I lost a friend to Trump but gained reflection in return. I’d like to share the mixed results.
For decades after high school in Philadelphia I stayed in touch with a special group who occasionally convened to catch up and make trouble. One of them, let’s call him T., emerged over time as “the Republican,” to the consternation of some among this East Coast crowd.
Operating in a high-level academic and professional environment, confident and contrarian as a rule, the poor sap was probably arguing with everyone all the time. He grew flintier by the day. In our own interactions I generously sought common ground: I want gun control, education and health care, which upset him – but then again I did share his dislike of identity politics and such. In this way, civility prevailed.
The rise of Donald Trump blew this all to smithereens. A week before the 2016 election the group met in my absence — never a good idea! — and tension filled the air. That T. disdained Hillary was hardly a surprise, but his intention to actually vote for Trump caused ripples of dismay. It nearly came to blows with one member and T. stormed off, in an aggrieved, high-minded rage.
I weighed in by email to try to calm him down, suggesting it was not “intolerant” to consider Trump beyond the pale: his bizarre and dangerous behavior transcends politics to reach an altogether higher plane. But T. could not be swayed, insisting “the Dems” were somehow just as bad (due to various misdeeds incomprehensible to me). He swiftly cut me and the others off, resisting all my efforts to make amends. Most of the others have lost interest by now, scandalized by his complicity in such a crisis.
Such misfortune is playing out on the grander stage as well. Throughout America and in parts of the world friendships are fraying. As part of this circus, liberals all over the place are wagging fingers at those few conservatives they think should know better than to “enable” the travesties of Trump. The targets are the mostly secular and highly educated ones, like T.: How can they abet the so outrageously absurd?
To me, though, the answer is clear. Trump is the conservative’s inconvenient but rather effective device. He is giving that electorate much of what it seems to want: lowering taxes, reducing government except for the military, sneering at immigrants and gays, flooding the zone with conservative judges and paying handsome lip service to socially conservative causes. (He’s also revealing that free trade and balanced budgets do not in fact have much of a market on the right, while xenophobia apparently does).
There are voices in the right-wing punditocracy who still oppose Trump on grounds of ethics and decorum, such as New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who once trod Israeli alleys as editor of the Jerusalem Post. But the politicians and “ordinary people” have mostly fallen into line.
Many liberals see this, calculate the advantage, and feign horror: What has happened to the party of Lincoln? Can America survive without two political parties both of which accept that Earth is round?
So I’ve designed a thought experiment everyone should try.
Imagine a US president who is nominating liberal judges and justices, raising taxes on the super-rich, and enacting gun control, universal health care and free college education. Now imagine that such a president is of Trumpian temperament: tweeting nonsense all the time, insulting rivals, profiteering off the presidency, appointing his relatives to high office, picking gratuitous fights and dangerously attacking the press. Can liberals be sure they would not support this package deal?
They’d see the upside as so huge! Grotesque inequality is making people crazy and the system seems irrational for most hours of the day. Despite stellar medicine America cannot offer citizens what they get in Britain or Israel or the Nordics as a matter of course. The electoral system tolerates outrageous and transparent gerrymandering and the politicization of justice through the election of judges and sheriffs. Fixing any of this is depressingly hard, and the country seems doomed to minority rule because of a system that distorts outcomes and apparently cannot be changed. Most unfortunately perhaps, the views on all this break down by town versus country, along divides of ethnicity, and by level of education.
There are parallels in Israel, by the way. The center-left would do almost anything to get back to power and just end the madness in the West Bank.
In both countries it is reasonable to ask: If the tables were precisely turned and the problems went away, would liberals not “enable” a dangerous but useful boor?
Some will say there is no way a leftist could be Trumpish, because leftist leaders are inherently open-minded, civil and reflective. This may have some flimsy basis in truth, but it’s hardly a guarantee: consider the communists.
Others will say: No, no — grassroots leftists are too pure. There is more truth to this, and indeed many also suffer from a suicidal inability to compromise (like Greens voters who knew the result may well be Trump, and crazily did not care). But I think the majority would probably fall into line.
I’d certainly be tempted myself, because among other things I want gun control pretty bad. But I would hope that in the unlikely scenario I describe I would keep in mind the deep damage being done.
In the past I preferred policy to character, but Trump shows there just might be a limit. Something of the essence is being killed. Ethics are for losers; winning is everything; facts don’t matter; “everybody lies”; expertise is useless; civility is for suckers; transactions are all there is; reflection is for eggheads.
I left America in my 20s but its culture has defined me because it was so strong and special, alluring and alive. But this new thing – it is not the place where my parents washed ashore with hardly a penny to their name. It’s just another place, seeking a greatness that’s mundane.
We got plenty a prosperous countries looking out for number one.
I lost a friend to Donald Trump, but I’m also losing something more. One day the friend may be re-found. The more, alas, I’m not so sure.
The writer was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel.