I watched President Trump’s inauguration from an airport TV in Guatemala. I’d just finished leading 22 people on a pilgrimage to live, study, and participate in ceremonies with Mayan shamans at sacred sites. For me, it was the first leg of a two-month working journey. I am still in Latin America, teaching and speaking at a variety of venues. In the days since that inauguration, I, like so many, have felt the horror of the emerging Trump policies.
Latin Americans cannot understand why so few of us voted in the last election and why so many who did voted for Trump. A larger percentage of people vote in most Latin American countries than in the U.S.; in several countries, voter turnout exceeds 90 percent. Many of these countries have a history of brutal dictatorships. Once free of these dictatorships, their citizens revel in their rights to hold democratic elections; they see their ability to vote for their leaders as both a responsibility and a privilege. They wonder why a relatively small percentage of voters would elect a potential dictator. And moreover, why those nonvoters did not vote against him.
“This election exposed a shadow side. It stepped us out of the closet.”
The participants on the Guatemala trip ranged from successful business executives to community organizers and healers—with lots of other professions in between. They came from Canada, Ecuador, England, France, Indonesia, Italy, the United States, and Guatemala. Many, especially those from the U.S., arrived in Guatemala feeling disenfranchised, disempowered, depressed, and, yes, horrified by the election.
However, as we moved through the shamanic ceremonies, the participants grew increasingly convinced that the election is a wake-up call for Americans. We have been lethargic and allowed our country to continue with policies that hurt so many people and destroy environments around the world (including Washington’s involvement in the genocidal Guatemalan Civil War against the Mayas, which raged for more than three decades). This election exposed a shadow side. It stepped us out of the closet.
Many participants expressed the realization that Americans had failed to demand that President Obama fight harder to end the wars in the Middle East, vacate Guantánamo, rein in Wall Street, confront a global economic system where eight men have as much wealth as half the world’s population, and honor so many of the other promises he had made. They recognized that he was up against strong Republican opposition and yet it was he who continued to send more troops and mercenaries to the Middle East and Africa, brought Wall Street insiders into his inner circle, and failed to inspire his party to rally voters to defeat Trump and what is now a Republican majority in both houses.
“For far too long we have allowed our leaders to take us down the path of empire.”
We talked about how throughout the world, the U.S. is seen as history’s first truly global empire. Scholars point out that it meets the basic definition of empire: a nation 1. whose currency reigns supreme; 2. whose language is the language of diplomacy and commerce everywhere; 3. whose economic expansions and values are enforced through military actions or threats of action; and 4. whose armies are stationed in many nations.
The message became clear: We must end this radical form of global feudalism and imperialism. Those who had arrived in Guatemala disillusioned and depressed now found themselves committed to transforming their sense of disempowerment into actions.
At the end of World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill told his people that England could choose the course of empire or democracy, but not both. We in the U.S. are at such a crossroads today. For far too long we have allowed our leaders to take us down the path of empire.
President Franklin Roosevelt ended a meeting with union leaders by telling them that now they knew he agreed with them, it was their job to get their members to force him to do the right thing. FDR understood that democracy depends on We the People insisting that our leaders do what they promise to do.
We failed with our last president. Let’s not repeat that mistake with the new one.
It is extremely important that We the People force Trump and his band of corporatocratic henchmen to keep the promises we heard in his inaugural address. Let us hear “making America great” as “making America a true democracy.” Let us hear “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American People” as “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow”—an echo of Churchill’s contention that a country cannot be both a democracy and an empire.
“We must become the model democracy the world expects us to be.”
It is up to us to insist upon democracy. It is essential that we continue to demonstrate and march, to bombard Donald Trump and our other elected officials with tweets, posts, phone calls, and emails; to rally, clamor, and shout; and in every way to get out the word that we must end the wars, feudalism, economic and social inequality, and environmental destruction; we must become the model democracy the world expects us to be.
When General George Washington was hunkered down with extremely depressed troops at Valley Forge in the bleak winter of 1777, he ordered that an essay by Thomas Paine be read to all his men. Some of the most famous lines are as applicable today as they were then:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he who stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. … A generous parent should say, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace” … I love the man who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. By perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious future.
We have arrived at such a time again. We must each do our part. Let’s here and now commit to taking positive actions. I commit to writing and speaking out at a wide variety of venues. I commit to supporting the Love Summit business conference, a powerful event committed to bringing love and compassion into business and politics, to transforming a Death Economy into a Life (Love) Economy. What are your commitments?
We have arrived at a time that tries our souls. We must gather strength from distress, grow brave by reflection, and know that by perseverance and fortitude we can achieve a glorious future. Let’s make sure that the combined legacies of Presidents Obama and Trump will create the opportunity—indeed the mandate—to show the world how a country can be a true democracy. These are the times…
This article was originally published at johnperkins.org. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.
John Perkins is an economic and environmental activist and author whose books include the New York Times bestseller Confessions of an Economic Hitman. He is a founder and board member of Dream Change and The Pachamama Alliance.
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