by Yehezkel Landau
The stunning victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election forces all Americans to rethink our assumptions about the web of social relations in which we live. The political polarization of our society has been strikingly confirmed by the even split in the popular vote. The pollsters and pundits, as part of the comfortable elite, failed to appreciate the depth of resentment stirring among many Americans, not only white males with limited schooling or economic opportunities.
The widespread failure to anticipate the election results reflects the silos in which we all operate, reinforced by the selective news outlets and social media platforms through which we receive news and views. The ideological fragmentation of America into segregated, self-reinforcing constituencies makes it impossible for us to hear each other or to conduct honest, compassionate conversations across difference.
The consequence of this mutual alienation is a debilitating “blame game” in which our political opponents are held responsible for all the woes besetting our country. It is a short step from this negative generalizing to scapegoating “Others” as a way of coping with our anxieties or expressing our anger. The language of fear, resentment, and scapegoating was prevalent throughout the Trump campaign; yet to a lesser extent it also characterized discourse on the left, when perceived reactionaries were labeled “deplorable” riffraff who threaten the future of our country.
But there is no rhetorical symmetry here. Trump’s bigoted, xenophobic, and misogynistic statements attracted supporters who share those hateful prejudices. His endorsement by the Ku Klux Klan is enough to ring alarm bells. Our neighbors who are Muslims, or Mexican immigrants, or members of the LGBTQ community all have reason to fear that future government policies, or violent acts committed by emboldened haters, may target them and cause them serious harm. Those of us who are not members of these and other vulnerable minority communities owe these neighbors our active solidarity and our vigilant protection. There is also a broader danger that civil rights, including women’s reproductive rights, that took decades of struggle to achieve could be rescinded in a Trump administration.
To avert any such calamities, we as Americans need to deepen our commitment to the networks and organizations that defend our civil liberties. Beyond that, a more inclusive national conversation needs to unfold at the local level, so that people holding opposing views can engage one another to find ways to overcome the animosity that plagues our society. I believe that religious leaders and institutions have a special role to play in fostering such a healing conversation.
Local churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras are already diverse communities, usually embracing a range of racial, ideological, socio-economic, and gender/sexuality backgrounds. These religious institutions could sponsor internal conversations on cultural and political issues, helped by neutral, trusted facilitators. The group leaders need not be clergy; they can be mental health professionals who can create safe spaces for the expression of ideas and feelings.
Once these intra-faith conversations are strong enough, they can be broadened to include members of other faith communities. In this interfaith effort, religious leaders need to be the catalysts. Ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, and lay leaders need to forge alliances to create frameworks for compassionate neighborhood conversations. Jews and Christians, who generally feel and are more secure, should take the lead and reach out to their Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh neighbors. The latter communities, too often lumped together through ignorance as untrustworthy, darker-skinned “aliens,” feel insecure since 9/11/01 and are even more anxious following the vitriol of the recent presidential campaign.
Over time, as familiarity and empathy grow through such neighborhood meetings, there is a chance that fear can be transformed to trust, anger to acceptance and even forgiveness, and grief to compassion for the pain of others. Trust and compassion are the key ingredients for ultimate reconciliation.
These local initiatives should aim to include the civic leaders of our communities, our elected representatives entrusted with the responsibility to make decisions affecting the wider public. Their participation in the neighborhood conversations would lend “secular” legitimacy to the enterprise. More importantly, the sensitivities and understandings they would derive from the new friendships created would help ensure that our politics would be humanized. And this, in turn, would foster a bottom-up transformation of our dysfunctional and unhealthy society, so that four years from now we would not have to suffer through another toxic election season. What I envision is a community-based process of intra- and intercommunal reconciliation that can heal our politics from within. We would all benefit greatly from such an effort, and our children would have a better chance of growing up with a stronger and healthier social fabric.