As Joe Biden pledges to be president of all the people, his most daunting challenge will be to reduce the hatred afflicting America. This raises immediate difficulties, because much of what Biden has to do will further inflame the far right.
The Biden Justice Department and the FBI need to resume tracking and arresting domestic terrorists. Biden must also end the war on immigrants, use executive power to advance racial justice, and protect the fundamentals of democracy itself. All of this will rile up the very groups responsible for most of the hatred and division.
The far right, egged on by Trump, has fomented violence, created militias, and used force and the threat of force to intimidate. Research by the political scientist Larry Bartels finds that 40 to 70 percent of Republican voters embrace such frankly authoritarian views as “A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands” or “It is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.”
More from Robert Kuttner
Many kinds of reconciliation needed are evidently at odds with each other. There are contradictions between overdue racial reparation and outreach to a partly racist Trump base. There are tensions between the project of healing the country and the more frankly partisan project of reclaiming Trump voters based on common economic interests. And of course, Mitch McConnell will do everything possible to try to make Biden fail, stoking these divisions even as Biden extends a hand.
Fortunately, much of the work of national healing happens not in Washington but on the ground. For this article, I spoke with about two dozen people who have worked to counter polarization and soften the tendency to demonize others: pastors, anti-racism activists, educators, moral philosophers, community organizers, and social scientists.
The deep canvass pursues better understanding of how conservative voters translate legitimate grievances into political attitudes and how to build new coalitions around true common interests.
Social theorist and negotiator John Paul Lederach, author of The Moral Imagination, has worked to move former enemies beyond intractable polarization in settings as diverse and challenging as Ghana, Colombia, and Northern Ireland. He speaks of the need to “re-humanize” perceived enemies. “Trust is the first victim of conflict,” he says. “Polarization is the first killer of curiosity. When people live in closed systems, they are secure in the knowledge of who their enemy is. Coming out of a cycle of violence, people have to take risks to sit down with enemies.”
This counsel may sound a little touchy-feely, but it is practiced by America’s shrewdest organizers as well as those with spiritual or diplomatic objectives. This sensibility also informs such work as the restorative-justice movement, in which criminal offenders and their victims acknowledge each other’s humanity in the spirit of redemption rather than revenge. Much of this work might be called pre-political. If we can begin with active listening and acknowledgment of common humanity, the recognition of common interests and political depolarization may follow.
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Most people drawn to Trump are not hardcore haters beyond redemption. Trump voters, seated across a kitchen table, express many of the same concerns that vex their Democratic counterparts. The challenge is to give people space to step back from the binary, tribal thinking in which you are either a friend or an enemy.
The good news is that a lot of creative work is going forward. The not-so-good news is that divisions will get worse before they get better. Trump’s fall from power will enrage his base, and the ex-president, aided by the echo chamber of Fox News and right-wing social media, will work to intensify that rage. The challenge is to pursue common ground without giving ground to hate.
The Soft Power of Deep Listening
Arlie Hochschild, whose classic 2016 book on Tea Party supporters, Strangers in Their Own Land, saw Trumpism coming, spent hundreds of hours at kitchen tables in Lake Charles, Louisiana, between 2011 and 2015, trying to gain a better appreciation of why so many people evidently voted against their economic self-interest. Hochschild, a sociologist practicing a kind of political ethnography, was not trying to convert her subjects, just to understand them.
She found, first, that these were mostly good-hearted people, happy that someone from Berkeley of all places was asking nonjudgmental questions. Many became her friends, and remain so several years later. People in Lake Charles, she learned, turned to the Tea Party because they felt their government was no longer serving their interests. For all the power of the EPA, chemical companies were destroying their bayous. They felt culturally ridiculed by mainstream media. Their alienation was compounded by the perception that the government seemed to care about immigrants, minority groups benefiting from racial preferences, and even endangered species more than people like themselves.
Hochschild devised a parable called the Deep Story, which she sent to her subjects to see whether she had gotten their concerns right.
You see people cutting in line ahead of you! … They are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches. … Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with. … Unbelievably, standing in front of you in line is a brown pelican.
One of her Louisiana friends emailed back, “I live your analogy.” Another said, “You’ve read my mind.”
