Reconciliation: Obama to Trump, Many Into One

Today’s the last day of the presidency of the man I most admired in the job: Barack Obama. (Technically, my time began with Harry Truman, but my first memory of a president is from a truck trundling up Home Avenue in Rutherford, New Jersey with a platform hitched to its back on which a tall woman chanted, “I like Ike” through a megaphone.) Tomorrow begins the term of Donald Trump; my fellow native New Yorker is someone whom I hoped would not ascend to that office, but who will be my and all American citizens’ president. The differences so evident in our country as this anxious transfer of power occurs have me thinking of and desiring a reconciliation.

In bookkeeping at key transitions like this one, a reconciliation renders one account consistent with another and is often necessary when there are transactions begun but not yet completed. That sounds like us right now. Although there are very few matters upon which the supporters of each man can agree, the incongruence of their philosophies, temperaments, and aims are almost universally acknowledged. The accounts do not square. Yet both men like myself are American citizens and as President Obama recently noted, “we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen.” That office, which most of us gained automatically at our birth, carries both official and unofficial responsibilities along with its inalienable rights. We can infer one duty of citizens from the motto of this country chosen by the Founders in 1776: E Pluribus Unum. To make ‘Out Of Many, One’ requires action on the part of the citizens, and it is action that we must repeat again and again especially when circumstances force us to do so. To get there, our country relies upon the actions of each of us to attain that state, however temporary or contingent it may prove. After 240 years, the transience of our unity is unsurprising. No one at its inception believed that this new nation was static; our push to the frontiers and our absorption of newcomers meant that the ‘many’ would keep on changing. Our subsequent history is a pulse of coming together and coming apart, constrictive rebuke followed by expansive reconciliation. So how do we reach some agreement in our national accounts?

Like some bookkeeping I’ve seen over the years in the workaday world, our country currently is a tangle of accounts with bitter dispute as to whose numbers are accurate. Some members of each faction diminish the humanity of those opposing them by categorization that goes beyond simplification to caricature: managerial class, deplorables, elite, fascists, traitors, fools. As the use of those and other more offensive labels multiplied, the possibility of a quick postelection reconciliation vanished because neither side could admit to the legitimacy of its opponents. Social scientists and moral psychologists tell us that we should not be surprised by this reality. Our human cognition comes equipped with the tendency to adopt biases, to classify quickly, to reduce crudely. Some of us are more aware of these inclinations than others; some of us even attempt systematic correction of our propensities. But most of us understandably privilege our own ‘account’, our own ‘set of numbers’ and data. Therefore, we cannot even begin reconciliation of our accounts in this sense.

Most of the ways forward that I have seen are unencouraging. For example, contrary to what many people have advised in the wake of both the general election and its aftermath, an immediate emphasis on facts and data may not allow us to enjoy any reconciliation. Those of us who followed and even revered Barack Obama during his eight years as President tended to see him as the Emperor of Evidence, the Chief Executive of Facts. That was not the whole story as I think Mr. Obama himself would admit. In 2008 when he spoke of going into “small towns in Pennsylvania … a lot of small towns in the Midwest”, and encountering those who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”, he was honestly and even sympathetically categorizing in the interest of getting beyond the mere facts of the situation to the emotional reality. That’s a step that might have stayed a longstanding distancing of various races and classes. Unfortunately, he never found a way to reconciliation. Only the passage of time and the publication of the 44th President’s memoirs will tell us more of what we need to know about his attempts including the ways that others cruelly blocked them, but almost nine years later our tendency to see the ‘other’ as evil is if not more distended than ever undeniably more evident thanks to the triumphs of technology.

Donald Trump, the newly elected President of these United States, managed to unite people who hitherto might not have recognized a commonality. He became the voice for many who felt dispossessed and even discarded. Some of those he united — if voting patterns analysis is correct — were likely among the ‘clinging’ group that Barack Obama had described eight years ago. President elect Trump bound this group powerfully so that despite an almost complete lack of newspaper endorsements and an unconventional campaign he stitched together an Electoral College majority. In doing so, he deliberately shunned a host of fellow citizens who also feel dispossessed and discarded. His presidency comes to a nation that some characterize as the most divided in our nation’s history; I don’t know what these experts make of 1800 or 1825 or 1860 or even 1968, but deeply divided we are. We are not reconciled to each other.

