By Sandy Compton
I am ranging through the Great American Trail Series, 10 books edited by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and published in the 1960s. They each have a different author, including Wallace Stegner (The Gathering of Zion) and Stewart Holbrook (The Boston Post Road). Beginning with prehistory, they are accounts of major routes of exploration, migration, trade and conquest on the North American continent, mostly within what became the United States.
In Westward Vision: The Oregon Trail, long before he writes about Lewis and Clark, author David Lavender posits, “Men can always find ‘evidence’ for believing what they wish to believe.” Similarly, before the first emigrant wagons left Independence for South Pass and Farewell Bend, he writes, “When nothing is known, anything can be believed.”
Both statements refer to the search for an “easy” way across the continent; which finally came when the Union Pacific was finished in 1869. Railroads sealed the fate of the continent; connecting the coasts and everything in between. Until then, the West was reached by wagon, horseback or shank’s mare; or by sail around the Horn. Either took about the same amount of time, if you arrived at all. Thousands who started did not, but thousands more did. Each passage made the way a bit easier for those who followed.
The sheer size of the continent collided for centuries with the fantasy that there had to be a “practicable way” across. Lewis and Clark finally reached the Pacific, but only by heroically sustained effort. Others had even rougher times of it. It came down to trappers and traders to find routes across a landmass that seemed to grow larger with each exploration. In their wake came missionaries, and then, thousands of Betsies and Ikes, with their “two yoke of oxen and large yeller dog,” searching for a better life.
Chicanery, savagery and cutthroat competition accompanied Europeans across North America. French against English against Spanish against Russians against upstart Americans against the fierce natives against the very nature of the place. Everyone fought everyone, even amongst themselves — for trade dominance, territory, furs and buffalo robes; for gold, silver, copper and water; for abolition and for slavery. They fought for the hell of it in trapper rendezvous, mining camps, cow towns and nascent cities like Butte, Lewiston, San Francisco and Denver.
Winners write history, so we have a distorted view of how the U.S. came to be. Our country contains an inordinate number of schools, cities, towns, mountains and rivers named for scoundrels, thieves, murderers and unprincipled politicians. I live in Sanders County, named for Wilbur Sanders, who, though cast as a hero in many Montana histories (his daughter wrote one), might qualify in all categories. Multiple states contain counties named for some of our great men, but honest history finds Lincoln a depressive, Grant an alcoholic, Franklin a philanderer, Jefferson and Washington slave holders, Clark a political finagler, and even the great Lewis eventually a suicide. But they all did great things, crucial to the founding and maintenance of our country.
In the meantime, ordinary men and women broke the prairie sod, cut down the virgin forests, rushed to grub gold from Last Chance Gulch and the Klondike; built myriad shelters and hopeful towns that are dust and forgotten. They were neither grander nor less depraved; they were just ordinary folk, some with darker secrets than others. They worked for, railed against, murdered and were murdered by, robbed and were robbed by, fell before, stood up to, preached against, admired and hated the folks things are named for.
We haven’t changed much. But still, we go on.
This brings me to the subject at hand: the riotous debacle in Washington, D.C., last week by Trump loyalists, incited and encouraged by the president himself; aided and abetted by congressional allies. We watched in awe and agony as the drama unfolded, asking ourselves and our neighbors how this was possible in the United States.
Remember Lavender’s words: “Men can always find ‘evidence’ for believing what they wish to believe.” Underlying parts of the attraction of Trump to his followers are myriad conspiracy theories about the “deep state,” which, depending on which versions you wish to believe — and there seem to be many — controls the media, is hidden in the United Nations, has secret military bases in the mountains, is trying to eliminate religion and/or plotting world domination by secret societies based in lofty offices (and cathedrals) worldwide. Trump seems to have been the great hope of believers in such things for breaking the “death grip” of these super-secret groups. In the case of Trump’s supporters so deluded, I recall, “When nothing is known, anything can be believed.”
Trump himself seeks world domination, or as much of it as he can; which seems to be shrinking rapidly. (The rats are leaving his ship of state at historic rates.) His admiration for strongman Russian President Vladimir Putin alone should alarm anybody with any care for democracy, not to mention phone calls to the Georgia election officials; examples of many such actions taken — illegal, immoral and imperious.
It flummoxes me that self-identified Christians support Trump, especially fundamental Bible believers. Have they studied the Beatitudes? Would Jesus have showed up in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6? Does the Savior love the AR-15 and all of its works? Do they think Christ would approve of the wall? “Go ye into all the world,” was Jesus’ charge. He didn’t exclude Mexico. What did Christ say about how to treat your neighbor? And the only thing he had to say about any sexual matter was, “Let him without sin cast the first stone.”
People express shame at our country for the way the Trumpeteers conducted themselves during the election and the assault on the Capitol. My view of that rabble is that they are just that: exhibitionists, racists, conspiracists, science deniers and wild-eyed ultra-conservatives who wouldn’t know the Constitution if it bit ’em in the ass.
We need not be ashamed. If that happened in Russia or China or any number of other countries, the response would have included troops, truncheons, tanks and quite possibly machine guns. The live coverage we suffered would have been cut off and reporters would have faced deadly violence.
We are still living in the best country in the world. Not only do we have the ability and the right to witness our own insanity, but we still have the power to fix what’s wrong with us. We can do so by educating ourselves to the processes of law, and being involved in their making and decisions about how to enforce them. We can’t do so by believing in mythological plots to take over the world. Those happening in plain sight are enough to keep us busy.
We still suffer from scoundrels, thieves, murderers and unprincipled politicians. And, people will always look for something easy to believe in, especially if it allows them to shed their responsibility to think for themselves; especially if it riles up emotions and shuts out reason. It’s easier than trying to parse out the right thing to do.
Even in that, we can still be wrong. I give you the 18th Amendment as a good example. But being blindly wrong is inexcusable, and being intentionally misleading is as well. One of our greatest freedoms is the freedom of speech, but alternative “truths” spouted by hate radio and web-based conspiracy theorists are based in fear and blaming others. Inciting “believers” against others and spreading fear of ambiguous — and nonexistent — enemies is a method used by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the Inquisition to assume and hold power and consequently kill many millions who didn’t meet their “standards.”
We will be blessed to be rid of Donald Trump — and we will be next week. What Biden and Harris will be able to accomplish is yet to be seen. But, whatever it is, we citizens need to give them as much fact-based feedback as possible, and that means we need to take on the work and responsibility of staying informed and thinking for ourselves. Let us not assume or mythologize how wide the metaphorical continent of national healing is, because, “When nothing is known, anything can be believed.”
We need to talk and listen to each other now. We may never be able to come to national consensus about certain things, but we need to find the common ground we do have. We also need to tell those who would drive wedges between us for their own enrichment or to flesh out their own delusions to sit down and be quiet. We need to turn them off, tune them out and call them on their B.S. There will always be those who can “find ‘evidence’ for believing what they wish to believe.” We need to be brave enough to ask why they believe what they do. And listen to the answer.
Sandy Compton is a political moderate and a student of American history. His latest book, The Dog With His Head On Sideways, is available at local bookstores and at bluecreekpress.com.
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