Four years later, Trump has not made life better for Hochschild’s subjects and their neighbors. Trump’s war on the EPA makes the Lake Charles area even more polluted. His assault on the Affordable Care Act makes health coverage more precarious. But attitudes, once entrenched, are very hard to dislodge, especially when reinforced by Fox News, right-wing talk radio, social media, and fundamentalist churches. On November 3, Trump carried Calcasieu Parish (Lake Charles) 67 to 31.
“We have the Deep Story, but after 2016 we have new chapters,” Hochschild says. “OK, we elected someone who will stop the people cutting in line. He will make us great again. Tell me about your experience. Is life really better for you? Did coal come back? Do you have better job prospects? Is your health coverage more secure? So now we need new bridges and new deep conversations with reality testing.”
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People’s Action, a group that began in the 1970s to build multiracial coalitions to resist redlining, is today one of the nation’s largest progressive organizing projects, operating in 29 states, with 358 paid canvassers and 35,000 volunteers. In 2017, after Trump’s win, People’s Action’s longtime director, George Goehl, began an initiative called the Deep Canvass. The idea was to train organizers and dispatch them into rural red America, to hear what was really stressing lower-income white people, and then to move the conversation to areas of common interest.
“We’ve found that when people start to see the dissonance between what they believe and what they actually want, their views change,” Goehl has written. In the election year, this work had frankly partisan goals—to have extended conversations to move Trump voters into the Biden camp. By Election Day, canvassers for People’s Action had logged more than 200,000 conversations in battleground states.
A report by social scientists David Broockman of Berkeley and Josh Kalla of Yale, working with Goehl, found that these active-listening conversations shifted 3 percent of voters who had been planning to vote for Trump to Biden, including 4.9 percent of women. That may not sound like a lot, but Biden won the key battleground states by 2 percent or less, and Broockman and Kalla reported that deep canvass work is more than 100 times more effective in shifting preferences than conventional phone-calling and door-knocking.
With the election over, People’s Action plans to redouble these efforts. Over the long term, the deep canvass is intended to gain a better understanding of how conservative voters translate life experiences and legitimate grievances into political attitudes, and how to build new coalitions around true common interests.
A lot of this work is counterintuitive. Many of these organizers working deep in Trump territory are Black or immigrant. One of Goehl’s canvassers, Maria Elena Fournier, has a heartbreaking and uplifting life story. She grew up mostly in Puerto Rico. Her mother died of cancer when she was eight. Her father moved the family to Miami, but had to be hospitalized with Alzheimer’s. He died when Maria Elena was 14. Neither parent had adequate health care. She was raised by siblings, in poverty. Somehow, Maria Elena made it to community college in Michigan, excelled, and transferred to Ann Arbor to study public health.
Her passion is working as a deep canvasser. Knocking on the door of a trailer park home in Monroe County, Michigan, she encountered a frail 82-year-old woman named Inga. “I usually start off with something like, Hello my name is Maria Elena and I’m reaching out to members of the community to see how you’re doing and to see if your needs are being met,” she tells me.
Inga’s needs were not being met. She was dealing with a broken bone, and did not have adequate health insurance. Her husband, a Korean War vet, had recently died of Alzheimer’s, and the family was so strapped financially that they had had to choose between eating and paying for medication. “I started telling her that my mother unfortunately passed away from cancer because we couldn’t get access to the proper health care, even though the hospitals were right there near us.”
It developed that Inga was also an immigrant, originally from Germany. When the conversation began, Inga was hostile to the idea of universal health insurance, least of all for immigrants. After two hours of talk about shared struggles, Inga’s views had softened. “She began in a place where everyone needs to pay for themselves,” Fournier told me, “and by the end she realized, I lost my husband to a lack of health care, I am struggling with my own health because of this lack of health care, and I don’t want my granddaughters and my daughters to have to go through the same.”
Sharing stories with another immigrant named Ahmed, in Flint, Michigan, she learned that he was so traumatized by Trump’s anti-immigrant policies that Ahmed had decided not to vote even though he was now a citizen and legally qualified. “He was terrified that the system would try to hurt him,” Fournier recalls. “He didn’t even feel comfortable seeking health care because he felt they might take away his citizenship status.” By the end of the conversation, he had resolved to vote—against Trump. Maria Elena Fournier is 21.
Hope in the Next Generation
As a junior at Yale, David McCullough was awarded a two-semester fellowship for an independent research project. He chose to spend the summer driving around the country to engage unfamiliar places and people. He ended up spending time in Cotulla, Texas; inner-city Cleveland; and on the Pine Ridge Reservation. By the time he returned, McCullough had the germ of an idea. High school students who dwelled in separate cultural silos needed to “study abroad in their own country,” as he puts it. Maybe it was too late to save many parents and grandparents, who were often frozen in their own prejudices, but the next generation was more open and pliable. Some of the kids might even educate their families.
After a year of grad school, McCullough moved back in with his parents in Sudbury, Massachusetts, supported himself by teaching high school as a sub, raised some money, and launched the American Exchange Project in the fall of 2019. As mentors, he had Paul Solman of PBS, a journalist who is especially good at active listening himself, and Robert Glauber, a Harvard Kennedy School lecturer who served as George H.W. Bush’s Treasury undersecretary and is committed to efforts at depolarization.
McCullough recruited students from liberal Massachusetts and conservative Louisiana and East Texas. But before he could launch, COVID intervened. So the project’s first year occurred, like so much else, via Zoom. The kids, high school freshman through seniors, meet five days a week online as a drop-in lightly moderated by McCullough, with some scheduled sessions with guest stints by Solman and Glauber. “It’s kind of like the cafeteria table at which any kid in America can sit, at any time of day,” he says.
Topics range from fanciful to silly to quasi-political. One early ice-breaker exercise invited the students to imagine a car trip to any four locations in the world. They could bring three people—a famous person, a dead person, and a friend or family member. Many of the Southern kids wanted to bring Jesus. The Northern kids wanted to bring Lincoln or Robin Williams. But the students discovered they liked many of the same sports and movie stars, and found things to admire as they learned about each other’s families. “The conversations were entirely student-led and organic,” McCullough says. “It helps create friendship and understanding across the divide. It’s the old Atticus Finch idea to step out of your shoes and into someone else’s.”
One day, after a fair amount of trust had been built, McCullough decided to lob a small grenade. “Allison,” he asked one of the Louisiana girls, “if you are a 21-year-old in Lake Charles, what are the odds you’ve had a run-in with pregnancy?” Allison replied, “Oh, 40 percent at least.”
“You could see the faces of the kids from Wellesley and Sudbury just fall to the floor,” McCullough recalls. Why don’t you believe in abortion, they wanted to know. She said, “Well, because it’s just not what we think down here. No one would say it’s a good idea to have a baby as a teenager, but they don’t talk a lot about birth control either.” The Southern girls, in turn, were stunned at how casually the Massachusetts kids spoke about abortions. But then Allison flipped the question: “I thought you guys were liberals, you’re supposed to be open-minded to the mistakes that people make.”
So far, over 100 students are participating, and this will soon grow to over 200. The live student exchange, planned for next summer, awaits the end of the pandemic. Last May, after the program’s first year was ending, they surveyed the students. They found that 93 percent of kids said they had made great friends; 93 percent said they had gained more empathy for different lifestyles and new perspectives; 97 percent reported that they came across perspectives they never considered before; and 100 percent wanted to remain involved in the program. Despite deep differences on some of the most polarizing issues, they felt they had made valued new friends.
Every student in America could benefit from this program or something like it. But this is going to be a long slog, because the cultural pulls to stay in your own silo are so intense. The much-lauded educational program Facing History and Ourselves has been at it since 1976. Facing History began as an educational effort to deal with Holocaust denial, and quickly broadened out to enable students to connect discussions of historical conundrums—how would you have behaved in Nazi Germany or Reconstruction Mississippi—to current ethical dilemmas in their own lives. The curriculum is used in tens of thousands of high schools, by 125,000 teachers. Millions of students have learned from it.
A cynic might respond: Great, but America still elected Donald Trump. True enough. However, attitudes have grown steadily more open-minded on such hot-button cultural issues as race and LGBT rights. A majority of all Americans now have no objection to intermarriage, but support among millennials is overwhelming. Preliminary exit polls suggest that voters 18 to 29 supported Biden 62-33, compared to a 51-48 margin generally. The project of active engagement of the young goes forward, while we wait for the bigots to die off.
America’s churches would seem like good places to pursue common ground. After several conversations with pastors of diverse faiths, I can report that some churches are making episodic progress on race, but not on cultural schisms.
Martin Luther King famously said that the most segregated hour in the week is 11 a.m. on Sundays. Part of this is not just the legacy of white racism but reflects the fact that the Black church has been a cherished center of cultural and political identity and self-preservation. However, Sunday morning has slowly become more integrated racially, while the divisions between conservative evangelicals and everyone else have hardened. Indeed, in the past year, three major denominations—the Southern Baptists, the Episcopalians, and the United Methodists—have faced schisms over such issues as LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and the role of women.
The role of the white evangelical church as a de facto arm of the Republican Party resists efforts at bridge-building. Robert P. Jones, a Baptist theologian and social scientist who heads the Public Religion Research Institute, explains in his book White Too Long that Southern pastors were long part of the white power structure, and white supremacy was deeply ingrained in church doctrine. It was only in the late 1970s that the anti-abortion crusade became central to this toxic brew of racism and cultural fundamentalism.
“In the years right after Roe v. Wade,” Jones reminds me, “the Southern Baptist Conference had no objection to abortion. The main objection came from the Catholics.” But on the eve of the 1980 election, GOP strategist and Catholic conservative Paul Weyrich brokered a deal in which the Southern Baptist theology would become officially anti-abortion. The Rev. Jerry Falwell bought in, not because he cared about abortion, but because he was livid that after the Civil Rights Act, the federal government had challenged Bob Jones University’s tax exemption.
This corrupt deal was all part of the Reagan administration’s coalition with the religious right. Anti-abortion was not rooted in church doctrine. But two generations later, white evangelicals have internalized these beliefs and are more fervent right-to-lifers than Catholics (a majority of whom do not oppose abortion). “The original fuel wasn’t abortion or gay rights,” Jones says. “It was civil rights.” Thus does the white evangelical church reinforce its anti-liberalism with both race and culture.
The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, the longtime pastor of All Souls Church in downtown Tulsa, is one of that fraught city’s best bridge-builders. In 2004, a prominent Black Pentecostal bishop, Carlton Pearson, a personal protégé of Oral Roberts, was formally declared a heretic for preaching what he called a gospel of inclusion, questioning whether biblical Hell literally existed. Lavanhar invited Pearson and his remaining flock to share his church, creating Tulsa’s most racially and theologically diverse religious space. (A movie about Pearson’s ordeal, Come Sunday, premiered at Sundance in 2018.)
A good shorthand for what we are trying to recover is the Enlightenment—the ancient argument of reason versus blind faith.
But when it comes to seeking common ground with white fundamentalists, Lavanhar has encountered zero reciprocal interest. Ecumenical activity in Tulsa is mostly limited to liberal and mainline congregations and pastors, says Lavanhar, with occasional participation by Catholic parishes. Social issues remain toxic. In late October, after the Oklahoma Conference of Churches launched a yearlong “No Hate in the Heartland” campaign, the Catholic bishop of Tulsa withdrew support because of language supporting LGBT rights. “Can you imagine?” Lavanhar asks. “They rejected No Hate in the Heartland.”
Bishop T.D. Jakes, one of the best-known megachurch pastors, presides over a Pentecostal Dallas congregation known as the Potter’s House with 30,000 members, and a physical church that can seat over 8,000. Jakes’s congregation is mostly Black, with a sprinkling of whites and Latinos. He stays away from party politics. “I’m sure we have some Trump voters,” he tells me. He too has had little success reaching out to white fundamentalist pastors. At a three-hour interdenominational meeting of Black and white pastors after the 2018 police murder of Black accountant Botham Jean, he says, the white evangelicals were mainly upset at being stereotyped.
“The bridges are somewhat easier to build among the younger Caucasian pastors,” Jakes told me. “I am not saying that the older ones are consciously bigoted. I think the biases are woven into the fabric of our history and right now the frightening thing for America, as the demographics change, is the relinquishing of power.”
The Rev. Glenn Young, of the First Baptist Church of Kilgore, Texas, is a prominent conservative evangelical who has worked hard both to engage the community on racial issues and to reach out to liberals. After the murder of George Floyd, Rev. Young called a meeting of the city’s pastors, Black and white. “We had several listening sessions, including the mayor and the chief of police,” he told me. “A lot of the pastors came in. Some of our meetings were just allowing Black leaders to talk.”
