I rode in a taxi across town in DC to a meeting this past week and I knew I was in trouble the minute I got into the cab. “How are you today!” the driver exuberantly dared me as I slid in. His name and thick accent indicated an origin in or around India, but the cross hanging from his mirror meant that he was raised or arrived in the Christian minority.
“I am just fine, thank you,” I replied. “And how are you?”
“Thanks God and thanks Jesus!” he said. “I am healthy. I have a roof over my head. I have enough to eat. I have a job. That’s why I say thanks God and thanks Jesus!”
(The exclamation points are necessary, by the way. His enthusiasm, while not contagious, was undeniable.)
“Good for you,” I said.
“May I ask you a question, sir!”
I think I know what is coming next. Whether or not he saw that my head was covered, I figured I was going to be asked about my own personal faith. I was wrong.
“What do you think of President Trump?”
Now, I was in the back seat of a taxi weaving through DC traffic, conscious that the driver was looking not so much at the road as at me in his rear-view mirror. I did not want to begin a policy debate nor did I want to add to the anxiety he might be feeling. So I just said, “I have some issues.” I hoped for either “me, too” or “I hear that a lot.” Instead, his initial enthusiasm for his blessings went up a notch for the president, and he began rattling off all of the things he expected Mr. Trump was accomplishing. What could be my issues, he wanted to know.
“He is not honest,” I said. “He says things that are not true.”
Really, I looked for the least controversial objection I could think of. After all, I wanted to reach my destination safely. But the driver threw an unexpected curve.
“Name me one politician who tells the truth!” he said. I will admit I stammered for a minute – it was the kind of defense that is really an admission of guilt. But the fact is that I know quite a number of good and honest politicians on both sides of the aisle. They sometimes spin things in their own direction, but they do not make things up. So I named a few sitting senators and representatives. But then I added, “But the question is not whether other people lie. It is whether the president tells the truth. I believe that we ought to expect the President of the United States to be truthful.”
“He wants us to be strong and to enforce the law, and he will bring jobs back that have been lost! Do you object to that?”
“I didn’t say anything about jobs or security,” I said. “I said he isn’t honest.”
“Now you are going to tell me he shouldn’t be the president because of 30,00 votes, aren’t you? You think she should be president instead of him!”
I was taken aback again. “I didn’t say anything about votes,” I replied. “Donald Trump is the president. I said he isn’t honest.”
At that point I realized how the nature of political discourse – even with a guy in a taxi – had changed. I said to him that he was pulling a Kellyanne Conway on me – trying to pivot away from a legitimate criticism and bait me into an argument over something completely different.
I took my last shot. “You believe in God and Jesus, and you know that the reason to do the right thing in life is because it is the right thing, and that doing the right thing is independent of what anyone else is doing. That’s what I believe also as a Jew. I don’t care who else lies or what his goals are or whether the Electoral College ought to be reconsidered. It is reasonable to expect that the President of the United States would be a man of integrity, starting with being honest.”
At this point, we arrived at our destination. I silently thanked God. He vocally thanked both God and Jesus.
Kellyanne Conway does not get the credit she deserves for running a successful presidential campaign. In a race that was so much about breaking the glass ceiling, it has been widely overlooked that she wound up being the woman who broke it in this campaign.
But at least as far as my garrulous driver learned, her success included a special skill for changing the subject when matters of integrity were raised. It continues in her current position (and she is not the only one). It has been emulated by Democrats, too, much to my disappointment.
Don’t fall for it. Do the right thing because it is the right thing, and be honest in giving credit as well as offering critique.
And continue to expect that the naturalized citizen driving your cab and the person who holds the highest office in the land will tell the truth.
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.
When I was serving as a congregational rabbi, I was occasionally challenged by individual members about the decisions I made regarding my Jewish diligence. For example, one might say to me, “How can you turn on your lights on Friday night? That’s a violation of Shabbat!”
Never mind that the person implying that I was a sinner and a hypocrite would likely get into a car on that same Friday night to go to dinner and the theater.
I would sometimes thank such folks for being so strict about my observance.
And then, of course, there were those people who complained that I put the specifics of ritual observance over and above the spirit of the tradition and its higher values. Often that came about regarding school attendance on Jewish holidays like Shavu’ot, two forlorn festival days that occur near the end of the school year. “Jews value education!” they would protest. “Isn’t it more authentic for our children to be learning something so close to finals than to be sitting through lengthy services?”
