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.