Stephen Trimble: Energize the exhausted majority and save the republic

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart, U.S. Representative for the 2nd District of Utah, answers questions from his constituents during a town hall, Friday, May 12, 2017 at Richfield High School.

When my congressman, Rep. Chris Stewart, held a town hall in Richfield in May 2017, an older woman rose to speak. She offered her credentials as an engaged citizen by declaring with absolute sincerity, “I know what’s happening in Washington. I watch Fox News every day.”

Her comment haunts me.

This trusting woman, like a third of American voters, gets her daily briefing from Fox News. She often sees Stewart on her preferred programs, reinforcing the untruths fostered by the network and by President Trump, amplified by our self-righteous circles of like-minded friends on social media. Intentional untruths repeated endlessly acquire the robust sheen of truth.

The Fox News (un)reality show intertwined with the current presidency has shattered the national consensus on shared facts and common values. Just as so many Native tribes defined themselves as “the People,” we now pride ourselves on our exclusive membership in political “tribes.” The non-overlapping speeches by Democrats and Republicans in the impeachment hearings exemplify this stark dilemma. And we are not addressing this threat to our country.

When I came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, a single frayed, evolving, persistent national myth unified Americans, especially in times of crisis. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

True, this particular American narrative largely ignored the genocide of Native America and the defining weight of racism, bigotry and oppression. Still, however imperfectly, after two centuries of protest and cataclysm, we were working with a common reality, a common aspiration to live up to the American ideals of freedom, equality, opportunity and justice.

We took in the same facts from shared media. We took civics in school. Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, and you had to work hard to find the voices of fringe conspiracy theorists.

No more. Our common myth, our democracy, turns out to be shockingly fragile.

In his book “Sapiens,” historian Yuval Harari writes that a society creates “an imagined reality out of words” and these “myths” allow whole populations to cooperate successfully. Religion, money, law, civil rights — humans invent each of these. We then craft nations and empires from collective belief in our sweeping inventions.

As Harari reminds us, each “imagined order is always in danger of collapse.” If we stop sharing a belief in the basic precepts and norms of our nation, our agreed-upon myth disappears, replaced by chaos or a new myth.

Our sorting into anger-filled corners is sweeping us toward this precipice. The 2018 report, Hidden Tribes, signposts a way forward.

These researchers conclude that just 8 percent of Americans belong to the “progressive activist” tribe. This is our left wing, young progressives who insist on radical action after the failure of our leaders to address injustice, inequality and climate change.

At the other end of this matrix of values, the most conservative folks tally fully 25 percent of America. The most devoted of these conservatives are just as engaged and uncompromising as their younger counterparts.

Hope for breaking our paralysis lives within the “exhausted majority” between these two absolutist tribes of our divided country. It turns out that I belong here, to a somewhat archaic tribe, the “traditional liberals.” That places me between left and right wing, within the 67 percent of Americans still looking for common ground.

This two-thirds majority of Americans embraces fragments of a national consensus about our flag and the republic for which it stands. Tribes in the “exhausted majority” hold diverse opinions but still believe in compromise and collaboration.

I believe this majority can be reached. I believe they can be energized. I believe they — we — can be inspired. The future belongs to the presidential candidate who can restore trust and awaken the slumbering majority.

Listen again to that earnest voter in Richfield. “I believe in the Republican policies,” she told Stewart, “but I think we’re too divided and we’ve got to come to the middle and find the high road and take it.”

This rural Republican will doubtless vote for the full slate of her party in 2020. But in her yearning for the high road, she’s edging away from the seething roar of Trump’s rallies and toward membership in the collaborative majority.

The candidates of the fiercest tribes, right or left, may win elections. But intolerance cannot renew America. No leaders will be able to heal our divides until they rouse the majority from exhaustion and inaction.

I’m looking for the presidential candidate with sufficient charisma, clarity and compassion to galvanize the goodwill of my fellow members of the weary majority. If we do not restore belief in the shared values of our republic, we will lose that republic.

Stephen Trimble

Utah writer Stephen Trimble writes op-eds to fend off cynicism and exhaustion. His most recent book is “The Capitol Reef Reader.”