Not everyone contended with the gap between their principles and my conduct, but my experience was that the more strenuous the objection, the wider the breach.
It seems to be the case now that two groups of Jews are criticizing Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who identify as orthodox, for traveling in a car on the Shabbat immediately following her father’s inauguration. What rabbi gave them permission, inquiring minds want to know. How can they call themselves orthodox if they eat food not prepared under strict rabbinic supervision? An adviser to the president with an office in the White House will necessarily compromise the spirit of the holidays and Shabbat, even if the letter of the law is upheld.
The one group I might call the chnyok-ish cohort – the people so deeply involved in the strictures of Jewish law and observance that any other consideration is ridiculously irrelevant. The law allows for exceptions, they will rightly claim, when life or well-being is in immediate danger. Otherwise…not.
The other group I might call the frum patrol – the people with a flexitarian relationship to Jewish life who know just enough to hold others accountable when they fall short of an academic standard.
Both groups are busy dissecting the Jewish life of President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law. For the cohort, no orthodox rabbi worthy of respect would allow a Jew to get into an automobile on Shabbat to go to a party or a church, no matter what. Therefore, the Jewishness of the Kushners may be called into question – Jared’s claim to orthodoxy and Ivanka’s claim to Jewishness itself – because they are willing to toss aside the sanctity of religious life for secular (or other religious) purposes.
For the patrol, the Kushners’ decision to compromise is just another example of the hypocrisy of the entire inner circle of the president. Mind you, it is hypocrisy only because of their claim to orthodoxy. No such outrage was expressed over Bernie Sanders’s visit to Liberty University to address chapel services on Rosh HaShanah. Joe Lieberman was never taken to task for his willingness to eat “cooked dairy” in non-kosher restaurants before, during and after his campaign for vice-president. And it was not lost on me that some of this criticism came from people who very publicly traveled on Shabbat after the inauguration to participate in the protest march.
Let me suggest that wise Jews approach Jewish observance an appreciation of paradox. Law, by its nature, is clearly delineated but unable to anticipate every extenuating circumstance. Mostly, the law applies. It may be technically correct that we must not extinguish a fire on Shabbat, but only a callous and foolish person would not call the fire department if a blaze broke out on Shabbat. It may be technically correct that we must always tell the truth, but the Talmud insists that “every bride is beautiful,” a dubious claim. It may be technically correct that a very traditional Jew would not enter a church, let alone on Shabbat, but when the Chief Rabbi of England was expected at the royal wedding, there he was.
So let’s give Jared and Ivanka a break. I am certain their detractors can find plenty of things to criticize. I won’t list them here, any more than I will list the many merits that offset their shortcomings. This game-playing about their Jewish integrity is inconsistent with the reality of the chnyok-ish cohort and the frum patrol alike. They struggle like all of us with maintaining the standards of their better inclinations in the face of the challenges that they face from living in a world that overwhelmingly ignores the demands of a traditional Jewish life.
Using Jewish observance as a political weapon is as wrong as using political weapons against Jewish observance.
Quite a number of years ago, I came to the defense of a friend who had lent his name to a coalition of religious leaders promoting civil discourse. A member of his then-denomination of Christianity had attacked him for allowing his name to be listed with liberals like me. I called the critic and introduced myself. I suggested to him that the positions he found objectionable in me and others like me – reproductive health care, sexual orientation, gun ownership – had nothing to do with our call for more courtesy in public conversation.
The gentleman was very polite, even respectful, when he said, “Rabbi, would you join a group for a good cause if you knew that you would be sitting with Nazis or members of the KKK?” I remember stammering at the question. Before I could collect myself, he continued. “I mean you no offense when I tell you that, having researched your public positions, I could not see myself included with you and others who agree with you.”
It sounds pretty intolerant. (Maybe because it is pretty intolerant.) But I understand his point. Everyone has a boundary to maintain. In much less serious circumstances, George Carlin discussed driving on the highway. “Everyone going slower than you, no matter what your speed, is an idiot. And anyone going faster than you is a maniac.” The same is true of faith and conviction. Anyone more liberal than you is a heretic, and anyone to your right is a fanatic.
