Sometimes, a little detail tells a big story. The Thompson Reuters Foundation reports that the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum is experiencing such an “unprecedented number” of negative comments by visitors about immigrants it is retraining its docents to handle the onslaught. This report is disturbing, especially when paired with reports of a spike in hate crimes in America.
It confirms fears that Donald Trump’s election has unleashed Americans’ inner demons, legitimizing once-illegitimate belches of bigotry.
Obviously, one man cannot conjure up negative feelings that never existed. Moreover, as I argued last week structural and cultural forces are also at work thanks to the Internet, the media, and social breakdown. (For the record, my column was misprinted in some editions – due to an aggressive autocorrect – as “Bernies’ ‘antisemitish’ bullying” when it should have been “Berniacs’ ‘antisemitish’ bullying”). Still, leaders can shape cultural moments, and populists like Trump specialize in uncorking genies they sense are bursting to get out.
The “Who Me?” bob and weave candidate Trump used when challenged about the fanatics he inspired during the campaign does not suit a president-elect. He wanted the job, now he must grow into it. The presidency comes with the White House, Air Force One, the Secret Service, a host of goodies. But it also comes with massive responsibilities he cannot shirk. Among these is the moral health of the nation. Yelling “the Left does it too” doesn’t work as president. Dodging responsibility doesn’t suit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s occupant. When Theodore Roosevelt called the presidency the “bully pulpit,” he didn’t mean it was open season on weaklings; he meant the presidency was a platform for leadership. And Harry Truman turned this unspoken understanding into a cliché: “the buck stops here.”
So, yes, President-elect Trump, the buck now stops with you when it comes to fighting hate on our streets, in the media, and via the Internet; the buck now stops with you when it comes to having zero tolerance for any forms of bigotry at any time; and the buck now stops with you when it comes to educating a new generation to handle politics with more grace, dignity and mutual respect than your own Baby Boomer generation has – from Right to Left.
Fortunately, American history offers examples for Trump to follow during this transition. When Thomas Jefferson unseated John Adams in 1800, this first constitutional transfer of power in American history appalled the losing party. The Federalists mourned “the general ascendancy of the worthless, the dishonest, the rapacious, the vile, the merciless, and the ungodly.” They claimed the winning Republican party represented a “brutal menace” to public order. Sulking, Adams saddled the new administration with “midnight judges” (much as President Barack Obama is doing with last-minute executive orders).
These lame-duck appointments ultimately triggered what became the landmark decision asserting the Supreme Court’s right of judicial review, Marbury v. Madison.
One mischievous Adams partisan removed the clapper from a church bell to prevent any pro-Jefferson Inauguration Day pealing. Jefferson’s ally Albert Gallatin was shocked by the “meanness, indecency, almost insanity” of Adams’ “conduct.” The former president left town at 4 a.m., hours before Jefferson’s inauguration.
Refusing to meet his predecessor’s pettiness with his own, Thomas Jefferson delivered a magnanimous inaugural address. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle,” Jefferson declared. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Hopefully, Trump will give a Jeffersonian inaugural address, healing and inspiring the nation. But all Americans should take responsibility for realizing that fantasy.
Over the past few weeks, too many American Jews, from Right to Left, have preferred advancing their particular agenda to building the bridges the nation needs now.
Looking Left, I say stop sulking and start reengaging with those with whom you disagree. Stop treating Trump and his voters as “deplorables” – or worse (and stop using Nazi analogies!). Stop feeling victimized. Start acting with the maturity you demanded of Trump and his supporters back in October when you expected to win.
Looking Right, I say stop gloating and start acting magnanimously.
The election is over. Stop denying your candidate used ugly tactics that stirred poisonous emotions that help explain why so many feel terrified, not just bruised. And, as the winners, start reaching out, seeking common ground, perhaps, first with fellow Jews, then with fellow Americans.
The psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk says “our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being.” For a long time, support for Israel was a bipartisan issue, a gift enabling Democrats and Republicans to find something important on which they could agree. Rather than treating Israel as yet another wedge issue, let’s use our shared support for Israel’s right to exist in a world of hostiles as balm, as the first step reminding us, as Jefferson taught, that we may emphasize different principles, but we are indeed all brothers and sisters.
We are indeed all Republicans, all Democrats – all committed to the enduring American, Western and Jewish ideals of liberty and equality, forged in the Bible, consecrated by the Constitution, and despite all our tensions, divisions and faults still flourishing in the streets of Israel, and the streets of the (still) United States of America.The author, professor of history at McGill University, is the author of
The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, published by St. Martin’s Press.