I’m reviewing old emails from my parents and found this exchange with my dad which seems painfully prescient.

Background: my maternal grandfather was William Bryan Dunham, born in Oklahoma and named after William Jennings Bryan – a complicated historical figure who was a hero to many.

The irony now is that the same feelings of having been cheated and abandoned that led rural Americans to support Bryan in the dustbowl era have now driven many to support Trump – even while he’s precisely the cheating, lying, wealthy, selfish figure they seemingly blame for having wronged them.

Perceiving this support for Trump as mere ignorance or raw hate is not helpful. People who feel vulnerable will seek champions, rationalize away their faults, and fall victim to their lies. (Hitler, of course, was perceived by his supporters as the savior of a broken country.)

We usually think of protecting the vulnerable as something noble and kind – a reflection of our best nature. Yet it is also our own best strategy for survival.

When our protection of the vulnerable is based solely on kindness, it can be dissolved by fear. The shortest path out of danger rolls directly over the people who most need protection. (This may explain how many “Christians” can show so little concern for others’ humanity, celebrating charity while holding in contempt those who accept it.)

Our commitment to protect the vulnerable must be based not simply on kindness, nor on self-interest. It must instead be based on a deeper understanding of the connected lives we share – and the common fate our actions will bring.

That’s why denying others’ humanity is such a terrible – and frequently used – strategy for weak leaders to gain power.

Steering out of our current catastrophe will not be easy, but I think the solution will look more like fighting an epidemic than winning an argument.

***********

Written in April 2000, from me to my dad:

“Speaking of America, I’ve been reading Allistaire Cooke’s America again this morning (I call it my “Cooke book”), finishing the chapter on the family farmers of the plains and the oil and steel barons of the late 19th century – Rockafeller, J.P. Morgan, etc. Cooke describes William Jennings Bryan as the hero of the dejected farmers and plains people who’d bitterly watched all their dreams and hard settling and farming work result in too many dried-out patches of land and a tower of wealth for only a very few, and only in the distant cities. Bryan orated powerfully and rallied to defend the religious, cultural and economic values of the farmers who felt they’d been cheated and wronged.

A British writer and former nun named Karen Armstrong (Joane has one of her books) was on Fresh Air on NPR recently, talking about her new book on the subject of religious fundamentalism. She also mentioned William Jennings Bryan, who, as she put it, took on Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial because of the atrocities the world had witnessed with Germany during the First World War. Germany had enthusiastically embraced Darwin’s coldly scientific teachings of evolution and the survival of the fittest, and, it was suggested at the time, the direct result was the monstrous inhumanity of the war. In defending the conservative, old-fashioned religious and cultural ideals of the midwest against the onslaught of science in the form of Scopes’ classroom curriculum, Bryan was trying not to halt the progress of human knowledge, but to steer the children of America away from the direction taken by the children of Germany – to preserve sustainable values in the only way he knew.

I’d long known that Mom’s father, William Bryan Dunham, had been named after William Jennings Bryan, but I’d never heard the man’s accomplishments clearly described in any context other than that of the Scopes trial. To hear of Bryan’s local heroism in greater detail explained why a man born in rural Oklahoma at the turn of the century would be christened William Bryan Dunham. To read this in Allistaire Cooke’s book was like stumbling unexpectedly on a chapter of family history, stuck in the middle of a brief summation of all of American history. It illuminates one more of the paths that lead to where our family comes from.”

My dad’s reply:

“I had the advantage that William Jennings Bryan was one of my high school heroes. (“You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold”). I wrote a term paper about him. Bryan was elected president three times. Everybody knew he was a shoo in. Unfortunately, by the time that the actual elections were held, he lost each time. One reason was some of the big factory owners, threatening dire consequences to their workers should that radical prevail. Nevertheless, he was immensely popular among the kind of people we are descended from, perhaps as popular as FDR in 1936.

It is sad that he is best known among modern college-educated youth for the Scopes trial and three losses running for President. He had much to offer beyond fundamentalist fanaticism. It doesn’t help that the famous play uses him as a foil and a caricature. He was Secretary of State under Wilson. He was in charge when Herbert O Yardley broke the U S diplomatic cypher in two hours. Yardley was a junior clerk in the State Dept. Since Great Britain and Germany had extremely sophisticated cryptologic (code breaking) departments, this was not good news. If Yardley could do it, other nations would obviously have no trouble doing it.”

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