The subject came up in 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama found himself under scrutiny for his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a firebrand preacher whose rhetorical flourishes often crossed a line between provocative and condemnatory, and William Ayres whose civil disobedience during tumultuous times gave way to a political profile far to the left of spectrum. (I know those descriptions are unsatisfactory to everyone…but they are true, and not the immediate point.) The question raised about the man who would be president was about the company he kept. Just how much influence did Rev. Wright have on the parishioner who relied on him for guidance? Just what was the common ground this former community organizer found with a self-proclaimed radical?
The questions weren’t answered until Mr. Obama became President. We have not heard from or about either Rev. Wright or Mr. Ayres in eight years, not including the folks on the far right of the political spectrum who have spent the Obama administration looking for evidence of his sedition.
Now we have another cohort of friends and advisors who are attached to an incoming president. Some of them, like Steve Bannon, seem unsavory to those inclined to disagree with his political positions and his tactics for advancing them. But others are demonstrably on the wrong side of right behavior. That is to say that, like Rev. Wright and Mr. Ayres, they are within their constitutional rights to express themselves, but they have crossed the boundary I seek to maintain between “may” and “ought.”
It is already tiresome to talk about Richard Spencer, and talking about him gives him oxygen of which he ought to be deprived. But whether out of puckish theatrics (as he claims) or the echoes of bigotry (a more widely-held position), his language and behaviors in promoting Donald Trump make most Americans uncomfortable about their safety and security. (No, I can’t quantify that, but I only need 50% plus one, so I am pretty confident.)
Corey Stewart, who chairs the county board of Prince William, Virginia, has the dubious distinction of getting fired from his state chairmanship of the Trump campaign for being too extreme. He wants to be the next governor of the Commonwealth. To promote his campaign, he announced the raffle of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. That is the type (if not exact model) of weapon used in the attacks in San Bernadino, Newtown, Orlando, and Aurora and, incidentally, in Prince William County itself during the siege laid by the Washington-area sniper. Why? Because he can, he says. Mr. Trump has not commented.
If the President-Elect can claim arm’s length from the two characters above, he has less credibility in discounting Carl Paladino. Responding to a poll about hopes for 2017 in a local paper, the Buffalo school board member wrote that he hoped President Obama would die of mad cow disease and that “I’d like [Mrs. Obama] to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.” The best defense he can come up with is that it was meant to be a private joke, not a public statement. Mr. Trump has a long relationship with Mr. Paladino who calls himself an ally and advisor. No comment from Mr. Trump.
It is entirely possible that none of these yahoos will get any closer to the White House than Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayres, in which case the concerns about them (and others) will slink away to the corner of leftist bigotry that mirrors the litter box on the right. In that case, those of us with reservations about the character and values of our next president will have to choose to acknowledge misplaced concern or become just as reprehensible as birthers and conspiracy theorists.
The measure of any presidency is the state of the union. There is a referendum on how it is going every two years, and an absolute endpoint. But in the process, one of the metrics is the company he keeps. I will try to keep my mind as open as my eyes.
I wound up in a somewhat contentious argument with a friend of mine that opened my eyes to a challenge that Jews face, particularly in the United States. It is not a new dilemma, but it is clear to me in a way I did not understand before.
For many years I have taught that Jews were not just a religion, we were also a civilization, a people, a community. For almost as many years, I have heard my friends and acquaintances who profess other faiths or no faith at all insist that their own faith or philosophy was the same—not just an internal landscape, but a mandate to live life in a particular way.
Ah, I would respond, channeling Rabbi Harold Kushner’s insight, but your community is the result of your faith. Our faith is the result of our community. And I would point to the Bible: we were a people, the Children of Israel, with a national history before we arrived at Mt. Sinai and were given a reason to believe and behave. Moreover, our analogs among the others in the Bible were Edomites, Arameans, Philistines, Egyptians – people defined by territory, not by creed.
I can’t deny we have built an infrastructure of religion that is as complicated and ornate as any cathedral or illuminated Qur’an. And our rallying cry is not (really) “the People Israel lives!” It is “Hear, o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (If you are counting, God gets three mentions to Israel’s one.) And, perhaps most important, if you want citizenship in this people, which is indeed open to persons of any origin, then you must enter through the doors of faith. You cannot be naturalized into our people any other way.
So far, I haven’t written anything that was not said more persuasively and at greater length by the incomparable Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. And this brief essay is supposed to be about politics, not about being a rabbi. So on to the politics.
