Remind me to never again ask this question: “How could things possibly get any worse?” This week showed us that things can always get worse. You can have a president who has played on bigotry and xenophobia in various disgusting ways but at least has never told four non-white congresswomen to go back to where they came from. You can have a president who has inspired supporters to do deeply unsettling things but at least has never stood in front of a crowd, baskingin its malevolence, as it chanted—about a Somali woman who came to America as a child refugee, gained US citizenship, and then got elected to Congress—“Send her back.”
Regular readers of this newsletter are familiar with my sermons about the importance of responding to Trump’s provocations with discernment—which can mean not responding at all, since sometimes Trump’s goal is to elicit a reaction that will fortify his base. Well, for the record: This is not an occasion when tactical silence is in order. When Trump adds a whole new dimension to his incitement of hatred and bigotry, when he stands in front of a crowd and evokes with new power memories of history’s most dangerous authoritarians, there has to be pushback.
Still, this being the Mindful Resistance Newsletter, I’m duty bound to ask what form the pushback should take—and, in the course of answering that question, to assess this episode as dispassionately as possible, under the circumstances.
Last weekend I attended my college reunion, as I do every five years. There are lots of things to do at a college reunion. Such as: put a positive spin on the last five years of your life, then do that again, then do that again.
Plus, reunions are a good place to study ritual. And I don’t just mean the opening ritual of slowly grasping the awful truth. (“Who are all these old people? Where are the people from my class?… Oh.”) I mainly mean the kinds of rituals an anthropologist might study—rituals of tribalism.
This year I engaged in a ritual that led me to add a new species of tribalism to my taxonomy of tribalisms. I call it ironic tribalism, and I’m wondering if it offers hope for the world.
As it happens, I attended a college, Princeton, that makes a famously big deal out of reunions. It is said to have the highest reunion participation rate of any college in America, or in the Ivy League, or something. And presumably the highest gaudiness quotient. My class-issued orange-and-black weekend wardrobe consisted of three shirts, two hats, and a blazer that made my high-school-senior-prom tux jacket (a tangerine plaid) look dignified. Plus orange shoe strings.
This week’s passage in Alabama of the most severe anti-abortion law in recent American history triggered a flashback. I was back in my sophomore history class at Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio. There, at the front of the class, wearing cowboy boots, was Mr. Lightfoot, a stout middle-aged man who, in addition to being a history teacher, was a football coach and a farmer.
This was the year of Roe v. Wade. Mr. Lightfoot explained to the class that the people who think abortion should be legal are people who “want to have their fun and not pay for it.”
What struck me at the time was that this was a pretty grim view of parenthood—child rearing as a kind of decades-long penance for having had sex. What strikes me now is something different: even back then, before America was famously tribal, abortion was a tribal issue.
Mr. Lightfoot didn’t just think the people who disagreed with him about abortion were bad people because they were on the wrong side of that particular morally charged issue. He had a broader picture of their badness; they were people who engaged in or tolerated sexual promiscuity. And this perception, I would guess, only strengthened his conviction that they were wrong about abortion—even though, as a strictly logical matter, the question of whether promiscuity is bad and the question of whether a fetus is a human being aren’t the same question.
In keeping with my long history of taking courageous positions, I opined in last week’s newsletter that hatred is a bad thing. Now MRN reader Jane is asking whether I could develop that observation into something that is, you know, actually of use to someone.
Jane put it more politely than that. I had said that we seem to be witnessing an escalating war between violent extremists—mainly white nationalists on one side and jihadists on the other. Recognizing that hatred was fueling this war, I said, was the place to start in thinking about “constructive policies the next administration might pursue and about constructive non-governmental initiatives (including the micro-initiatives that each of us can take in our everyday lives).” Jane quoted the part about micro-initiatives and wrote, “I wish you’d elaborate on this.”
OK, I’ll try. But please keep your expectations low. Remember: I said micro-initiatives.