America, America, God Shed His Grace on Thee

My wife and I subscribe to two newspapers here in New York — The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. They are the yin and yang of political and intellectual thought, and reading both of them is the print version of switching back and forth between MSNBC and Fox News.

Politically, the Times is more my natural home. I lean liberal. But when it gets just too snarky about Israel and becomes insufferably politically correct, a good dose of Bret Stephens eases my distress. Lest I leave her out, though I most often disagree with her, reading Peggy Noonan on Shabbat morning is one of my greatest pleasures. She writes better than just about anyone I know, and helps me better understand the issues of the day.

In these days leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States, I have been reading like a madman, trying desperately to find the words, or some version of words, that might help me feel even a little less despairing of the state of this country I love. In his angry refusal to pretend that it’s time to “get over it” and stop complaining about Trump’s election, Charles Blow of The New York Times comes closest to how I have been feeling. I deeply resent those who are all too ready to put the election behind them, and simply move forward. When a full and impartial investigation into Russia’s impact on the election is complete, along with an investigation of FBI Director James Comey’s impact, then maybe I’ll be able to come to a more peaceful and accepting place.

But not yet. For now, I read…

One article from “the other side” that has stayed with me a bit longer than most appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, January 13. Written by Lou Weiss, it was titled The “Deplorables” Aren’t So Bad, Once You Get to Know Us. Referring, of course, to Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate comment about the “basket of deplorables” supporting Trump, Mr. Weiss, who “lives among the adorables, but thinks like a deplorable,” offers some gentle ribbing to his liberal friends. A lot of it is worth listening to.

Among his insights… people don’t like being reduced to negative cultural stereotypes, so using words like “traditional” and “hardworking” might sit better than calling everyone you disagree with a racist, homophobe, and bigot. Instead of taking a fact-finding trip to Cuba or Venezuela, try taking one to Iowa or Nebraska. Try finding some subjects you might discuss should you ever meet a Trump voter; familiarize yourself with Ben Twelve football, and maybe watch or re-watch “American Sniper” instead of something on IFC. Don’t expect everyone you meet to lament the price of tickets to “Hamilton!”, or know what cisgender means.

Most important, remember that “Deplorables are people too. Their kids make them proud and drive them crazy. They eat kielbasa and even kale. Some laugh at Seinfeld and some like opera. Some are atheists and some go to church. Please understand that- just like you- deplorables lead lives that are mysterious and wonderful, tragic and joyful, and invariably complex.”

Touche, Mr. Weiss, well said. I accept your gently offered scolding for being a hopelessly snobby and close-minded Northeastern liberal, and I do believe that the Democratic Party leadership as a whole has a great deal to learn from what you have written.

Here’s my problem, though. When Hillary Clinton used the phrase “basket of deplorables,” I don’t think she was referring to you, or people like you. If she was, your wise words would be enough to allay my concerns over the direction of the country and its leadership.

But I don’t think she was, and I suspect you know that as well.

As I understood her comment, Hillary Clinton was referring to neo-Nazis and skinheads who, via Breitbart News and Steve Bannon’s closeness to the candidate, had found an ideological home in the Trump campaign. When David Duke endorses a presidential candidate, he brings along with him a caravan of deplorables. She was referring to proponents of the Second Amendment who, in their fervent belief in the unfettered right to bear arms, fail to see how assault weapons in the wrong hands kill innocent school children and adults, and oppose any kind of meaningful background checks. She was referring to people who would deny even rape victims the right to an abortion.

And, last but certainly not least, Hillary Clinton was referring to the man holding the basket — Donald Trump himself.

Was his broad brushstroke depiction of Mexicans in this country as rapists and criminals not deplorable? Was his insult of the Khan family and their son who gave his life for our country not deplorable, as well as his talk of registering Muslim Americans and blocking the entry of their family members into the United States? Was his description of his power over women and the way he feels free to wield it not deplorable? How would you explain his words to your daughter?

My argument is not with people like you, Mr. Weiss, nor is it with people whose fundamental outlook on American political and social life is more conservative than mine. Though our differences are real and substantive, I respect what you wrote. But the man in whom you have invested your hope for change is fatally flawed, and totally unfit to lead this country.

A narcissistic man-child who tweets nastily against his perceived enemies in the middle of the night is simply not the right person to become President. America is hungry for leadership, and obviously ready for change. But real leadership implies coherence of thought, and maturity on a level not yet evidenced by Mr. Trump. Hillary might indeed have been a flawed candidate, and some of what she suffered she brought on herself. But as Bernie Sanders himself said, on her worst day, she would have been a far better President than the man America elected.

In choosing Donald Trump to represent them, Americans desperate for change have placed this country on a dangerous and reckless course. World diplomacy is not a video game. When you lose, you don’t just hit reset and play again. The stakes are immeasurably higher than that. America, America, God shed His grace on thee. We’re going to need all the grace we can get.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.