WASHINGTON, November 4, 2016 — America is in the grip of a furious campaign between two badly flawed candidates. But far more disturbing than the candidates is the electorate.
Either Trump or Clinton will win, and a majority of Americans will be unhappy either way, but if there’s any resiliency left to our institutions at all, neither will be as awful as the doomsayers claim. We may not expect either to leave the presidency unscathed as an institution, or to leave the presidency with their tattered reputations in better repair, but if either is capable of bringing down America, American institutions are already so hollowed out that the country is in terminal decline.
I join the millions of Americans who don’t believe that.
Because I can’t support Trump, I’ve been accused by some Trump supporters of hating America. Good, life-long conservatives have had their integrity, their conservatism and their patriotism denigrated because they can’t support Trump. “If you’re not for us, you’re for Hillary and all she stands for, and may you rot in hell for what you’re doing to America.”
Really? Yet I know some honest, good, compassionate Trump supporters. One has had her car vandalized twice for her Trump sticker, which she’s finally removed. She can’t afford to keep replacing windows. Clinton supporters justify this type of violence with the argument that only a racist homophobe can support Trump. “People like that don’t deserve any compassion for harms that befall them for their political positions. After all, it’s not just politics, it’s not just a game, it’s about me and my life and your support for a man who will destroy the lives of those I love.”
There’s a loss of empathy here. If you hate someone, you can’t imagine that any good person wouldn’t hate that person, too. You see your own pain and your own fears very clearly, but not the pain and fears of the objects of our hatred.
You no longer see the good in others, because you’ve decided that they’re your mortal and moral enemies. We’re in a situation where good people spend their passions trying to justify their hate for other good people whose motivations they can’t or won’t comprehend, concluding therefor that they must be motivated only by the basest motives and desires.
Good people don’t look for reasons to hate people they don’t even know, a fact that good people seem to have forgotten.
A number of writers who clearly can’t stand Trump have attempted to explain why it’s so important to understand and empathize with Trump supporters. One writes about his travels in flyover country, his visits with people whose lives and livelihoods have been damaged or destroyed by people like him, the “front-row kids” and coastal elites. It is well-written and empathetic. Not so the social media responses.
A typical response to articles like this is, “These are just people who are mad that blacks are doing better than they are, who want someone to be below them and are mad when they won’t stay there.” The immediate default is to lash out, denigrate, hate, and justify it by the moral failings of people you don’t like. No sympathy, no empathy, no mercy.
Clinton appalls me, but the rage and hate of some of her supporters appalls me more, because these are good people. Trump disgusts me, but the absolutism and fury of some of his supporters is more disgusting, coming as it does from people I know to be good and decent.
Americans are losing all sense of proportion. They’re no longer seeing their country as the sum of its citizens and more, but as the interests of its divided groups and less. Faced with that charge, their first impulse is to lay blame. But as we parents tell our children, “no one else is responsible for your behavior. I don’t care what the other kid does.
I care what you do. You choose your response, it isn’t forced on you. You show who you are by how you choose to respond; the other kid doesn’t make you who you are by making you respond the way you do.”
Perhaps America and Americans aren’t as good as I believe. I hope they are, and that in the passions of the election season they’ve only forgotten their true character, not revealed it. We’ll see when the election is over whether anyone can be gracious and conciliatory in victory and defeat.
If the signs aren’t good, let’s remember an observation oft-repeated by our friends: Americans can almost always be counted on to do the right thing, once they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.