Friendship in the Age of Trump

This is a reprint of a Ledge from Feb. of 2017. It seemed appropriate at this time in our history. Obviously it is pre-Covid 19. Although it is not before the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement it is considerably before it’s large embrace by a more significant portion of the population. The more things change, the more things stay the same and in these times that is so much more unfortunate. 

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less” (Marie Curie)

We make exceptions for our friends.  Between cringes we convince ourselves that their misogynistic, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic jokes were careless slips of the tongue, tasteless attempts at humor, and flippant stabs at satire. Why do we make these excuses? Embarrassment or the worrisome possibility that we innately hold the same bigotries ourselves could explain it.

Subjecting decades old friendships to a litmus test with irreversible consequences over disagreement in a political debate is unthinkable to most. Generally we know when to “dial it back”. Generally we “agree to disagree”. Generally we make exceptions for our friends. Donald Trump has changed all that. But he is not wholly responsible.

The country is polarized and debate has become alarmingly acrimonious. To many, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 may have signaled the dawn of a new post racial society complete with a blunting of harsh bigoted narratives. Nuances of politics aside, most of us subscribe to a phrase recited by school students every school day in our Pledge of Allegiance “with liberty and justice for all.”

But if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that the guiding principles modeling us as the “land of the free and the home of the brave” ring hollow for too many among us.  Jim Crow is not dead. Duplicitous politicians play the fear card to constituents, in the cause of legislation designed to disenfranchise millions of Americans from the exercise of their democracy. Gerrymandering and voter suppression help ensure that an essentially minority party retains its power over our political and governmental apparatus.

Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and nationalism are all constructs of fear and when stirred carefully to a fever pitch they produce hate. War, the mass killings of human beings by other human beings for reasons that defy the logic we as the supposedly most intelligent of beings are thought to possess becomes justifiable in the minds of those infected with this hateful fear. Donald Trump did not invent these negative “isms” but through his words and deeds he has lent them a sick legitimacy. If a major party candidate for the highest office in the land suggests that the assault of another citizen for expressing an alternative view is justified, one can be reasonably certain that anxious, fearful minds will inevitably act on this suggestion. With each such utterance the more acceptable this behavior becomes.

These fears of the “other” and of each other are generally stoked for the attainment of power. Wealth provides access to power.  Other wealthy people have tried and failed to reach this office. What did Donald Trump do differently in order to succeed? True, he made use of the internet and social media in a manner more distinct than anyone before him. But Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama before them also made good use of this technology. Donald Trump will be the first true Twitter president. Ultimately it was not the use of social media or Russian hackers perverting our electoral process that brought about the election of Donald Trump. Yet, it can’t reasonably be argued by anyone (other than the new President himself) that Mr. Putin’s minions didn’t indirectly sway more than a few votes through the dissemination of fake news and other malicious propaganda.

The electorate’s fears were Mr. Trump’s most lethal campaign weapon and he was not at all reticent about whipping up unreasonable paranoia. He said he would like to “punch him in the face” regarding a protester.  A few months later, one of his supporters did exactly that. He offered to pay the legal fees of anybody committing violence against anyone exercising their first amendment rights in opposition to him at one of his rallies. I doubt that when this particular push came to more than a shove Mr. Trump ponied up for 79-year-old John McGraw when he recently pleaded no contest to his assault on Rakeem Jones in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He intimated that certain protesters under other circumstances would be deservedly carried out on stretchers. He characterized Mexicans as rapists, thieves and killers. Hate and fear have found a frightening advocate and the thought of this is chilling because many of his overzealous followers are our friends and neighbors. Surely not all voters who filled in the dot for the former Celebrity Apprentice star are of this ilk but too many of them are and such behaviors fly in the face of basic civility.

This level of mania overwhelms common sense. Despite clear and conclusive video evidence there is an overarching forgiveness of his missteps because he “tells it like it is”. I have yet to decipher exactly what “it” is. What he stands for is murky at best. One friend, prior to the election professed a deep hatred for Mrs. Clinton as well as a distinct disregard for Bernie Sanders and his “socialism”. This anti-socialist warrior, who is now collecting SSI told me that while recently pondering a smattering of medical bills not covered by his insurance he was relieved to discover such costs would be covered by the wonders of Medicare.

I am in a quandary. I can no longer make excuses for my friends. David Duke; a former Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is now viewed  by a great many otherwise sensible people as some kind of civil rights leader for oppressed whites and not the bigot he really is.  Voter suppression is sold as anti-fraud protection despite the fact that over the last one billion or so votes cast in this country there have been roughly 14 actual illegal votes cast. We are told that a wall is needed to prevent a flood of illegal immigration when in point of fact the number of people coming in over the southern border has been in decline while the number heading back in the other direction has increased. Also, the last president deported more people than the president before him.

Making excuses for friends has only encouraged this new normal where people like Alex Jones sell absurdity by the bottle, having been given a veil of legitimacy by the new President who once said his reputation was “amazing”. This is the same Alex Jones who called the murder of children in Newtown, Ct in 2012 a government hoax and hyped the notion that Hillary Clinton was behind a non-existent child pedophile ring run out of a tourist eatery in Washington, DC called Comet Ping Pong. His vitriol resulted in a 26-year-old man stepping into the restaurant with a rifle and firing off a few rounds because he wanted to “self-investigate” the rumors. Thankfully no one was harmed.

We can no longer make exceptions for bigotry born of ignorance, and lies promoted by forces interested only in the protection of those incubating in the upper atmosphere of the economy. Passivity towards our obligations as citizens is untenable. Voting every four years is not enough. We must protect this right, not just for ourselves but for all Americans and future generations. We must engage our friends in passionate discourse. Ignoring bigotry and accepting “alternative facts” will not bring resolution. But we must engage with real facts and patience. Likewise, we should all be open to accepting the evidence of our own ignorance or misinformation. Some of the concerns of the new President’s supporters are legitimate; however we should be quick to remind them that their fears of race, religion or lifestyles of their fellow citizens are not.

Some say politics is a dirty word and politicians are all, ergo, dirty. I disagree. I believe that most people are good, public servants are people too; ergo most public servants are good. However, imperfection is the most human of traits. Just as it has been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely it should also be remembered that “one bad apple won’t spoil the whole bunch”.  For every bureaucrat caught taking a payoff from a lobbyist in a strip club there are thousands of people serving their country and their communities in noble and necessary ways. Moreover, succumbing to the temptations and ease of despair sacrifices all hope for the success of this grand experiment and I am not ready to do that. I can no longer make excuses for my friends but I cannot give up on them either. Dismissive shouts do not carry the power of engagement.  Only together may we build a “more perfect union” with “liberty and justice for all”

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