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Time for Reconciliation?

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.


You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:43-45

Back in the day when The Apprentice was on, I watched every episode. And while I found it entertaining, one thing always stuck out that bothered me. It was the way Trump seemed to relish playing contestants against each other. In the boardroom scenes, he would not tolerate contestants just praising each other or trying to be gracious to one another. He would even make staying in the game contingent on one player’s “throwing” another under the proverbial “bus” (an expression heard often on that show). That part of the show would make me cringe. But after all, it was only a game, or so I thought.

Of course I had no idea that one day he would be in charge not just of the boardroom but of the entire country, and would continue playing people the same way, but on a massive scale.

Trump is a master at dividing people to consolidate his power. He would execute the oldest play in the autocrat’s handbook: find a marginalized group to scapegoat and direct people’s rage towards them and away from himself. In this case, the target was immigrants. He tried his best - and largely succeeded - in making the American people terrified of them. He called them “rapists,” “murderers,” and “animals,” even though most were only seeking to save their lives from anarchic violence in their home countries, for which the U.S. is indeed largely responsible. He also effectively blocked any legitimate path to asylum, essentially criminalizing the act of seeking refuge here. Divide and conquer, even at the expense of thousands of lives if that is what it took.

On the domestic front, Trump clearly not only capitalized but furiously stoked an apparent hatred of red states for “coastal elites.” He engineered his infamous “tax cut” to give windfalls to his supporters while actually raising taxes in the blue states - it was quite ingenious. When the “China virus” (Trump lost no opportunity to stigmatize a minority group) came to these shores, he did nothing at first, because as long as it seemed to be hitting only blue states it was not considered a problem. Trump and his henchman Attorney General William Barr even attempted to defund “Democrat-run” cities, just as their economies were already bleeding as they struggled to survive the badly mismanaged pandemic. He knew well that this reignition of the Civil War would be very popular with his base.

Now that he has lost, we are hearing something different. Many are calling for understanding, for finding common ground, looking for ways to sympathize with those on the other side, and to stop demonizing each other. This is sound advice. The Republican demonization of the “Democrat Party” and “liberals” and “socialists” has poisoned the national discourse. We don’t need more of that. Joe Biden is right. Democrats, having won the Presidency, should not respond in kind. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17).

This is the only way the nation will heal. But is it enough? Something important to this country’s soul has been left out.

In charting an appropriate reaction to the election result, we are treading a very fine line. It is absolutely imperative that Democrats, having won the executive, not treat Republican constituents with the same mean-spirited vindictiveness with which Republicans treated them. In this Joe Biden is exactly right. The task now is to bring the nation together, with equal consideration for all.

But here is what that leaves out: There is no moral equivalence between the two sides, and failing to recognize this imperils this nation’s integrity as well as its future. It is also significant that calls for reconciliation are coming from one side only, the non-Trump side. One hand trying to clap does not make a lot of noise.

It is not simply that Trump violated the norms of American political tradition. He shattered the most basic standards of bedrock morality, without which society risks collapsing into barbarism.

His offenses by now are well known, but here are some of the most egregious:

This last will have grave consequences for our nation now and for years to come. Trump has half the country believing that if a Democrat wins the presidency, they were defrauded and robbed. Even at this writing many of the president’s key supporters are expressing their outrage about unproven “voting irregularities,” claiming miscounted votes or even that dead people stole the election for Biden in several key states. They corrupt the language of morality and patriotism, claiming they only want “fairness” and are “defending democracy” while actually doing their best to destroy it and replace it with mob rule. Not one of them has produced a shred of evidence to support their claims.

The Trump team has done its best to stop the counting of legitimate votes, and to delay vote counting in key states, hoping that they won’t get their electors certified by deadline. Trump even wants legislatures of states that Biden won to choose alternative slates of electors that will support him. Just imagine the Republican reaction if the Democratic side ever tried anything like that.

Never in the history of this country has one side so stubbornly refused to accept the result of a free and fair election. Even Al Gore graciously conceded, after a much closer election and a very questionable Supreme Court decision that effectively made his opponent President. He did so for the sake of national unity. In sharp contrast, elected Republican leaders in key positions are joining the President in trying to shred the integrity of our electoral system and keep this country divided. Undermining the public’s confidence in our most basic democratic institutions is extremely serious, and imperils our democracy going forward. The repercussions will be felt long after this election passes into history. Right now seven to eight out of ten Republican voters believe the election was rigged, because that is what the President and his cowardly party colleagues keep telling them. Our democracy is founded on the public’s trust in the norms that our Constitution has established. Attack those, and we prepare the way for an authoritarian takeover, exactly what our Founders rejected, and what previous generations fought against and died to prevent.

We cannot reconcile with Trumpism. Its violations of humanitarian values and basic morality enumerated above are too serious to be rationalized as mere partisan differences. We are beyond partisan politics, to an unrelenting attack on the norms that enable human societies to function. Anyone who supports Trump supports his racism, his cruelty towards the most vulnerable members of our society, his unceasing mendacity, and his total contempt for the rule of law. They are enabling his dogged efforts to break American democracy. That may not be their intention, but this is what Trump and Trumpism stand for, and the implications of what one supports cannot be escaped. Any support for Trump empowers his attacks on our democratic system and on people who can’t fight back.

