I had dinner with my younger daughter the other night and we were talking about the current administration. She is a federal employee and I work for a non-profit focused on public policy from a faith perspective. I was taking advantage of a sympathetic ear to express my concerns about the White House and the stream of executive orders. As is one of her many talents, she asked me two questions that brought me up short.
The first was, “Is this how other people felt when Obama was first elected?” Now, I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I replied that I was pretty sure it was.
Then she asked the second question. “So if Trump does something right, do you think you will be able to acknowledge it?”
This wasn’t a “gotcha” encounter – she and I are pretty much on the same page politically (which is to say close to left margin). But she certainly got me. The question of whether I will be willing to recognize the right thing when it happens is a good one.
I believe Donald Trump became president on a series of technicalities, but he is, as they say, the only president we have. I was disappointed and disbelieving when it happened, and the first few weeks of his administration have done nothing to persuade me that everything will settle into some predictable pattern. The Republic will stand, to be sure. But some of the people on my side of the political divide are not willing to stand for much.
The main piece of advice I have given and received is to refuse to normalize bad behavior. I agree with the notion; we should not reset our standards or allow ourselves to become desensitized to name-calling, disrespect and fits of pique as a substitute for civil debate. But some folks have taken that as a mandate to resist by similar means – fighting fire with a blowtorch.
Here’s an example: this week, our new Secretary of Education, someone substantially unqualified for the position, announced a visit to a public school as one of her first official acts. I must say that I was glad to know she recognized the importance of such a visit. The night before, I received an email sent to a number of my coalition partners asking, “Anyone up for a demonstration?”
I replied that I did not think it was appropriate. School was to be in session and disrupting it further did not serve the needs of the students. I got pushback from a lot of directions – some insisting there would be no disruption by people outside the schoolyard and others suggesting that no demonstration could be more damaging that the Secretary herself.
In the end, demonstrators outside the school (not, it appears, part of the group I decline to join) prevented the Secretary from entering and harassed her as her Secret Service detail attempted to drive her away from the school.
Now, I get it. Every inch ceded out of a desire to be fair brings us farther away from the goals and values we think we are defending. President Trump and his cabinet and his executive orders and his policy proposals are, in my opinion, simply awful. He is kicking at bricks to loosen the mortar that I worry will cause some necessary structures to collapse. Every victory for his team emboldens them to try for more.
That’s the way Republican leadership felt about President Obama. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously said, heading into the 2012 elections, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Republicans refused to cooperate with almost any initiative and encouraged – sometimes by example – the worst interpretations of the smallest behaviors by the Commander-in-Chief.
It was obnoxious and resulted in Congressional gridlock, to the detriment of the nation. And the result is that Donald Trump Is now President of the United States.
My friend Rabbi Irwin Kula likes to say, “Do you know how smart someone needs to be in order to be wrong 100% of the time?” By design or sheer luck, President Trump will be right about something. I just hope that I – and everyone else – can set aside the earned rancor and ugly taunts to do what is in the best interests of the United States and its citizens.
And I hope we are wise enough to recognize if and when that opportunity presents itself.