Immediately after the November 2016 election, I discontinued my weekly column for this newspaper. From writing Relocations I had derived pleasure, and from my readers encouragement. But Trump’s election was as puzzling as it was disheartening. What did it say about the condition of our shared life in this nation for which — like it or not — we must take responsibility? Until I could achieve some clarity on that score, I didn’t know how best to re-engage in public life, much less advise anyone else.
Re-engage we must. One of the notes I sounded most often in the column was the indispensability of our collective effort to create a just polity. To those who believe their sole obligation is to take care of their families, I say it should be obvious that we cannot take care of our families only by taking care of our families.
Taking such care means expanding the boundaries of our personal worlds toward far horizons, and our inquiries toward the overarching. At least I thought I was thus obligated if I was to continue providing the kind of political commentary I had attempted in Relocations. I wasn’t willing to devote the column to Trump himself — his diurnal indecencies, his lies, his tortured quest to feel he has ended each day as a winner. Nor was I willing to characterize — and dismiss from serious consideration — his supporters as a basketful of deplorable racists.
The more I thought about Trump’s victory, the more it seemed an aberration from recent U.S. politics. One aberration was that money hadn’t been determinative. Trump easily bested a large field of primary hopefuls, some of whom were very well funded, and then beat a cash-rich Democrat. The second aberration was that the national economic measures were all good. Under Obama the economy had emerged from a deep trough, and the credit he rightly deserved for it had helped him beat Mitt Romney in the very states that were pivotal in Clinton’s loss four years later, when the recovery was even stronger. So Trump had achieved something extraordinary.
What did he sense about the state of our nation? If we don’t try to hear what between 40 percent and 60 percent of American voters have been saying about themselves at the ballot box for four decades and finally shouted at us in 2016, we won’t find a path into a future more distant than the next election. Undoubtedly we will have to contest most of their understandings and some of their values. But we can’t wage that contest skillfully if we don’t listen to them and, especially, if we don’t sympathize with the fears that underlie their perceptions of what is befalling them. We must say to them, sincerely, "Be not afraid."
There are only three ways a troubled people can surmount their fears. One is to trust in a transcendent reality that, somehow and sometime, will rescue us from our self-induced misery and fill us with joy. Another way is to trust in a human being to do that for us. The last is to gain sufficient control over our lives to face vicissitude with confidence. I’m sympathetic to the first way, but not as a substitute for human effort. I’m implacably hostile to the second way, which is a flight from freedom personally and politically. I’m committed to the third way, and have come to believe that I can make my best contribution now by letting others overhear my thoughts.
— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.