(January 11, 2021 / JNS) When any new president is sworn in, patriotic Americans should regard the sacred ritual of democracy with the same thought in mind, no matter whether they voted for the person taking the oath. Even in this most hyper-partisan moment in living memory, we should all wish President-elect Joe Biden success. More to the point, we should equally resolve to support him whenever possible, even if we are equally obligated to oppose him whenever our conscience deems it necessary. After the last 12 months of a pandemic, resulting economic devastation, racial unrest and then a post-election dispute that eventually led to a disgraceful riot in which the Capitol was breached by violent rioters, Americans need both peace and healing. The question is: Are we more interested in settling scores with opponents or in making peace with them?
While there is reason to hope that Biden means what he says about bringing the country together, doing so after everything that has happened recently is easier said than done. It’s far from clear that some of the divisions that are tearing the country apart are capable of being bridged while many people on both sides of the political aisle seem more intent on doubling down on political warfare than in calming down. Even worse, some of those who claim that they are acting to protect democracy against those who threaten it are taking undemocratic actions that will not only hamper efforts at healing, but only set in concrete the polarization that has already taken such a toll on civil discourse.
At the heart of this is the question of what to do about President Donald Trump.
Trump’s refusal to accept that he was defeated in November and his insistence that a “landslide victory” was stolen from him led to tragedy last week when the rally he organized to protest the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory led to tragedy. The deaths and the awful images of the Capitol being assaulted by extremists will never be forgotten. In response, many Democrats are calling for Trump’s impeachment for inciting what they are terming an “insurrection.”
No matter what you call it, the president’s actions that led to this disgrace are worthy of censure. But what some call a necessary measure to hold him accountable may also be not only an obstacle to closure about the incident but deepen the already widening chasm between his supporters and the rest of the country.
And while this is a national problem, it’s one that the Jewish community needs to directly address as well since a sizable number of Jews—up to 30 percent—voted for Trump in November, and many are sticking with him even after the events of Jan. 6.
Heading into the election, we knew that many, if not most, of the 70 percent who voted against Trump didn’t merely disagree with him but also thought him the sum of all political evil, if not a would-be authoritarian and anti-Semite. At the same time, those who backed him considered him the most pro-Israel president in history with a sterling record in actually combating anti-Semitism.
Those who warned of Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies can regard his efforts to overturn the election results and the Capitol riot as justifying their position. Moreover, they can point to the presence of open anti-Semites at the protest, including supporters of the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory that seems now to overlap with those attempting to claim that magical Communist software and other skullduggery stole the election from Trump. But, like it or not, there were also Jews in the crowd supporting Trump and even some who joined in the mob’s assault on the Capitol, including one bizarrely dressed individual who is a son of a Brooklyn judge.
Just as Americans are torn between those who say that there must be accountability for Trump voters, the same is true between Jews. Some Jews who voted for Trump believe that despite his faults or the sorry way his presidency ended, his achievements in the Middle East justified their support even if they’d now like him to go away and not come back. Others are doubling down on backing him and dismiss criticisms of his clearly unacceptable actions.
More to the point, can there be national healing if, instead of moving on from Trump, we remain stuck in the argument about him? With House Democrats certain to rush passage of a second bill of impeachment this week, it’s doubtful. That’s true even if, as some are suggesting, the next step in the process would be held off for months to allow the Biden administration to get up and running, with Trump only being put on trial in the Senate long after he’s actually left office.
The same applies to the way that Internet and social-media companies have not only moved to silence Trump by closing his accounts where he spoke to an audience of more than 80 million followers on Twitter, but also by doing the same to many of his supporters. Even worse, the same Silicon Valley oligarchs whose untrammeled power over national discourse is rooted in their monopolies over the public-information superhighway have also moved to shut down Parler, a competitor of Twitter favored by Trump supporters.
This astonishing act of censorship by non-governmental entities that have the kind of power over the national public square that any would-be dictator would envy is being cheered by many Trump critics. They claim that it is necessary to silence people that some are characterizing as the moral equivalent of a terrorist group, even if that means characterizing millions of their fellow citizens as enemies. Like a gratuitous impeachment proceeding, it’s hard to understand how the actions of liberal Big Tech companies eager to ingratiate themselves with the Biden administration by taking revenge on its political foes is in any way consistent with an effort to heal the national divide. Unless, that is, crushing opponents who have already lost power is your idea of healing or democracy.
Equally dismaying is the way both Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris were quick last week to start rewriting history by treating months of violent riots and assaults on law enforcement by “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter protesters as acts of civil disobedience while even those Trump demonstrators who were peaceful were considered criminals.
In a country where we had already become two warring camps engaged in tribal culture conflict in which both sides have isolated themselves from the opinions of their opponents and are prepared to demonize them, the last thing we need now are more efforts to relitigate the election or the Jan. 6 riot. Trump supporters need to admit that the president was at fault and should stand down on foolish claims about the election. They should pledge to work with Biden rather than to act—as Democrats did four years ago when Trump was elected—as a “resistance.” But Biden’s supporters also need to seek common ground rather than revenge against their opponents.
If there was ever a president who needed to appeal, as Abraham Lincoln did in 1861, to the “better angels of our nature,” it is Biden. What we need from the new president is not further recrimination or attempts to jail a former president who has already been beaten but a declaration of a political ceasefire across the board, including the unconscionable effort to shut down conservative dissent on the web.
That won’t satisfy many angry partisans on his side, nor will it likely result in sweet reason pouring forth from some diehard Trump loyalists. But it is what most Americans need and want. If he can do that, he will start off his presidency on the sort of high note that will win near-universal applause and answer the prayers of a nation desperately in need of a respite from strife.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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