Will Biden make America's story one of tragedy or of redemption? - opinion

The glib attitude of the invaders of the Capitol – comparable to someone bringing a pig into the Holy of Holies – was another manifestation of the cheapening of what is held sacred.

A SUPPORTER of former president Donald Trump holds a flag, in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday. (photo credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)
A SUPPORTER of former president Donald Trump holds a flag, in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday.
(photo credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)
The world faces three pandemics simultaneously: the climate crisis, the coronavirus, and democracies under attack. In the United States the normalization of the lie – and by extension, the abrogation of responsibility – has exacerbated all three. After WWI, the Dolchstoßlegende, the stab-in-the-back myth in Germany, helped pave the road to Nazism. In the United States, shortly after the Civil War, the lost-cause myth rewrote the history of the Civil War and portrayed slavery in wholesome terms. That narrative, along with the racism it carries, has never been completely expunged.
The subjugation of indigenous Americans, along with the enslavement of African-Americans, was inhumane, vicious and violent. The violence of far-right extremists, militants and hate groups is the latest unfolding of that reality. That violence, once unleashed, is hard to contain. Those groups usually exist in the dark corners of society. The most dangerous action of Trump was giving his blessing for these groups to come into the open with no shame or fear.
The United States is off the charts when it comes to violent deaths compared to the rest of the world. The American-cowboy myth is the individual, a gun at his side, not listening to authority. While the rags-to-riches American myth has bypassed many, the cowboy myth – including guns – is attainable. Trump’s abandon plays into that myth, and so many Americans readily drew themselves to him.
In addition, by tapping into the anger that many feel because of their economic situation, Trump has been able to galvanize followers. Anger, as well as hate, can be energizing and, therefore, also additive and all consuming. Trump and others, like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, with their millions of followers, are master feeders of that addictive anger. Chants of “Lock her up,” calling people “Feminazis,” and speaking in an exacerbated, angry tone are distinct signatures of each of them.
The beginning of the Torah teaches that words create worlds. Words are sacred and powerful. When individuals holding power over large audiences claim the election was stolen, it has dire consequences, loosening the bonds that hold the country together. As the mob went through the personal papers of senators in the Senate chamber, one was heard saying, “I think Cruz would want us to do this, so I think we’re good,” and others in the building said they were there because they “answered the call of my president.”
The glib attitude of the invaders of the Capitol – comparable to someone bringing a pig into the Holy of Holies – was another manifestation of the cheapening of what is held sacred. In-your-face T-shirts and bumper stickers are all-too common, lowering societal standards of what is acceptable.
An impromptu prayer offered by one of the mob in the Senate chamber in the name of Jesus Christ attacked “the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government.” Make no mistake: “The globalists” is a code phrase for Jews; it surfaces as just the latest manifestation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
WHILE THE far-right extremists who invaded the Capitol building skew white and male, there are people of means and education, people of privilege, and people of power supporting and echoing their beliefs. People believe conspiracy theories for a host of sociological and psychological reasons. If you feel the American Dream has passed you by and life is stacked against you but think you understand why through a conspiracy theory, you become empowered. Others who already have power – demagogues, for example – gain more power by becoming the megaphone for such theories.
Conspiracy theories always exist, however, social media elevated them to a mass movement of an alternative reality. In addition, the media that helped elect Trump by its uber-coverage of him during the Republican primaries, needs to refocus now that he is no longer president, or they will be co-conspirators of his agenda.
Four years ago, I wrote in this column: “Anxiety can often lead people to extremes. In his book How to Cure a Fanatic, Amos Oz succinctly reminds us of the choice we now face, ‘It is about the ancient struggle between fanaticism and pragmatism. Between fanaticism and pluralism. Between fanaticism and tolerance.’ We need to learn how to strengthen the latter of these equations.”
Intolerance is the negation of difference. The Talmud reminds us of the importance of being paired with those we disagree with (Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Shmuel, etc.). We need to step out of our silos of closed-loop thinking and allow ourselves to be challenged. Hands Across the Hills, Braver Angels, Bridge the Divide, Bring it to the Table are examples of people from diverse political orientations engaging each other in meaningful exchanges.
We have become a nation defined more by our identities than our ideas. For too many, their identity is closely tied to a candidate. With that orientation, if their candidate loses then they, too, must be losers. The way to remedy that is to say your candidate did not lose. Opinions are labeled – liberal, conservative, radical or socialist – and immediately we agree or disagree with it because of the anointed label and not the merit of its thinking. We must step out of such bias assimilation.
While we see parallels between the rise of fascism last century and events of today, we must be careful of parallelomania. The Weimar Republic was only a few years old when Hitler began to amass power, while the republic and governmental institutions of the United States are almost 250 years old. We literally must not let our guard down as we note that our time-tested democratic system is speaking up and pushing back.
At 12 noon on Wednesday, January 20, we ended Act 3 and began Act 4. The challenge for this republic is whether Act 5 will be a tragedy or a redemption history.
The writer, a rabbi, is a faculty member of Bennington College.