My last column (“The Bradford Street Wave”) came out on Jan. 7. In it, I decried the threat of violence that hung in the air and pled for reaching out to those behind the threat. Even as those words were being printed, the horrible events at our Capitol came to pass. And it is not over; it is far from over. As I write this, someone, somewhere, is amassing an arsenal, building a bomb, planning an attack.
There were quite a few responses to that column, some praising its timeliness and my prescience, but more throwing it in my face in light of the horror of Jan. 6. One reader said he nominated me “to be the one to begin the rational dialogue with those hard-core folks who savaged the Capital [sic]. Let me know how it comes out.”
I take his point. Watching those men and (some) women storming the barricades and breaking the windows, assaulting the beleaguered police, waving Trump banners and confederate flags, dressed in militaristic outfits or shirts with offensive slogans, carrying nooses and threatening specific lawmakers, how could one imagine having a dialogue with them?
But what is the alternative?
Thinking about how to approach these people, it occurs to me that we are not the ones to do it, at least not initially. The first attempts must come from the Republican leaders who at least nominally represent them. If these elected officials of mostly red states recognize the threat to the existence of our democracy, they will ease back from the Big Lie of the “stolen” election, recognize Trump for what he is and abandon him, preach moderation, encourage participation in legitimate measures to further their goals, and sing the praises of these United States of America.
Although the Democrats overwhelmingly won the presidency, the House and Senate are narrowly divided, as are state governments. A color-coded map of the continent shows in stark red and blue this political division. We require statesmanship. Republican leaders must worry less about power and more about the very fabric of our democratic system.
What is it really that they have to deal with? What is the “core” in the “hard-core folks” that reader referred to? In a word, hatred. How do we get to the root of this hatred? The answers involve alienation, feelings of inadequacy in a changing world, of being left behind and abandoned, of confusion about the rapid transformation of society, and, of course, a vibrant thread of racism.
My first encounter with hatred was as a young child, in the 1950s. The Holocaust was a fresh piece of history. One of my teachers at the yeshiva had numbers tattooed on his arm, a daily reminder of state-organized genocide. I could not understand it.
The 1960s civil rights movement imprinted another example of hatred onto my growing self; I could not understand it, even as I benefited from white privilege. The Vietnam War followed, and I could not understand why we were harming those faraway people. More examples followed.
Some argue that such events are the default condition of humanity, that, even in this country, Donald Trump has plenty of precedents: the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, the Japanese internment, the McCarthy era (with the enabler Roy Cohn). They maintain that the quest for democracy is an uphill battle, that humanity inevitably slides towards autocracy.
Perhaps it is so. But I know that America is also a symbol for the world, an ideal to be realized, a beacon of hope for so many — and for good reason. While there is a tribal impulse in our psychological makeup, there is also a genuine desire to come together and coexist. We must work, however incrementally, to overcome our differences. We must keep the ideal of our republic alive through our actions. We have to try. We cannot fail. The world depends on us.