Is it possible that some good might come from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign?
As Trump continues to flail away and degrade our discourse with each passing week, it’s becoming harder to imagine. But I’m hoping that maybe, this year, we’ll finally bottom out and hit peak disunity and cruelty.
If I’m right, perhaps we can use this moment to become a little kinder and more understanding toward each other. And maybe empathy will start creeping back in to our civic life.
After 25 years in business and politics, I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always lived up to my own standards. But as I get older—and the shouting gets louder—I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that something has to give.
Trump is just the day-glo orange tip of a less visible iceberg lurking beneath the surface. His success despite—or maybe because of—his insults of Muslims, Mexicans, women, prisoners of war, Gold Star families and an Indiana-born federal judge of Mexican descent is merely a symptom of our times. As he points out, he only re-tweets the racist and anti-Semitic memes. He doesn’t create them.
Coarseness, intolerance and self-righteousness have combined into a toxic brew across the political spectrum.
My friends on the left correctly note the malicious intent toward our fellow citizens that is displayed when Alabama requires a driver’s license or state identification to vote, and then closes 31 drivers license offices—including every one in largely African-American counties. And they see cynical gamesmanship when Republican voter identification laws permit the use of state-issued hunting IDs to vote, but not state-issued student or public assistance IDs.
Democrats—and much America’s business community—also note the needless cruelty toward our nation’s small population of transgendered people that is behind so-called “bathroom bills.” North Carolina’s governor was stumped to name even one incident to prove that this is not legislation in search of a problem, and his state’s economy has suffered.
But intolerance is a two-way street.
Earlier this summer, I read that a public pool in Brooklyn has quietly, for 20 years, set aside a few hours each week during which only women can swim, as a courtesy to Orthodox Jewish women. But even this modest accommodation was too much the New York Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times editorial board, which denounced it, respectively, as “a regime of gender discrimination” with a “strong odor of religious intrusion into a secular space.”
Apparently, secular intrusion into religious space is less malodorous. The federal government (with the support of the Times and ACLU) is seeking to force an order of Catholic nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, to include what they consider abortifacients (certain morning-after pills) in their health insurance plan. Do we really need to force nuns to be complicit in an action that they belief takes a life, or can we offer some of the religious tolerance on which our nation was founded?
And as Fox News gleefully (and correctly) points out, a lot of college campuses are going nuts. There used to be friction around how far students could go in pushing the limits of free expression. Now, we’ve reached the ridiculous point at which left-wing academics and students have tried to disinvite former secretaries of state of both political parties from giving commencement speeches. It seems that each week brings a new parody of intolerance and self-censorship. Thank God for summer vacation.
As a child of the 1970s, I don’t remember the halcyon days that many Americans point to as a time of national unity. My memories start with Nixon and Vietnam. And I’m pretty sure that many African-American citizens do not share in nostalgia for the years before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
But we have to do better than this.
Too many Americans go through life without empathy for—or even curiosity about—the lives of their fellow countrymen who live in different places, with different backgrounds.
Economic disparities are becoming wider. The traditional media, which helped bind us in a common conversation, is imploding, while partisan online replacements explode in number. Social media and online comments let us spew bile without facing each other. Political identity is replacing values that we once considered more important—like faith and responsibility to our family and neighbors. We are self-selecting our way into multiple nations, which frequently are bitterly at odds.
The answer might be universal national service—not just the military, but community service of all kinds. Our military is one of the very few institutions where the American melting pot still exists. The important thing is that everyone has to do it, in a pluralistic American society where no one is better or different, and no one rides for free.
We have to knit our country back together. It will take a little tolerance and civility and respect. It will take a lot of empathy. And just maybe, it will take another 97 days of listening to Donald Trump to remind us of what we don’t want to be.