My contentious argument began when my friend referred to the State of Israel as theocratic. He insisted that a Jewish state inherently disabled non-Jews from being full participants, in the same way that the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made anyone who was not a Muslim an automatic second-class citizen.
I objected strenuously. He was understanding the descriptor “Jewish” as a religion. I was certain that it is a nationality. “The term ‘Jewish state’ is much closer to ‘Irish’ than ‘Muslim,’” I said.
My friend is really smart, but this line of argument did not penetrate. And the more I thought about it, the more I understood. Especially in the United States – maybe almost exclusively in the United States (okay, Napoleon’s France, too) – Jews have embraced the notion that they could be just like everyone else by compartmentalizing Jewishness into Judaism and treating it like a faith. Never mind that an enormous percentage of Jews in America do not practice that faith and a substantial number who practice the faith do not believe in its strictures.
We want it both ways. When it comes to civil liberties and religious freedom, we claim our Jewishness as a faith. But when it comes to our political concerns, especially about Israel, then it is peoplehood (ethnicity, national heritage, cultural identification) that we claim.
But whereas we can make these transitions back and forth between meanings, the rest of America is at a loss. We sound like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.
The result is an escalation of resentments and the exchange of accusations of anti-semitism and religious chauvinism between Jews and non-Jews on the political left.
Then there is the corollary problem on the political/religious right. People of deep “traditional” faith who support Israel out of a religious commitment have an expectation that God will play a role in the conduct of Middle East statecraft and foreign affairs that is mostly absent from American Jewish (and Israeli) activists. When Jewish activists cultivate that support without disclaiming its rationale, an eventual breach is inevitable.
Finally, there are those for whom the fear of persistent anti-semitism demands that they find t, even where it does not exist. For them, the people who object to a Jewish state they do not understand are necessarily Jew-haters. In turn, those critics of Israel come to resent being called by a bigotry they do not believe they practice – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I am not a believer in blaming the victim. Jews are not responsible for anti-semitism and an Israel that is neither progressive nor religious enough is not responsible for the expectations of its American observers. But these perceptions are indeed a Jewish problem. The confusion of meanings is something we Jews must address, and our own ambivalence about how to understand “Jewish” is a good place to start. Until those of us who are Jews in America can explain things to ourselves, we can’t presume that anyone else will understand them to our satisfaction.
Editor’s note: The upset victory by Donald Trump in the 2016 elections stunned a Jewish activist and leadership class that is at times as divided as the electorate at large. JTA asked some of those leaders to describe their concerns and expectations in a series of brief essays titled “Worst fears, best hopes,” that will appear regularly between now and Inauguration Day.
(JTA) — I fear that the Donald Trump we saw in the campaign will be the person who serves as our next president.
We are just now starting to see what the incoming administration will look like, but already the choice of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist is a clear indication that concerns about Trump — among Jews and people of all faiths and no faith — are well-founded. The earnest discussions of my younger days about hypothetical changes to civil rights laws and protections are no longer intellectual exercises.
Time is of the essence. We cannot afford to wait and see if President Trump makes good on his campaign promises to roll back religious freedom protections, LGBT rights, protections against discrimination, the rights of Muslim Americans and so much more. And we have already seen that the “religious right” is willing to be complicit in the face of bullying and bigotry if its agenda of legislating love and intimacy is supported.
The Interfaith Alliance and others are working to unite diverse voices to challenge extremism and build common ground. The country is in desperate need of reconciliation and healing even as we stand guard against efforts to undermine precious rights and freedoms. My firm belief is that what unites us is far more powerful than what divides us, and no president is powerful enough to change that fact.
For that to remain a reliable truth, we must listen to and protect each other.
Your vote matters more in this presidential election than in any other since 1868. That was the first national election since the Civil War, an electoral contest to determine whether this nation, so conceived and so dedicated, could endure. The winner was Republican Ulysses Grant by a wide margin. He was a war hero (to the northern voters and southern freed slaves) and did not carry the burden of being in the party of Andrew Johnson, the first chief executive to be impeached.
Grant turned out to be a decent if not exceptional president, at least when he was sober, and Horatio Seymour, his opponent, had to be satisfied with his legacy as former New York governor. But the importance of voting in 1868 was not as much about the candidates as it was about the vote itself. The Reconstruction was underway, a tumultuous and controversial time in America. Three states had yet to be readmitted to the Union. The former slaveholders of the south were resentful and disenfranchised.
