While President Donald Trump’s inaugural address may have been the shortest one since President Jimmy Carter’s, it was long on punch. It only took 16 minutes of inaugural pageantry for the 45th American president to outline a newly aggressive, pro-America, pro-American “us versus them” doctrine that spared no nuance or feelings.
The governing elite is out of sync and out of touch.
The nation’s borders are intended, yet not defended.
Working-class jobs are moving to foreign soil.
The assault on ISIS has been iced by bluster.
America’s infrastructure is crumbling, and our cities are endangered.
Our leadership around the world has been compromised by a feckless fear about standing up and showing up.
Predictably and summarily, the new president enraged the disenchanted who are still bemoaning the results of the campaign past and still defending eight years of national drift where “Yes, we can” yielded to “Nope, we won’t.”
Somewhat lost in Trump’s inaugural vow to replace Washington power with “people power” was the line, “A nation exists to serve its citizens” followed by, “Through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.”
In one rhetorical stroke, Trump confronted every one of us with the only chance we have to ensure America endures: “citizen.”
So what does that mean? What should it mean? What are the obligations we the people — nos autem populus — owe the nation versus what the nation owes us?
Today, “citizen” is defined as one’s status as a legal member of a sovereign state, created by birth, parental lineage, marriage and/or naturalization. Special exceptions have ranged from America’s policy toward Cuban immigrants to Qatar’s offer of citizenship to athletes (as long as they profess fidelity to Islam!).
Yet one quick traipse through history suggests we’ve lost our way about what citizenship commands each individual to do.
In ancient Greece, citizenship was honorable and virtuous, a declaration of freedom and duty where one’s public and private life were inseparable. Aristotle took it a step further by warning citizenship’s freeloaders that “to take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!”
The Romans expanded citizenship to include property and security; the French Revolution and Renaissance devolved it from the elites to the masses.
America changed its attitude as well, moving from the “all free white men” standard dictated by the Naturalization Act of 1790 to the 14th Amendment where citizenship was no longer based on race or gender.
Today, beyond the raging debate over our tolerance of illegal immigration, citizenship has become a spectator sport to be played by, and entrusted to, others.
This laissez-faire passivity toward duty and country is the biggest threat we face as a nation.
It is bigger than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s piddling in our elections, or the failed promises of Obamacare, or the failed politics of politicians assuring their own survival before ours.
Whether or not you liked his inaugural speech, or his call for “America first,” or his broadsides against the establishment, Trump’s appeal for Americans to be involved as an act of patriotism was vintage John Kennedy:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Today, we must all ask ourselves: “What have we done for America lately?”
What have we done to prove our commitment to helping others; to raise our game beyond protests on Twitter; to speak up, speak out and take action; to show our love of nation trumps love of self?
Intended or not, Trump has invoked a new oath of citizenship. By asking businesses based in America to invest in jobs in America. By asking individuals to do more for their communities.
By demanding Washington help us before they help themselves.
This call for virtue is not without precedent.
From Romans and Proverbs to Genesis and Exodus, the biblical prescription for a deserving life revolves around giving one’s “first fruits.” It is an act of selfless sacrifice where you give your best in appreciation for all that’s been provided. There’s a lesson here for all of us that should have nothing to do with party, ideology or presidential preference.
So as inaugurations and demonstrations give way to dueling expressions of hope and angst, one thing’s for sure. A healthy America depends on a healthy democracy, one in which citizens are engaged and our children inherit a future where citizenship is not just a legal certificate but a moral code for national honor.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in Tampa and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.