We cannot reconcile with Trumpism, any more than we could reconcile with McCarthyism, or yes, even with Nazism. Such ideologies cannot be reconciled; they can only be repudiated. That is the only way to get past them. But we are a long way from repudiating the anti-humanistic values Trump stands for. With very few exceptions Republican Senators and Governors, whose fear one can almost smell, still support his frivolous lawsuits, hysterical harangues, and his assault on our democracy until he either goes down or finally succeeds in breaking it.

What has happened to this country, that so many people have become terrified of this madman whom they elected to the highest office in the world, and dare not utter even the tiniest call for a return to decent behavior? And that millions actually want four more years (and even more!) of what he has brought upon us and the world?

But, some will say, not every Trump voter is “deplorable.” Many good people, not themselves racists, are among the 70 million who voted for him. To whatever extent that may be true, one thing is clear: not one of them was sufficiently offended by Trump’s racism, cruelty, disregard for human life, and assault on our democracy not to support him. Everyone who voted for Trump after having had four years of him did so knowing exactly what he is.

One of the two most frequent reasons given for supporting Trump is the abortion issue. But consider it closely. Abortion will never be outlawed nationwide. Even if Roe were overturned, it would only throw the question back to the states. Abortion is already virtually impossible in red states, and with or without Roe it will still remain available in blue states. The abortion issue does not come close to balancing Trump’s persecution of immigrant families and children, and his crusade to deprive poor families and children of their medical benefits. To be genuinely pro-life means to take that very seriously. One also cannot be pro-life and support anti-gun control policies that help make our country the world capital of school shootings. One cannot be pro-life and overlook both the neglect and the deliberate undermining of our health professionals that allowed over two hundered and thirty thousand Americans to die. Pro-life must include life after birth, or else it means nothing.

The second reason is fear of “socialism.” This too must be examined closely. Republicans have weaponized the word and used it to terrorize people into thinking that Democrats will make this country a new Soviet Union. But how many of those who submit to this fear really understand what socialism is? What are they really afraid of? The government nationalizing all means of production? Instituting a planned economy? Hardly. What Trump means by “socialism” is people of color infiltrating suburban enclaves and taking them over. He has come extremely close to saying exactly that. What Trump means by “socialism” is the breakdown of “law and order” in “Democrat-run cities” spreading to the entire nation. What Trump means by “socialism” is handing the country over to an emerging nonwhite majority. This is what terrifies so many of Trump’s supporters.

Such fears are baseless. Our suburbs are far more integrated than they have ever been. Yes, some protests in a few cities have on occasion turned to vandalism. That is regrettable. But we also need to keep in mind that these protests formed in reaction against racist policies that Trump supports, and they have been overwhelmingly peaceful. There have been some exceptions. The more aggressive Trump becomes in attacking nonwhite communities, justifying excessive force by police, and defending the old Confederacy, the greater the likelihood of protests with the potential to go out of control. Trump also conveniently ignores the violence that came from from pro-Trump counterdemonstrators: one might mention the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, the two protesters killed by Kyle Rittenhouse, and Trump’s incitement and encouragement of the Proud Boys. Those are real threats, not manufactured ones like “socialism.” There would actually be less vandalism and violence in a society free of Trumpism.

That being said, the Black Lives Matter movement, even though its cause is just, should be called out for not taking a stronger stand against the vandalism that has tarnished their demonstrations. Unfortunately, some leaders of this movement have even justified it. One BLM organizer in Chicago called the looting “reparations.” This is unacceptable. Anarchy repairs nothing. But contrary to what Republicans would have the public believe, it is not the position of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, it was an unfortunate gift to the Republicans, and more than likely helped cost several Democratic seats in Congress.

There is no basis for any justification of Trumpism, and for the tyranny of the mob Trump instigates that has rendered elected Republicans paralyzed with fear and suddenly voiceless. If we don’t stand up to the cult leader, the cult will continue. Biden can issue call after call for unity, but the Trump side so far has responded only with more belligerence and a determination to continue the hostilities.

Conclusion: Where We Must Go from Here

So we are left with a great spiritual challenge, and that is to hold two things together that seem incompatible and mutually annihilating: recognition of the evil Trumpism represents, and treating Trump supporters with kindness, fairness, and respect. It seems impossible. And yet, if we give in to the temptation to respond to Trump’s followers in kind, we will only become what they are. That cannot happen. Biden has a chance to achieve greatness, and so far he has been moving in that direction. The greatest resisters of authoritarianism and fascism have managed to keep their humanity. It can be done. Jesus told us to love our enemies - perhaps the most unpopular thing he ever said. How can we do this? By cherishing a higher value. In his Second Inaugural Address Abraham Lincoln gave us a clue:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all,
with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in,
to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

If we adopt these values, can we expect the other side to respond? We know how they responded to Lincoln. And how they are responding now. Some of Trump’s supporters seem to want to refight the Civil War. But we can still hold onto a better value. I think that is what Jesus was asking us to do when he told us to love our enemies: Find some goodness you can love more than you hate them. And then hold onto it for dear life.

It is loving to resist evil, for by doing so we protect the defenseless. But the devil wants us to hate, and we must not give the devil that satisfaction. Focusing on all we do that is loving, that is humanitarian, and that is decent as we find ourselves caught in this struggle is the way to fulfill Jesus’s most difficult commandment. It may be the greatest lesson that those who oppose goodness have to teach us.

November 2020