We all know the cliché about winning the battle but losing the war. In 1868, our country might very well have won the war but lost the battle. In that election, a vote for president was also a vote for the United States. It was more than a vote for a candidate. It was a vote of confidence.
Certainly, the reasons to cast such a vote in 2016 are very different, even if there are some similarities of attitude among those who feel disenfranchised. I will cast an enthusiastic vote for my candidates; I am not holding my nose or voting against the other person. But I know how fatigued I am by this awful campaign season in which the issues facing our nation have been completely obscured by personal issues of tax returns and emails, foundations and investigations. One candidate started it and made it the cornerstone of a cesspool of a campaign. The other candidate did precious little to redefine the terms of the contest.
At the core of this slugfest is really the only issue that has been debated, and indirectly at that. Do we believe in the inherent goodness of our government? There are all sorts of ways to understand my question, and I intend every one of them. Do we have a good form of government? Does government do good things? Is it good to have government? Are the elected representatives, appointed officials and civil servants who make up government good people? Are the purposes of government admirably good?
The continual message of the contrarians in this campaign has been a resounding “no.” The government wants your money, your rights, your religion, your guns, your security, your privacy. In fact, the government wants your very freedom. What may have started as a revolutionary idea in 1776 and 1789 now requires a revolution of its own. Throw out the whole lot of them because they are interested only in preserving their illegitimate power for themselves. Lest you be tempted to pin this on libertarians, don’t be simplistic. Libertarians are principled. The contrarians are just angry --and probably afraid.
This missing response from the opponents has been genuine patriotism. A few voices have been raised – Gold Star parents, a local candidate who is obsessed with his responsibilities, a smattering of party dissenters. But I am embarrassed by my previous beliefs that so much was at stake in earlier elections; as deeply as I may have disagreed with policy proposals by some candidates, they were all committed to a more perfect union.
Let me be explicit: I believe in the goodness of government. And I believe it not just because government is necessary, but because I believe in the goodness of the people who make up the government. Oh, not all of them and not all the time, but almost all of them and almost all the time. I am one of those folks who can be fooled some of the time, but not for the 43 years I have been voting.
Your vote is a repudiation of the idea that our very system is rigged, crooked or unreliable. Your vote makes crystal clear that there is a distinct difference between imperfect and evil. Your vote is an insistence that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
No excuses. Vote.
Save this column because it applies to every federal election. And you can probably figure out how to use at the state and local levels as well.
The responsibility of every citizen at election time is to cast a vote for the candidate who, in the voter’s opinion, can best pursue the mission of the United States. And what exactly is that mission? Fortunately, our founders left us with two documents that make it clear: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Both speak broadly and both provide plenty of weeds to get into. But if you want to know why we are America, you need only look to the preambles of each.
In the Declaration, these words declare the purpose of the endeavor: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
And the Constitution is even clearer: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
That’s the job every candidate is applying for – to advance the mission statement. There is plenty of debate about how to accomplish the mission, but the mission itself is indisputable. A candidate who proposes eliminating liberty, or who encourages insurrection, or who wishes to throw open our borders to hostile forces is patently unqualified to hold office. Moreover, such a candidate does not understand that the oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution precludes opposing the Constitution.
So it is simple, right? Just vote for the candidate who pledges life, fortune and sacred honor (that’s the end of the Declaration) to the Constitution!
Would that it was so simple. Here is the essence of a conversation I had with a very wise elected official. I am tempted to drop a name here, but the individual is “in cycle” as they say and maybe this would be perceived as electioneering.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration, was careful to say that we held certain truths to be self-evident, including that all men are created equal. But that truth never found its way into the Constitution. Women, African-Americans and others found themselves excluded from the rights and privileges afforded to white men. And that truth never found its way into the life of the man who declared it. Jefferson was a slave owner and sexually active outside of marriage with women who dared not refuse him.
It took three generations of the American experiment before the President of the United States could state that our nation was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Abraham Lincoln might very well have been accused of violating the three-fifths rule in the Constitution, but history validates that a commitment to anything less than full equality would not long endure. He went about implementing the proposition.
