We have become a nation divided because we no longer have common ground.
I grew up in the liberal Northeast and, for the most part, the circles in which I traveled were mostly liberal and Jewish. To many of my peers, I was a bit of an anomaly as I was, and still am, Catholic and conservative. Although we did not see eye to eye politically we all got along superbly well. Given that we went to the same high schools and shared many of the same concerns over our community, our political differences never really mattered. Sadly, over the years, we have become a nation where every point, argument and opinion has become politicized… drawing intractable lines between “us” and “them.”
I started to notice an uptick in the harshness of political discourse during the Clinton Presidency. Then again, maybe it was there all along and about that time I just became more sensitive to it. One day in the early 1990’s, I was walking in New York City and the nation was nearing an election. A well dressed, attractive female pollster asked me to sign a ballot for some candidate. The only criteria for signing was that I needed to be a registered Democrat. I informed the pollster that I was not a Democrat, thanked her for her time and continued to walk home. The next thing I knew, she began to follow me, extolling the virtues of being a Democrat and the evils of the Republican party. Again, I tried to end the conversation politely and continue my walk. But she started yelling at me and berating me for being such a fool. The harassment got so bad that a crowd of onlookers started to gawk at her. Once she realized the spectacle she was creating, she blushed and abruptly stormed off. Never once during the conversation had I claimed I was a Republican nor offered any criticism of the Democratic party. It was what I represented that unhinged her.
Since then, as my political beliefs became more well know by my colleagues and friends, I became a magnet for all the political crazies. I recall when, at one particular party, a friend of mine deliberately sought me ought and tried to debate me on the virtues of gun control. Knowing where this conversation could end up, I responded curtly and succinctly that I believed in the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. Well, no sooner had I made my opinion known when my friend became enrage against the policies of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and started to attack me for my beliefs. His vitriol was so vulgar and obnoxious that I responded that a holiday party was neither the time nor the place for such conversations. I shook his hand and moved on to talk to the other guests. Mind you, I never engaged in or debated my point, I just simply stated my belief. The conversation completely unhinged my friend as he could not fathom that someone could actually believe that people should have the right to gun ownership
I think because I was a bit unusual to many in the communities and circles I ran in, people sought me out and always looked to engage me on political issues. Although I lived in New York City and worked on Wall Street I was an outsider in many ways.. I had not gone to an Ivy League university as many of my co-workers and friends had. Unlike them, I had been in the military so I was able to speak at length about military issues, political issues and foreign affairs with a perspective they lacked. In one particular encounter, a colleague of mine asked to opine about the rules of engagement in Iraq and how was it possible that U.S soldiers were committing s0 many atrocities? When I explained the facts as I knew them to be and that many journalist reported the stories lacking context of combat operations he flew into a rage. My friend started to yell at the top of his lungs about these “atrocities.” A friend of his grabbed his arm and tried to calm him down. She said ” Michael get a hold of yourself. You are yelling in Steve’s face.” This seemed to immediately bring him out of his fit of madness. He looked at me and apologized for his actions.
These outbursts of political insanity have become more and more frequent. Truth be told, I rarely engage people about their political beliefs because I have found that in the political realm, people believe what they want to believe. For many, political beliefs are akin to religious beliefs and any argument that counters their world view can cause great distress.
Which leads me to the issue of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
The political discourse no longer happens at parties or on the street but on the internet. Facebook posts, Instagram quotes and the likes are where people now share their thoughts and feelings. I have been completely fascinated by the Trump candidacy because it has literally caused people to become unhinged. A high school friend of mine posted on his Facebook feed that he was completely depressed by the positive reaction Trump was getting in the polls. He said he could not take it any more. He had made a personal decision that he would not and could not be friends with anybody who liked or supported Trump. He stated that his “friends” were supposed to tell him their positions on Trump so he could un-friend them and, also, left the door open for people to un-friend him. The gestures, kind words and experiences that made up his friendships were now to be forever cut…never to be repaired because of how someone viewed a political candidate..in this case Trump.
The Trump campaign spectacle has unveiled to me a whole new level of ideology and beliefs that I knew existed, but never fully comprehended. I really believe our whole societal structure came tumbling down with the death of religion in the West. The U.S used to be bound by a sense of shared commonalities. A common border, a common language and national culture. In some ways I have a special appreciation and feel more American than many others as my mother was a legal immigrant who became a U.S citizen. My wife, as well, is an immigrant to the U.S, so I understand personally and deeply what it means to be an American. The joke in many immigrant communities is that they are more Americans than American themselves. The reason being is that having lived in corrupt and Communist countries, they fully embrace the American way of life and appreciate it more deeply than a native born American. Most Americans lack the context to compare America to anything else. They only know the American experience.
Which leads me back to this death of commonality and shared beliefs of the American experience. Even the media understands this fracture and now defines the U.S by blue states vs red states.
We live in a culture that has become politicized. Every aspect of the culture is now viewed through a political lens. Once we lost the commonality that joined us, it seems people defaulted to defining themselves by their politics. For example, if someone is against gay marriage, that person is now considered a homophobe and a fool. There is no longer any room for nuance or other points of view. There is an inability to understand, and intolerance about, how someone could hold an opposing or different viewpoint. Or take the issue of global warming / climate change. If your are deemed a skeptic of the movement, there have actually been recent calls to impose prison sentences on climate deniers! We are now at a point where we plan to criminalize beliefs. Where does it end? I am not sure. But I can tell you that we’ve at least gotten far enough that if you like Trump its grounds to terminate a friendship.
Trump’s candidacy exists because Obama created the vacuum for Trump to become relevant. When Obama boasts how well the economy is doing, applauding his low unemployment number at 5%, the public knows something is amiss. With over 90 million people out of the workforce (1 in 3 Americans) Americans know the economy is not doing well. Trump’s pro business policies resonate with the American people because they have not taken part in the fictitious Obama economy that he continues to sell. When the President talks about his record on defeating ISIS and leaving Iraq, arguing that America has made the world a better place, Americans feel less secure not more secure..and the attacks on Paris and California have only heightened that insecurity.
As the media continues to support the Obama narrative, they are perplexed as to why Trump is doing so well. It is not that Trump is such a great candidate. Its that Americans instinctively know Trump is telling the truth and in his own way trying to “Make America Great Again.”
If we continue to allow ourselves to be played by the dividers among us, with separation and hostility as the norm, it will not matter who the next President will be. A people divided among itself will not stand… regardless of which political party prevails. If that happens politics, the yardstick we now brandish, will be irrelevant.
Survival will be all that matters.