(November 11, 2020 / JNS) Are Americans ready to stop fighting the 2020 presidential election? For many of us, the most divisive and bitter political battle of our lifetimes couldn’t end soon enough. So when projected winner Joe Biden spoke of the need for unity, he was widely applauded. “We have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies,” said Biden. “They are not our enemies. They’re Americans.”
Not everyone seems to agree. That includes many of his opponents, who believe that recounts or court challenges to the count may change the outcome, as well as many of those who supported his candidacy. It seems that all too many Americans are not so much unwilling to stop fighting about the election as they are very much determined to keep viewing political opponents as enemies. And as bad as this will be for the country, it is particularly troublesome for a Jewish community that is also split along denominational and political lines in ways that are making it difficult, if not impossible, to work together even when a common goal can be identified.
For those who believe that the outcome of the election is still in question, Biden’s call for unity is a distraction from their attempts to question the reported results. Moreover, they also point out that Biden has sometimes been guilty of seeking to delegitimize his opponents as his attempt to convince African-Americans that Republicans then led by Mitt Romney were going to “put y’all back in chains.”
Republicans are within their rights to ask for recounts or to ask the courts to adjudicate their claims of mistakes or possible fraud. That’s true even if the chances of overturning the result may not be great. Moreover, Democrats who spent much of the last four years “resisting” rather than merely opposing an elected president and doing everything they could to overturn the results of the 2016 election are in no position to criticize their GOP counterparts for not being good sports.
It is hypocritical for people who promoted false charges about Trump colluding with Russia that embroiled the nation in years of pointless strife aimed at deposing the president to now criticize his supporters for spouting conspiracy theories about the ways in which they think the 2020 election was stolen.
Still, that won’t excuse those on the right who, if the courts turn down their claims, won’t accept the outcome. In such scorched-earth political warfare, neither side can claim to be the only victims when they are labeling their opponents as evil.
Even before the election, commentator and former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich called for the creation of an American “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” along the lines of what happened in South Africa after the end of apartheid. His goal was to systematically shame and denounce all Trump supporters and to hold them up to shame and ostracism.
Since the election, support for the same kind of concept is growing. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, who has called for the Republican Party to be “burned down” with “no survivors” allowed, is stepping up her efforts to chase political opponents from the public square. But when those actively involved in politics call for such measures, we’ve crossed a red line that should never have been approached.
Democratic National Committee press secretary Hari Sevugan tweeted that those who worked in the administration should face “consequences” for pursuing policies he opposed. That was echoed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who called for the archiving of statements or tweets by Republicans so as to ensure that they could be shamed in a post-Trump future in which no one who didn’t oppose the president would be called to account for serving in his administration or just voting for it.
In response to these appeals, a group calling itself the “Trump Accountability Project” sprung up to create just such an archive in which evidence would be collected to ensure that administration officials could never get another job or just be hounded out of decent society. As far as those who support this project are concerned, everyone who voted for—let alone served Trump—is a racist and an opponent of democracy. That this kind of thing might be applied against not just officials but the 48 percent of the country that voted for Trump is outrageous. But in an age of social media and corporate cancel culture, it is not far-fetched to think that it won’t succeed to some extent.
This kind of thinking isn’t just cancel culture run amuck. It is the natural consequence of a campaign in which Trump and his supporters weren’t merely labeled as wrong but as the moral equivalent of Nazis, as Jewish Democrats did an infamous web ad. Rather than merely an egregious campaign tactic, this attempt to smear everyone who preferred Trump to Biden as supporters of evil is a body blow to democracy not just because it’s a false accusation, but because it also fuels fear on the right about the motives of their opponents. Some conservatives reason that those who think all Republicans are evil are liable to do anything in their power to stop Trump at any cost and by any means, fair or foul.
That’s the trouble with treating politics like a religious war rather than a spirited disagreement among fellow citizens who share common values.
By now, we’ve passed the point where it makes any sense to make claims as to which side is more intolerant of their opponents. The two major parties and many, if not most, of their supporters, have come to believe that those on the other side are not just mistaken but downright evil.
Regardless of the outcome of the election aftermath, it is imperative that decent people reject this kind of thinking. That’s especially true in a Jewish community that is more divided than ever. More than two-thirds of Jews seem to have voted for Biden with the remaining third backing Trump. If liberal Jews are going to think of the Orthodox and political conservative Jews as now beyond the pale, then the forces breaking American Jewry apart will only continue to grow in strength.
It’s not too late to step back from this abyss and to start remembering that people who voted for a different candidate just have different political opinions and are not Nazis. If we don’t, it won’t just lead to more divisive discourse, but to permanent and unbridgeable schisms within American Jewry. The price of toxic politics is paid not just in angry arguments but a growing normalization of attacks that brand individuals as evil. No community can long exist on those terms.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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