As many of us breathe a collective sigh of relief that Donald Trump will likely soon be out of office, it is important to take a sober look at where we are and America’s path forward. The citizens who voted for Joe Biden have a monumental task ahead.
Donald Trump tapped into existing divisions in our country, and amplified and egged them on daily for the last five years. The toxicity of this behavior for America cannot be underestimated. If some right wing blogs and pundits are to be believed, as we wait to see if an emotionally immature narcissist will accept the election results, our nation is at the brink of civil war. A civil war – in 2020 America. Like what we’ve seen in Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, South Sudan. That’s us, right now, with just the slightest extra spark.
Joe Biden campaigned on a message of unity. If his election was any kind of mandate beyond being “I’m not Trump,” it was that. But there were times during the past Administration when Trump also proclaimed that it was time for everybody to come together, and as empty as those words sounded at the time to Democrats, we need to realize that that’s how hollow Joe Biden’s words sound to Trump voters. A united nation does not come about because its leader snaps their fingers and demands it. Unity is an individual choice to be made by each of us.
As the winning “side” in the election, the burden of working toward unity falls most heavily on Democrats. That will be no easy task. There are many obstacles to success, and we need to be fully conscious of those roadblocks in order to overcome them.
Probably the greatest obstacle is Donald Trump himself. He may leave the White House, but he will not go away. He will continue to seek power, attention, and adulation. Whether that is through his own TV network, ongoing rallies promoting a 2024 Presidential run, appearances at Republican events, or simply his Twitter feed, Donald Trump will continue to have the same degree of influence over his followers, with the likely added grievance of an ongoing claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him because Democrats “cheated” (how else could he have lost?).
His supporters will also continue to get information from what I believe to be fact-resistant sources like OAN, Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, and NewsMax (where Donald Trump currently has not lost the election), as well as Trump allies on Fox News like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. That ongoing diet of grievance-driven misinformation will cause conversations about basic facts to continue to be as heated as disagreements about policy once were.
It is also quite possible that potential criminal activity by Donald Trump – tax evasion, tax fraud, bank fraud, insurance fraud, violations of the Emoluments Clause, the obstruction of justice for which he was impeached but could not be prosecuted as President – may result in him being brought to court in the next two years. There will no doubt be months of cries of “witch hunt.” While Trump’s past behavior catching up to him is virtually inevitable, there is no good outcome for it. If Biden pardons him, it sends the wholly unacceptable message that even the most egregious, remorseless, and widespread criminal behavior is fine if it is committed by someone who has been President. If Trump is successfully prosecuted, he becomes a martyr who his followers will believe was unjustly targeted and destroyed for “standing up against the Deep State to fight for working people,” resulting in one more major grievance being added to the pile.
Then there are the general environmental obstacles to unity within our country. We will no doubt be neck-deep in COVID cases by the time Biden is inaugurated. Any measures to get the virus down to a manageable level – a mask mandate, another shutdown – will be seen by some as an infringement on American freedom – not the best first step toward unity even if it does save thousands of lives.
Recalling the rocky exit of George W. Bush and the general financial history of Donald Trump, it is quite possible that Joe Biden will walk into an economy on the verge of collapse and with no financial reserves to address it. The resulting, chaos, unrest and outrage could be significant, and some will blame Biden, further hampering his efforts at unity.
Most importantly, Democrats need to look with humility at their own actions, or actions that have been done in their name over the past five years, try to see them through the eyes of Trump supporters, and realize that we each may owe some amends, or at least some explanations. From a Trump supporter’s perspective:
- Acknowledging support for Trump resulted in others assuming that you were stupid, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and generally backwards.
- People treated Trump supporters as second-class citizens, sometimes shutting them down in mid-sentence and refusing to hear what they had to say.
- Being viewed as inferior could also have real-world consequences: losing friends, being alienated from family, losing a job, being doxed, being verbally or physically assaulted in public, being asked to leave a store or restaurant.
- This was done by people who self-righteously boasted of being all about “love” and against “hate.”
- People on the left at times behaved in ways that were more crude, vulgar, hostile, and immature than Trump.