The larger values – the founding values – might rightly be used to advocate for correctives to the details. Does gun ownership provide for the common defense or disrupt domestic tranquility? That’s a better question than “how do we protect the Second Amendment?” Does profiling promote the general welfare or disestablish justice? It is on such a question the debate should center rather than on fear and indignation.
But some things don’t fit so neatly into the broad categories of the mission statement. Perhaps I believe that certain economic policies are dangerous to me and my posterity. It could be that I see the unalienable right to life as superseding all others. Maybe I am convinced that a particular foreign alliance has an extra-constitutional claim on my vote. What do I do?
A person who does not vote his interests is a fool. And a person who votes only his interests is a scoundrel. The balancing act can sometimes be uncomfortable, but, in the end, you must evaluate your vote by the same standard as the candidate. Am I advancing the blessings of liberty that are to be vouchsafed to us and the generations to come?
Agree with me? Then get out there and vote. Disagree with me? Then get out there and vote. In other words, vote, dammit.
The brilliant word in Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “again.” “Make America great again” is a different statement than “make America great.” The shorter suggests that we have never been as great as the candidate could make us. The longer suggests that we have fallen from a prior greatness.
I am not going to litigate the campaign. Like you, I imagine, I am pretty sick of it. Like you, I imagine, I have my theories of how we came to this moment. Like you, I imagine, I am hopeful but not convinced that we have seen the worst of the behavior by the candidates.
But I keep circling back to the word “again.” In my determination to understand how so many people could overlook the documented falsehoods and history of bad behavior that have sunk so many political careers before now, I have been looking for the mitigating factors.
Secretary Clinton has her long-time admirers and a record of public service that enthuses some and satisfies others. For some, I am sure, the potential to live during the administration of the first woman president is animating. And for many, and that includes me, the transgressions of which she is accused seem without compelling evidence of malice aforethought or afterthought. I get it.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has admitted to being a serial philanderer, a tax manipulator and a predator in both business and interpersonal relations. His lies have been documented, which is not disqualifying for a politician, but his insistence that the documentation is what is false rather than his statements is astonishing. And he has no record of competence in public service on any issue that has not provided a direct benefit to himself (see: tax code for real estate holdings). I don’t get it.
I think it all comes back to that word “again.” Mr. Trump landed on a word that affirmed what many Americans – maybe as many as 45%, according to the latest polls – are feeling. Our best days are behind us, and we want them back.
And depending on how you measure “best days,” he has a point. I will avoid the trigger terms “privilege” and “politically correct,” but I have to mention them if I am going to be honest. For a long time, which includes almost the entire life of anyone who remembers the 20th century, things were a certain way. Yes, there was unrest over wars and civil rights. But America had it both ways – the old structures sustained us while new and overdue ideas that were more consistent with our values took root.
Take a silly example: the situation comedy on television. The generation that was raised on “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Father Knows Best” gave way to “All in the Family” and “Maude.” So-called traditional values may have been challenged by Ricky and Bud, but they ended with a hug each week. When Archie and Maude confronted race and reproductive choice and human sexuality and faith, they did so in the same 26 minutes and most weeks ended with the same hug.
Sitcoms were never real, and still are not. But they have been supplanted by reality television that makes entertainment out of body issues, sexual predation, “real wives” who struggle with each other and, let us not forget, attempts to get a foot in the door of Trump Tower.
Argue escapism versus realism another time. Ignore the fact that the actor who “knew best” succumbed to his own hand out of depression, or that America’s favorite TV bigot lost a child to drugs, or that too many of the children who lived that fantasy life on our screens spent later years in personal nightmares. And never mind Dr. Huxtable.
In the mind’s eye of so many, those were the good old days when the whole family could guess together if Rob would trip over the ottoman. And they want them back. Again.
For a segment of America, there was some modicum of truth to the fantasy. But for the rest of America, now pretty close to the majority, (to quote Carly Simon) these are the good old days. You can’t have an “again” for a “never was.”
And what is true about trifles like sitcoms is also true about larger matters like the environment and hunger and global conflict. Challenges yet face us, but nobody wants a time “again” when the Cuban missile crisis and Biafra and DDT dominate the headlines.
My cousin Adam is as smart as he is conservative, and that says a lot. I asked him about Mr. Trump’s appeal and he said replied, “Donald Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person is like.” It would take another page of typing to unpack that critique, but it helps me to understand the appeal of “again.”
