by Russell Johnson
It’s only August, but we already know who TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year will be. It’s not Simone Biles, it’s not Elon Musk, and it’s not Pikachu.
No, in 2016 no one has been in America’s spotlight more than Donald Trump, and it’s not even close. He has been protested, praised, scrutinized, reviled, endorsed, criticized, quoted, and parodied more than anyone. He is the tap on the knee to which everyone immediately reacts. If 2016 were a novel, Trump would be the main character, and every other character would take their place in relation to him.
It’s hard to overstate the widespread obsession with Trump which has captured the imagination of pundits, news media, and bloggers, especially those on the left. The pull is hard to escape—there’s just so much to say about him. There are so many things to criticize; scholars, artists, and comedians are relishing in the opportunity to unload their full critical arsenal. Finally there is a villain deserving our smug liberal heroics. So we enlist in the war of everyone versus Trump. And as so often happens in wartime, we violate the very principles for which we fight. Some of the casualties of 2016 have been objectivity, charitable interpretation, tolerance, a cooperative approach to governance, and even basic respect.
J.D. Vance captured this well when he said, “The other big problem I have with Trump is that he has dragged down our entire political conversation. It’s not just that he inflames the tribalism of the Right; it’s that he encourages the worst impulses of the Left. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard from so many of my elite friends some version of, ‘Trump is the racist leader all of these racist white people deserve.’ These comments almost always come from white progressives who know literally zero culturally working class Americans. And I’m always left thinking: if this is the quality of thought of a Harvard Law graduate, then our society is truly doomed. In a world of Trump, we’ve abandoned the pretense of persuasion.”
I feel the sting of Vance’s indictment. I, too, spend most of my life in an educated white progressive bubble. I have been in many conversations that resonate with the distant cynicism of Vance’s elite friends. In my zeal to challenge Trump’s hate and ignorance, I end up expressing my own hate and ignorance. Even though I am literally writing a book about charitable disagreement and loving your enemies in argument, I find myself enlisting in the war on Trump. “Can you believe what he just said?!,” I say to myself before pouring another judgmental rant into my laptop. I never stop to ask myself—let alone ask them— why Trump and his supporters think this way, what these beliefs do for them and how I might help them or learn from them.
What other option is there? What is the alternative to “the worst impulses of the Left”? I think the first place to look is the Hebrew Bible. One of the lessons of the Hebrew Bible is that the main character is never the main character. Whenever there is a story ostensibly about Moses or Saul or Daniel, the real main character of the story is the people of Israel. Was Israel faithful? Were the people just or exploitative? Did they trust in God or did they trust in chariots and horses? Most importantly, the Hebrew Bible turns the question on its readers—how is our community now like their community was then? If we focus too narrowly on Moses, we miss the fact that Israel turned to worship a golden calf. We miss the opportunity to be confronted with the possibility that we, too, have our own idols that we call God. As we read the Bible, the patriarchs, kings, and prophets deflect attention away from themselves. They hold up a mirror instead, inviting readers to focus on their own situation in light of the dreams, fears, blessings, and sins of Israel’s history.
Trump is not the main character of 2016. The main character is the American people, especially the “culturally working class Americans” Vance mentioned. The story of this election cycle is not the war of Trump versus everyone, but the story of a nation that is so worried about the direction America is headed that they turned to Trump. Journalists, scholars, and activists have been so preoccupied with the man Donald Trump that we have dismissed or neglected the main character of the story. And in the process, we have neglected to love our neighbor. Condemning Trump’s biweekly scandalous remarks has turned into a diversion. A pastime that prevents us from listening to and responding to the deep dissatisfaction and alienation felt by so many Americans. This is not to say we cannot be critical; we must be critical. I simply worry that Donald Trump’s racism is distracting us from America’s racism, that Donald Trump’s misogyny is distracting us from America’s misogyny. As in the Bible, too narrow of a focus on one character can blind us to the deeper problems that we as a nation are facing.
Trump has held a mirror up to the American people and shown that many of us are dissatisfied, even cynical, with the state of American politics. This is true not only of his supporters but also his most fervent critics. Repudiating Trump is easy; the difficult task is asking how we can work together build a government worthy of Americans’ trust. Whatever “the establishment” is, millions of people believe that it does not represent their interests. Rather than simply fixating on Trump, we should be asking why—and not just crunching statistics but actually asking Trump voters. Trump is not so much their leader as he is an expression of their protest. I worry that the energy and passion that has been spent taking Trump down has come at the expense of listening to this protest, understanding the dissatisfaction at its heart, and responding in ways that heal rather than deepen animosity.
If we want the story of 2017 to be better than the story of 2016, it is not enough to simply mock Trump while ignoring the real main character. We need—with self-reflection, historical awareness, and critical compassion—to talk together about how we can make America great.