Strange Bedfellows

Dr. Seuss. “The Sneetches and Other Stories”. Random House, 1953.

One of the experiences I feel that benefited me the most growing up was that, at least once a week, my immediate family would convene for a nice sit-down meal with everyone in attendance. As a fairly fidgety and impatient kid, I was not entirely sold on this ritual as being necessary to my survival, and I certainly protested, but it ultimately became something I enjoyed. It was rare for the whole family to be present at any given time in my house, so these became the most ready opportunities to learn from my parents and to share in my own growth.

Looking back on those dinners, I see their value not just as a nice way for my family to spend time together, but as an event that played a large role in shaping my perspective. My family has never been one to consider certain topics as taboos that couldn’t be addressed, so subjects like politics, current events, religion, history, law, and civics were frequently visited in our conversations. Over the years, my contributions shifted from pointed questions of my parents, two lawyers who seem unflaggingly capable of cutting to the objective root of whatever particular issue arises, to my own personal observation and perspective. Over the course of these dinners, without realizing it, I was shaping myself and being shaped into someone who both enjoys discussing difficult subjects and someone who has an ever-present desire to learn and ask questions. While it’s debatable whether or not this taught me humility with my opinions, it certainly did teach me that I could easily be incorrect or not well-informed enough.

These discussions, particularly with my father and brother, could and still do become contentious, as all three of us, at some level, consider debate and argument sport. We like to challenge each other to not just hold particular positions, but to defend them. I can remember arguments about the ethics of the “Surge” in 2007, learning the legal particularities of the Monica Lewinsky scandal beyond the salacious details, being made aware of the complexities of relationships between unions and executives, and most recently, before the past election cycle, the relative merits and legitimate criticisms of the Obama presidency. On all of these topics and more, no single member of my family has ever been fully in concurrence, and I consider that lucky. Without the constant challenges to my perspective and my knowledge on subjects, I often worry that I would have lost my attraction to questions and learning.

Photo from Associated Press

It is this temperament that I find myself thinking about frequently of late in the face of what has quickly become the greatest domestic threat to democracy in my lifetime, that being the Trump presidency. While I still hold some strict differences in perspective on policy to both liberals and conservatives, lately my particular ideology has taken a backseat to coming together with other Americans to resist the tumultuous events to which we are now all susceptible. When we live under “politics as usual” as we have known it in the post-Watergate world, there’s a sense that skepticism of those who disagree with you is not just expected, but virtuous, as everyone is assumed to have an ulterior motive and healthy paranoia of being used. While it’s easy to write off a person in a different political quadrant as somehow deficient or inhuman, we’ve reached, to my mind, a critical juncture in our country’s history where partisan beliefs are distorting the interpretation of a very real crisis as a crisis to multitudes of Americans. Nevertheless, I feel that there is a reason to be optimistic. While the partisan divide is still very real, it appears to be shifting from strict party politics to being a divide between a public that wishes to have all information possible on a given issue and a public that wishes to ensconce itself in presumptions and confirmation biases that make for a less complicated reality than the one presented to them.

Over the past month, I’ve agreed with liberals more than at any point since high school and have found their grassroots activism extremely commendable. I’ve sided with establishment conservatives on legal and diplomatic positions. I’ve even agreed with neo-conservatives about the threat presented by Russian interference in government, a political school I readily repudiated during the Bush administration. This is a time, for me at least, of increasingly strange bedfellows politically, but to me, that just further underscores the gravity of our current reality: with the resignation of Michael Flynn Monday over his contact before and after the election with Russian officials and the bombshell the New York Times dropped on Valentine’s Day about the Trump campaign’s constant contact with Russian officials despite repeated denials, it feels as though we’re on the precipice of a scandal that doesn’t just undermine public faith in the executive branch, but one that stands to, thanks to the pivots by Trump and his supporters, undermine the public faith in the Constitution itself.

That can come off as hyperbolic, even to the most radical ideologues, but at the same time, I don’t believe this to be an overstatement of the troubles we currently face. Our president has a documented disdain for the court system and for the First Amendment rights of journalists to disseminate truthful information to their audience. Despite not having the Constitutional authority to overstep his powers as an executive to the point of undermining the courts and likewise having no legal mandate to sue major journalistic institutions for libel, Trump and his team have nevertheless evoked the language of authoritarianism in their opposition to them, preemptively attempting to blame the judiciary for any terrorist actions that may succeed in the United States and making constant appeals to their base that negative news is “fake” despite, again, having not taken a single news organization to court for libel or any pundit for slander. Both of these tactics are an exercise in de-legitimizing the spread of knowledge as a form of partisanship in order to, I feel, distract from the Constitutional rights enshrined in this nation to safeguard its citizens, or worse, to give the Trump administration leeway to incite their supporters into questioning the Constitution’s value itself. And given the radical partisanship which Trump has used to disassociate his supporters from the sobering realities of the Russia scandal and his budding authoritarianism, the ways in which partisanship is being leveraged at present are a legitimate threat to our union. Because of this, we are now facing a political crisis and cannot even reach a consensus that the Russian interference in our democracy is, in fact, a crisis.

When I think of potential remedies to this, I go back to my family’s dinner table and the contentious nature of many of those conversations. This may be naïve of me, but I still believe that well-intentioned patriots are able to disagree, if not with civility, then at least with a degree of understanding that the person you disagree with has a particular intent that they see personally as positive, but debate cannot achieve its purpose of imbuing all perspectives with additional knowledge if we continue to assume that differing perspective comes from a place of insidious intent. We all have to do a better job of keeping considerations of others in mind not as enemies to our worldview, but as fellow human beings who do not have your personal collection of experiences and perspectives.

Trump struck a chord with rural conservatives for the specific reason that he capitalized on a deep feeling of injury and abandonment, of demonization by other Americans, and while a great deal of bigotry had to be called out and is still rightfully addressed by those who resist the current administration, nowhere near all of Trump’s base is intentionally bigoted. Some certainly are, but as with anything, the truth is not as black-and-white as we wish it to be. Trump’s rural voters have seen town centers dry up while big business took away small business and managerial opportunities. They’ve seen technology out-mode their professions despite the fact that they spent their life learning old trades because that was the right thing to do, and yes, they have been neglected to some degree by the previous administration and made to feel less as people by constant haranguing for their differences. All of these factors make it easy, if not natural to be angry at your circumstances, and Trump stepped into that empathetic space to pull off his con to empower himself and the wealthy, and it worked like a charm. If nothing else, Trump’s rise is ironically indicative of the power of looking at people as people, even when their perspectives are repulsive and will harm others, and it is this tack that those of us rightfully resisting the evils of his administration have to adopt in resisting him.

At this moment in history, my individual idiosyncrasies matter a great deal less to me than resisting the regressive policies and climate of fear being created. If that means I stand with people whose politics do not comport to my own, so be it. It is far more important for me to stand with other Americans to assert that the fight we currently face is not hyperbole, but a real struggle to prevent corruption from bringing down institutions that preserve our freedom to the point where we have the luxury to take them for granted. Everybody has to do better in service of the cause of resistance, because debate will fail us if we refuse to quiet our more acerbic tendencies and talk to people whose positions we can’t fathom. Our time is limited, but our ability to impact how the public perceives its government is not. In a world where subjectivity holds sway over so many of us, it takes real bravery to force yourself to be objective and consider your personal errors, but it is fundamentally necessary in the current climate, even if it gives off the impression that you are either weak or gullible. Partisan division is a slow-acting poison, and it has progressed considerably, but that does not preclude our ability to make a change if we take our responsibility to each other seriously.