taking part in the Women's March in Washington.

I guess scheduling was never my strong suit. For a guy who went out for his high school paper more than four decades ago with this hope of someday chronicling the momentous events of my future lifetime, it was unfortunate and a little odd to take a two-week medical leave during a) the inauguration of the 45th, and most unlikely ever, U.S. president b) violent clashes in the streets of the capital c) the painful-to-watch installation of the worst and least qualified cabinet in America's 240-year history d) a web of exploding scandals involving the new president's conflicts-of-interest and possible unsavory ties to Russia e) a U.S. government declaring war on the truth with "alternative facts" and f) last, but not least, more than 3 million marching in the streets in America's largest-ever protest.

Also, Joel Embiid.

With all that, where to begin? Sometimes, the metaphors practically write themselves. You see, last fall I had the guts ripped out of me not once but twice; first, literally by doctors on Sept. 13, and then all over again, figuratively, on Nov. 8 — this time by just enough voters in just the right states (including my own) who decided that the celebrity neo-fascism of Donald Trump would be the Next New Thing for the American Experiment.

Both of those things required a lot of getting used to, but slowly, unevenly, I adjusted. And so on Jan. 10, my doctors brought me back for the follow-up operation they call "the reversal." That meant was time for things to start moving in the right direction again. It was only 11 days later, as I continued to recover, that I magically watched another "reversal" begin on the national state — 3 million people, maybe even 4 million, marching in the right direction through the foggy streets of D.C. and in the midday darkness of frigid villages in the Alaskan Arctic, filling bridges across the red rivers of Nashville and standing up for sisterhood at the very bottom of the world in Antarctica.

Speaking of Antarctica, there's a layer of irony here about as thick as that massive glacier that's about to break off any day now. For as long as anyone can remember, pundits and social critics have bemoaned the lack of civic participation in American life. They call it "bowling alone," in homage to the 2000 book by Robert Putnam that chronicled the remarkable drop-off during the TV era of participation in civic groups (including, yes, bowling leagues), houses of worship, and local politics. It took less than 24 hours for President Trump to inadvertently bring all of that back. Not through a lofty exhortation, but by threatening the very America that we thought — passively, and perhaps wrongly — that we thought we all knew.

Trump set the stage at his sparely attended inauguration address on Friday. No one knew exactly what to expect from our wealthiest and most inexperienced president — and in theory, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Over the last century or so, inaugural speeches have become such a pro forma celebration of our shared national purpose — liberty at home and abroad, America's almost youthful optimism in a cynical world, and our unique brand of diversity — that they've come a tad dull and predictable. Even a skilled orator such as Barack Obama seemed overwhelmed by the task. No one had really expanded on the iconic expressions of freedom and national unity that John F. Kennedy had laid out in 1961.

Donald Trump came to Washington and demolished all of that in 17 minutes.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy assured "every nation" that the United States "shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." In 2017, Donald Trump told the world that liberty doesn't pay, stating that "[From] this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families."

In 1933, in what could be called the mother of all modern inaugural addresses, Franklin Roosevelt told Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In 2017, Trump told the nation to be afraid ... very afraid. He spoke of "rusted out factories scattered like tombstones ... and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

In 1961, JFK exhorted: "My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." In 2017, Trump has asked American citizens to put all of their proverbial eggs in one basket — the basket of Trump, the "smart" and benevolent Dear Leader. As he told last summer's RNC, after laying out an exaggerated and at times dishonest portrait of American lawlessness, "I alone can fix it."

In other words, don't ask what you can do for your country, but ask what Trump can do for you. Or, better yet, don't ask us at all. Just trust us to tell you the truth in the form of "alternative facts," whether it's about the largest crowd ever at Friday's inauguration (it wasn't) or whether Trump has resigned from his family businesses (maybe ... who knows?).

But here's the funny part about that whole "what you can do for your country" thing. In an era of affluence and seeming tranquility, that "ask" only goes so far. To be sure, JFK did inspire many young people into the Peace Corps and other forms of public service — but people only really started getting involved in things after Kennedy was gone and Vietnam was on fire, and people's neighbors and loved ones began to come home in body bags. Nothing inspires civic involvement like an existential threat.

To millions of Americans, Donald Trump is now that existential threat — from his cruel health-care mandate to keep 18 million people away from a doctor, to his daily assaults on democratic norms, such as informing the nation's spies on Saturday that journalists exercising their First Amendment rights are "the most dishonest human beings on earth."

JFK asked us, politely and eloquently, to give back to our country. Trump, in all his vainglorious rudeness, demands it of us. Many words have already written about how the pressures of the Oval Office will test a TV-reality-star-turned-POTUS, but we all know that nothing will ever change Donald Trump. The real test in 2017 and beyond is on us. Call it a citizenship test.

On Saturday, millions of marchers passed the first pop quiz with flying colors. But that was just the beginning of the beginning. For America to thrive, everyday people need to let those handful of House Republicans in moderate districts who weren't Trump fans — yes, I'm looking right at you, U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan — they'll be unemployed in 2019 if they hurt the sick or the vulnerable. They need to run for local offices, to restore sanity to two political parties that are deeply out of touch. They need to make sure every unreasonable obstacle to voting is removed, and then they need to vote, vote, vote.

And who knows, with all that organizing, maybe they'll take an hour off to go bowling with their new friends. A new, engaged, civic America has the potential not just to make this nation better than it was on January 20, 2017. It can make America better than it's been in a long time.

Because President Trump alone cannot fix this. Only we can fix this. And judging by what happened Saturday, we will.

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