Over 50% of each side say that they do not trust their opposite citizens. As Jonathan Haidt has discussed, “we use our reasoning to basically figure out the worst possible story we can tell about the other side”. The space in which we are citizens, in which our nation manifests its permanent and changing selves is befouled with hate speech from both sides, with ugly epithets and dehumanizing judgments. Reconciliation would begin by cleansing and re-consecrating this nation. But instead of beginning that difficult, ‘hold your nose’ job, the sewage of anger and disgust continues to flow all around us. The Catch-22 is that if we believe the other side is to blame for all of this than we expect them to begin the cleanup operation. That attitude will fail and ‘out of many’ will come nothing but more dissension and disunity.

Still reconciliation has other meanings and other methods. In canon law, the word signified the actions necessary to cleanse and purify a place so that consecrated activity could again take place there. Another religious meaning of the word involved admittance or re-admittance to a particular denomination: an OED usage example says — to my Irish Catholic and unrepentant English major dismay — that “Ben Jonson… was 12 years a papist, but after this he was reconciled to the Church of England”. The sense of reconciliation that is most familiar to us is that of restoring peace or unity, of ending estrangement.

Rather than wait for the other person — that designated enemy often unseen or only viewed on a screen — to start this work of purification, we have to take that responsibility of the first steps.We might start by refusing to ‘download’ all of the existing stories. Doing so probably requires at least temporarily removing ourselves from the echo chambers of social media. At the least, we need to reconstruct our connections so that they do not reinforce every old belief and conclusion. We need to forgo the easy ambush, the ever inviting stream of clever insult and biting invective. We know already that this makes no difference and is highly indulgent, but we have to move from awareness to action. Our mindset instead of always defaulting to setting the other side straight must now shift to seeking the other side’s understanding. Not to insist at first that they should understand us, but to declare that we should comprehend how they are viewing the world even though they appear to be a pole apart, our extreme opposite.

Barry Johnson, the creator and advocate of polarity management, once said that where a polarity exists — where two people or groups differ diametrically on some issue — our first move must be towards the other pole. We have to let go of what we have perceived as contempt and what we took to be willful obstruction. We must find those who will talk, who do see that we are all in this together and who have reached a similar conclusion that we are dangerously mired in what Johnson has called those “ongoing chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable.” The move towards the other pole might come through attention to those things on which we do agree and curiosity about our contrary beliefs. We might then agree to some experiments at ending estrangement, which is another version of reconciliation. We would agree to stay in dialogue. We would keep talking to each other not at each other no matter what.

I recognize that this conviction will surprise and disappoint some of the people whom I love the most in this world. I wrote this summer about the experience of reading Primo Levi. He tells again and again of how Italy and even all of Europe did not understand in the 1930s and early 40s what was being lost until it was all but gone. I wondered if Primo was prescient about our current populism here and abroad. Those loved ones will want to know why I am not complaining of fascist tendencies and calling others to arms “against the advancing armies of Trumpismo” to echo Timothy Garton Ash’s clarion call. It’s because I don’t think that will work right now. I don’t think that Twitter comments or blogs are going to change the world. I don’t see how making my fellow citizens villains and inviting them to see me as their enemy fulfills that citizen duty that President Obama invoked. I do agree with Duncan Watts and David Rothschild who concluded that in light of our “many vexing problems… We don’t have to agree on what all the problems are, and we certainly don’t have to agree on how best to solve them. But we do at least have to agree that there are problems that we share, and that it is in all our interest to try to solve them.”

Of course, I don’t know if this kind of effort will work. Not only am I unsure as to anyone would join me, but I have doubts about myself. Those concerns arise not just from the stubborn strength of my liberal convictions, but also the acute appreciation of my past sins in this regard: the quick rejoinders, the disparagement, the need to point out every error, the feeling of being superior. (That last one will be hard to subdue for me and so many others of my generation.) In my faith, reconciliation is also our sacrament of confession and penance. We admit our transgressions, agree to atone, receive absolution, and start anew. I’m going to start anew in this direction because our country matters so much to me, because unity allows us to thrive whether it is after a natural disaster or in a world war or just creating a constant laboratory of freedom.

That same reason, however, may lead me to a different course of action if I cannot find others seeking a dialogue. Too many served the United States of America and too many died to lightly lose this unity or the rights that made us the envy of the world. I will keep in a close corner of my mind the George Washington farewell address quote that President Obama used in his own leavetaking: “that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but ‘from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken…to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth.’ And so we have to preserve this truth with ‘jealous anxiety;’ that we should reject ‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one.” But because Barack Obama was really my president and I trust him, I’m going to heed his injunction of “our nation’s call to citizenship”, his reminder of its “capacity to change and make life better for those who follow.” I’m going to try reconciliation.