The United States in 2016: As Distrustful as the GDR?
As 2017 begins, a meditation on reining in vitriol and reviving Americans’ trust in one another.
- Hostility among Americans reminds one of attitudes in the former East Germany in the early 90s.
- The next U.S. commander-in-chief would not pass the personality tests to serve on a nuclear sub.
- Americans must find a way to reaffirm respect for one another & not treat each other as enemy agents.
Although the current situation in the United States is not at all comparable to that of the German Democratic Republic when that regime collapsed, one parallel is undeniable.
The hostility afflicting many Americans today reminds one of attitudes widespread in the former East Germany in the early 1990s.
Back then, the release of secret police (Stasi) files triggered a surge of mutual recrimination among East Germans. That process was once described as “seventeen million victims looking for seventeen million villains.”
Suspicious of one another
Even though the controversy over FBI investigations of Hillary Clinton’s emails is in no way the same as the Stasi calamities that damaged so many East Germans, the ultimate effects are similar. The harsh political campaign of 2016 has left many Americans casting suspicious eyes at one another.
More than in any election in our lifetime, citizens all across the United States divided over their choice of president and are having trouble knowing what to say to neighbors.
Lincoln to the rescue?
How to move beyond that unforgiving aura of mutual recriminations and suspicion of motives?
Perhaps it is best to recall the words of our greatest president:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Invoking Lincoln does not imply that civil war now looms. It does acknowledge that we — all of us — need to find a common base to sustain the trust essential to our community. Most voters did not express allegiance to Mr. Trump but all Americans owe allegiance to one another.
A toxic civil discourse
That 2016 is indeed a fitting moment to invoke Lincoln underscores the uncertainty that clouds the incoming Trump administration.
The blend of high expectations and profound anxiety that define the boundary between Trump supporters and Trump opponents is toxic to civil discourse.
It would be disingenuous to hide my personal distress at the election of a person I consider not only unqualified for the office, but mean-spirited, vulgar, immoral, incredibly egocentric and psychologically erratic.
There is no denying that the United States will now have a commander-in-chief who could not pass the personality tests to serve on a nuclear submarine or in an ICBM control station.
Two alternate realities in contention
But it is incumbent to recognize that Trump supporters perceived very different qualities in “their man” — toughness, business acumen, decisiveness, a readiness to break the stalemate and fecklessness that have shaped government for too long.
I grieve, especially, that many religious leaders chose to overlook Trump’s audacious selfishness and articulate their hope more strongly that he can rise above his record to be a constructive agent of change.
With the new cabinet appointments, the country will be getting several billionaires for the price of one. We must pray that it proves a bargain for all Americans.
Whatever our individual views, the 73 million voters who opposed Trump and the 63 million who supported him retain civic obligations to each other that transcend the election. Each group deserves the benefit of the doubt from the other.
The millions who favored Trump do not all suffer the character flaws critics see in him. And the millions who opposed him are by no means elitist snobs indifferent to the valid concerns of Trump supporters.
The country can survive policy and personality disputes. It cannot thrive in the corrosive atmosphere of rigid judgment about character and motives that developed in the 2016 campaign.
Disagreements ahead: Any remedies?
Disagreements and hard political battles lie ahead. The question is whether Americans can display the comity to work through those encounters without breeding political paralysis, prolonging an era of polarization and ill-will. Finding symbolic points of agreement may help.
Editor’s note: Click here for Part II