For this first column of 2021, I intended to address the controversy generated by the Pendleton street markers named for famous Confederates. But the Jan. 6 attack on Congress got me thinking more about prologue than past. I wondered how we go on in the wake of this outrageous trespass on the rule of law.
Too shell-shocked myself to attempt answers, I polled my personal “Vox Populi” to weigh in on the way forward and brainstorm the post-Donald Trump prologue. Around 75 individuals offered their thoughts.
Overwhelmingly, people responded that the country most immediately requires action — first of all, on COVID-19. The federal government should launch an all-out effort, some declared, to vaccinate as many people as possible, to get kids back to school, open businesses and return life to (perhaps a new) normal. Americans will not feel free to do these things otherwise. Broadly popular initiatives that would not “relaunch the culture wars,” in the words of one respondent, figured prominently as well. An ambitious infrastructure bill to repair visibly crumbling bridges and highways, and create many well-paying jobs, might be a good place to start.
If Americans felt more secure in their own domestic economy, this reasoning goes, they would become more generous with their neighbors, who may not look like them and/or differ with them politically.
Some respondents prioritized accountability. The insurrectionists that stormed the U.S. Capitol, terrorized the Congress and vandalized that historic structure should face trial and punishment to the fullest extent of the law. Next, these individuals wanted to see the president impeached, for incitement on Jan. 6 and repeated attempts at election interference. The public and its elected representatives must see, they said, that lawless attacks on democratic elections and institutions will not stand.
Not everyone shared this view. Some wanted to move on, believing that impeachment would further embitter the country. Better to emphasize initiatives that might forge some consensus. Let respected investigative journalists assemble a full accounting of the Trump presidency, make it available to the public, and leave it at that.
Reconciliation proved to be a popular theme in the responses, too. One thoughtful respondent proposed that President-elect Joe Biden publicly hail some notable Trump successes, like the rapid development of the COVID vaccine, as a gesture of goodwill. Several Trump voters shared that they were tired of being branded a “racist, homophobe or Trumptard” by those who disagreed with them.
“I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head,” as your mom always admonished, has fresh relevance today. Several people suggested a conscious effort to broaden one’s circle. A proposal of national service that would mix rural with city kids in cooperative work sounded promising. I thought of the ”Great Get-Together” campaign, launched following the murder of British politician Jo Cox by an embittered Brexit supporter. Proponents organized a series of local meet-ups, over drinks and snacks, for getting acquainted and discussion of current issues. As in Northern Ireland and other societies riven by conflict, getting to know personally people of different beliefs can dial down tensions.
Information issues, specifically the prevalence of demonstrably false narratives, disturbed some respondents. How could Trump voters, they asked, continue to insist the election was stolen when 61 lawsuits failed to present enough evidence to get a hearing even before Trump-appointed judges? Somehow, the country must reject unfounded claims, no matter how much individuals might wish they were true.
One Facebook friend recommended a rereading of Voltaire, who warned, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” — like storming the Capitol. Rejecting media extremes, like Fox News and MSNBC, and opting for vetted, fact-checked journalism, like The Wall Street Journal, became a popular prescription as well.
Finally, a Washington, D.C., friend hoped the country would remember that elections are competitions. You cannot expect to win every time, you cannot claim “I was robbed” without evidence, and when you lose, you need to put in the organizing and policy-making work that will improve your chances next time around.
Inauguration Day is Jan. 20 for Biden. It also marks 60 years since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. I leave you with an excerpt from JFK’s 1963 American University address, because his words underscore what unites us even as they acknowledge conflict:
“So, let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved,” he said. “And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”