- Kathy Griffin held up an effigy of Trump’s severed head, a performance of “Julius Caesar” in Central Park depicted Trump’s assassination, Robert De Niro got a standing ovation for yelling “F*ck Trump” at the Tony Awards, and a Democrat shot Republican U.S. Rep Steve Scalise, a staffer, a lobbyist, and two police officers on a baseball field; on a smaller scale, profanity and middle fingers became a staple at left-wing protest rallies.
- People on the left engaged in rioting and looting after the killing of George Floyd. Those who didn’t do so obviously supported it, because they stood by and watched it happen and didn’t denounce it.
- Democrats never accepted Donald Trump as President.
We also need to get a general understanding of how the events of past five years have looked to Trump supporters. From their perspective:
- Duly elected President Donald Trump was met with massive protests the day after his inauguration – before he had even enacted any policies – reflecting an immature left that simply couldn’t accept the loss of Hillary Clinton.
- The Russia probe was a complete hoax manufactured to prevent Trump from getting anything accomplished.
- The Mueller Investigation proved once and for all that there was “no collusion, no obstruction” (it proved neither), and any renewed interest in Trump-Russia is a rehash of something already settled by a years-long, multi-million-dollar, independent investigation.
- The House impeachment of Donald Trump was meaningless, because it was a partisan attack that was not supported by the Senate.
- Donald Trump fought every day of his Presidency for working people, and all of his policies were designed to benefit the working class and correct past injustices against American workers.
- Obama and Biden illegally spied on Trump’s 2016 campaign.
- The press has been very unfair to Trump because with few exceptions, they covered him negatively (apparently there were positive ways to cover taking children from their parents, insulting our allies, ignoring Russian bounties on our troops, and betraying the Kurds).
- Nothing reported by a mainstream news outlet should be trusted.
- Trump’s response to the coronavirus was the best that anyone could do, and Democrats have been too hard on him.
- The media went easy on Joe Biden throughout the campaign, rarely asking him challenging questions while they mercilessly grilled Trump.
- Democrats committed widespread voter fraud to elect Joe Biden, who will be controlled by socialists and will take away everybody’s guns and turn America into an unrecognizable Marxist hellscape where individual freedoms no longer exist.
There is much work to be done to reunite the country, and that work is not optional. The alternative at best is permanently torn families and friendships and an endless cycle of each “side” stewing in resentment for years as they scheme to “take their country back.” At worst, America can devolve into another Somalia. Anyone believing that such a fate is not possible has not been paying attention for the past five years.
As someone trained in conflict resolution, I cannot begin to tackle the full scope of America’s divisions, but I can suggest some first steps. We need to understand each other – not agree with each other, but understand each other. Engaging in conversations right now is probably not wise, as emotions are high. But we can begin laying the foundations for understanding by incorporating right-wing news sources into our daily information diet. This is not to suggest that we will get facts from these sources, but rather, we will better understand what people we disagree with believe are the facts. Yes, we will hear outrageous opinions that will make us mad, and we will hear stories that sound absolutely absurd to us, but if we are too sensitive to handle even this, we fully deserve the “snowflake” label that the right has given us.
Once we have absorbed a couple months or so of right-wing media, we should at least have the beginnings of a foundation to understand some perspectives of Trump supporters. From there, we can do simple and non-confrontational things like semi-random acts of kindness for the neighbor who had a Trump sign in their yard. Or if we feel capable, we can do tougher things like reaching out to friends or family members that we excommunicated in the heat of our outrage at Trump. Such an effort should be made with the full understanding that we will not see eye to eye, and we should absolutely maintain our own values. Rather than debating facts or asserting our opinions, we should seek to listen, and hear, humbly, focusing less on the details of what is being said than on the feelings behind them. There will likely be no agreement, no middle ground to be found, no clear path forward. But if we can connect again simply as human beings, that is a good start.
All of this is much easier said than done, but I still fully agree with the words of Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high,” and I also embrace the guidance offered by the Prayer of St. Francis (please translate to whatever spiritual or faith system works for you):
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace, that where there is hatred, I may bring love; that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness; that where there is discord, I may bring harmony; that where there is error, I may bring truth; that where there is doubt, I may bring faith; that where there is despair, I may bring hope; that where there are shadows, I may bring light; that where there is sadness, I may bring joy. Lord grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted; to understand than to be understood; to love than to be loved. For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.
– rob rünt