Living in this world is hard. Old typologies don’t work. Maybe they never did, but some folks seem to remember that they did, and that’s enough to go on. How much better would life be if some sugar daddy to the nation could return us to those days of “Honey, I’m home!” and “Holy mackerel dere, Sapphire!” and “Hillary, get me a cup of coffee.”
There is no “again.” So if we try to go there, it is a sure thing that we will be lost.
The official-sounding Loudoun Crime Commission is actually a small nonprofit in exurban Loudoun County, Virginia, about an hour outside the nation’s capital. Their motto is “Fighting crime is every citizen’s business,” and their primary activity seems to be holding a series of luncheons at a local country club, located inside a gated community, to which speakers on crime prevention are invited.
I attended their recent luncheon as part of an interfaith group organized by the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) out of concern over the message of the scheduled speaker, Frank Gaffney. Gaffney founded his own nonprofit, the Center for Security Policy, and has devoted his career to labeling Islam and Muslims as an existential threat to Western civilization. He claims that Islam is not really a religion, but a plan for the totalitarian takeover of the world through jihad, essentially “Communism with God.” And that was all in the first five minutes.
It won’t surprise you that I found him outrageous and specious. To counter his arguments point-by-point would require repeating those arguments, as if there were some credibility to them. Gaffney is a cold warrior, a former Reagan aide, who cast about for a new enemy when the Soviet Union collapsed. He found it in extremist interpretations of Islam, which he deems to be representative of a faith with over 1.7 billion adherents around the world. It is akin to defining Judaism by the actions of the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his supporters, or Christianity by the actions of guys in hoods who burn crosses.
Let me anticipate one of the possible responses to my analogy. Gaffney did not say what so many others put forward: not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslim (BTW, not true). What he said was that any Muslim who observes sharia law has the ultimate objective of replacing the United States government with an Islamic theocratic dictatorship in which non-Muslims are subjugated, women are sex slaves, criminals are maimed and Our Way Of Life disappears.
I am not overstating his position. He made this argument and then connected it to Imam Mohammed Magid of ADAMS, who was not in the room.
The presentation of about forty minutes leaned heavily on Gaffney’s hero, President Reagan. Gaffney is a believer in what Mr. Reagan said in 1961, when he was cooperating with the House Un-American Affairs Committee: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Gaffney was pretty direct about his belief that Islam aims to extinguish freedom.
Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy is designated by the government as a 501(c)(3) organization. It therefore pays no federal taxes, and supporters can deduct contributions from their taxes. In other words, like a synagogue or church, the government subsidizes the group.
There is one requirement that such an organization must follow in the public square: neither it nor those representing it may “directly or indirectly participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” That’s from the IRS.
Gaffney announced that he was prohibited from endorsing anyone, but then insisted that eight years of “Obama-Clinton malfeasance” had put the country at risk from Muslims and that only one candidate, Donald Trump, had proposed measures to uphold the oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign or domestic. Those measures included restricting immigration, excluding refugees, investigating places Muslims gather and naming the enemy: radical Islam.
Gaffney isn’t the problem here. He is well-known for his dark vision of the world and his carefully crafted depiction of the dangers of Islam. But seated around me at the luncheon were members of the Loudoun County community who forked over $25 or so to be enlightened. Many of them — I won’t say “most” because I can’t say for sure – seemed to be believers before they walked in.
They nodded vigorously at Gaffney’s every claim of danger. They laughed too loudly at his mild sarcasm about the current administration. They vocally agreed with the criticism of our Presidents Obama and Bush for calling Islam a “religion of peace” and for saying “we are not at war with Islam.” They clapped as if they were saving Tinkerbell’s life.
Sitting among their white neighbors in a country club in a gated community in semi-rural Virginia, these citizens in the business of fighting crime were convinced that their Muslim neighbors – even the ones born and raised in the United States – were engaged in sedition (Gaffney’s word) and a stealth infiltration of America with the purpose of conquest (Gaffney’s claim). The local law enforcement officers, there at the invitation of the LCC, listened politely. The deputy who left the dining room with me was unimpressed — I had the impression he was there to witness, not learn.
But the members of the Loudoun Crime Commission gathered to reaffirm the kind of America that guarantees the civil rights of people just like them and to cheer on a return to a time when Americans named one another as subversives. These are the small minds that came to see big hate.