Phil Gulley: Building Frustration

As a nation, we must decide: Do we renovate, or tear down everything we have constructed?
Quite a few years ago, two houses in my hometown of Danville came on the market, both of them built in the last half of the 1800s and shabby with age. One house was purchased by a neighbor, the other by a family from out of town. Each new owner went about renovating his property, though with markedly different approaches. The neighbor worked on one room at a time, making careful improvements until the house was returned to its former glory. It’s a lovely place, and whenever I walk past, I stop to admire it. The other home was razed to the foundation, and a new structure took its place—a sterile, featureless building that looks like a doctor’s office. The people who live there have tried to improve it with landscaping, but no amount of bushes and flowers can hide the fact that it’s an ugly house.

I’ve been thinking lately about our upcoming election, and it occurs to me that the Trump Republicans want to tear everything down to the foundation and build something else in its place, something coldly efficient that might keep the rain off our heads but only that. The Democrats want to repair one room at a time, keeping the spirit of the place intact. Many Republicans have made no secret of their intention to eliminate the very government they seek to control. It was conservative gadfly Grover Norquist who famously said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Norquist is clever with words, but he’s a vandal at heart, as are the many politicians who thoughtlessly pledge never to raise taxes under any circumstances, not even in times of war. When our nation invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, we taxpayers ended up on the hook for $6 trillion including interest on the war debt, a little tidbit the small-government boys egging it on neglected to mention. But what the heck, that was a long time ago, and I’m willing to let bygones be bygones. I just hope the Iraqis and Afghans feel the same way.

What I am not willing to let slide is the destruction of everything our forebearers labored to create—a first-rate education system, an infrastructure without parallel, research facilities that put an end to many infectious diseases, thriving factories in every city and town, a welcoming immigration policy that brought the world’s finest minds to our shores, a breathtaking national park system, and a hand-up for the down-and-out. All of which has been endangered by tax cuts, the axes wielded by fatcats who gorge themselves at the nation’s table then complain when those who come after them ask for crumbs. That these gluttons have persuaded so many people to vote against their kith and kin is a testament to our willingness to support all sorts of nonsense so long as it is cloaked in the garb of God and country.

As I write this, Governor Mike Pence has joined himself to Donald Trump’s hip, thereby sanctioning thuggery, deceit, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry, greed, and ignorance. An assemblage of local, state, and national Republicans have also endorsed Trump, placing party above principle, and personal power above societal good. Should Pence jump Trump’s ship before the election, I will happily eat these words, but I’m not holding my breath. Once our governor has decided to do something, no matter how thoughtless or ill-advised that something might be, there is generally no stopping him.

This past spring, I received a letter from a precinct committeewoman in northern Indiana, who wrote to tell me that when Pence first ran for governor, he called to ask for her support. In her letter, she wrote, “I asked him if he was saved, and he assured me he was, and even told me the date he accepted Jesus. I knew then he should be our governor.”

So here we have a governor who can name the date of his conversion, while offering such meager evidence of it. Does anyone doubt that if a Republican president had offered Indiana $80 million for pre-kindergarten education, as President Obama did in 2014, Pence gladly would have accepted it, then boasted of the Republican commitment to education?

I am not inspired by Hillary Clinton, not in the way I was moved by the vision of Bernie Sanders. Nor has John Gregg captured my imagination. We deserve more than his regular reminders that he is not Mike Pence. Nevertheless, I favor the social priorities of Clinton and Gregg, and trust their commitment to thoughtful governance. Trump would cheerfully forsake every national commitment if it gained him a headline or a dollar.

While Pence and Trump differ in personality, they are startlingly alike in their priorities. Trump would bar Muslims, Pence would ban Syrians. Which is why we don’t let billionaires and governors write our immigration laws. Trump worships his wealth, Pence his bond rating. While I am keenly aware governments must be solvent, the first impulse of both men is to slash, hack, and cut rather than ask their moneyed friends to kick in an extra dime. They offer platitudes and coded language instead of thoughtful policy, stoking the fires of their base. But theirs is a heat absent any illumination. They disparage government, then seek its power and capital.  They denigrate women—Trump with hateful language and his habit of assessing a woman’s worth by her sexual appeal, and Pence with his pious intrusion into the most private of human affairs, the decision to have a child. They each offer those same children little in the way of care and opportunity—no universal healthcare, a threadbare education, declining wages.

Make no mistake, our state and nation have grown shabby. Drive through any Indiana town and note the boarded storefronts, the potholed streets, the weed-choked lots where factories once stood. We all bear responsibility for that—the businesses that maximized profit and minimized pay; the unions that protected laziness and inefficiency; the consumers who snatched up products made in Mexico and China to save a buck; the legislators who incentivized the exodus of jobs. We all are to blame, and when all are to blame, all must resolve to set matters right.

Some call for a razing, others a renovation. There are those, the exploited and the exploiters, who happily would supply the gasoline and matches to burn the whole enterprise to the ground. But there are others who believe the bones of America are still good, that she can yet be saved by a thoughtful restoration. It falls to us to determine in which house we wish to reside—a mean and ugly structure that might keep the rain off our heads, but only that. Or a place of loveliness where others long to live.