There had been no racial violence in Kilgore, but Blacks felt excluded. Much of the conversation was about better economic opportunities. A letter on racial healing was composed. The letter said in part:
George Floyd’s death is a symptom of the deeper disease of racism that plagues our society. … “[In Kilgore] we rejoice that we are able to live together, and in many cases work together, in relative peace and concord. Yet, we grieve that disparities still exist. We grieve that we do not see equal representation of all people of color in positions of civil and educational leadership.
The letter was drafted by one of the most liberal preachers in the group, a Presbyterian who had been to seminary in the North—and it used language that some regarded as inflammatory, such as “structural racism.” Still, nearly fifty ministers did sign. Young says, “People are OK if you use language like ‘systematic inequality.’ But if you tell people that they are racists and don’t even know it, you lose them.”
For Young, progress on race is possible. The deal-breaker with liberals is abortion. “I’m a limited-government conservative, but I could not vote for Trump,” he says. “But I could not vote for Biden either. I believe a fetus is a human life. I’d have a hard time endorsing a Democratic candidate who is a good person but who is pro-abortion.”
Young acknowledges the quandary. “So you end up settling for a bad person. Morally, issues that horrified evangelicals with Clinton—they excuse Trump. He’s an adulterer, he runs casinos. Publicly they back Trump, privately there is a lot of hand-wringing about it, and nobody has an answer.”
For several decades, some in the reproductive-rights community have sought to engage anti-abortion activists. All of these efforts have ended in failure. If you believe that abortion is murder and that defenders of reproductive rights are baby-killers, why would you want to seek common ground with murderers? This has wider ramifications in the broader quest for depolarization, since it serves as a general stumbling block.
The good news, once again, is generational. As Robert P. Jones points out, in 2008, white evangelicals were 22 percent of the population. Today, they are 15 percent. The median age of members of evangelical congregations has risen to 57. Just 9 percent of parishioners are under 30, and despite their strict religious upbringing, most leave the church in high school.
Remarkably, the hardcore fundamentalist right is losing its young. Home, church, family—and sometimes bigotry—are a package. The more fundamentalist the faith, the more you are at risk of betraying your family if you open yourself to heterodox friends and ideas. Tara Westover’s wrenching bestseller, Educated, recounts the continuing gravitational pull of her abusive family, even as she was becoming a celebrated scholar ostensibly liberated from ultra-fundamentalism. Yet the young are inherently and increasingly more open-minded, and can be reached.
The Paradox of Outreach to the Oppressor
The summer of 2020 will be remembered as a moment when Black demands for national recognition of racial wrongs finally reached a pitch where whites of goodwill acknowledged the need for radical remediation. The sadistic police murder of George Floyd, coming after so many others, pricked the white conscience. Black Lives Matter went from being a marginal slogan to a credo embraced by a majority of whites. Radical police reform and even reparations became topics for mainstream conversation. It was the greatest upsurge of white support for civil rights since the 1960s.
This was the vindication of decades of anti-racism work. There are countless efforts all over America to engage whites to accept the continuing reverberations of America’s original sin, and the need for drastic reparation. Some of these efforts are heroic and touching. There is the occasional “amazing grace” moment, where a former bigot frankly acknowledges their crude racism. But for the most part, these conversations, whether white-on-white or in mixed groups, tend to involve whites who are already woke, or at least open-minded.
Meanwhile, at least some Black leaders declare that America is fast becoming a majority-minority country. In political terms, that means that efforts should be directed toward expanding the rainbow base; no concessions in narrative or policy should be made in the vain hope of winning back working-class whites with a history of racism.
Yet the voting statistics of 2020 suggest the importance of a coalition of both race and class. Black turnout dramatically increased over 2016, in places like Philadelphia, Detroit, and Milwaukee. But Biden was also able to reduce Trump’s share of the white working-class vote by about five percentage points. Trump won Macomb County, Michigan, archetypal Reagan Democrat territory, by 12 points in 2016. In 2020, he won it by eight. With Trump’s increase in the Latino vote, most notably in Florida and South Texas, it’s also an illusion that all people of color vote as a progressive bloc.
The progressive organization Demos has done pioneering work to develop what it calls the Race-Class Narrative, finding language that reinforces commonalities as well as a frank acknowledgment of the need to overcome racism. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has spent several years developing a strategy and a language on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT), and now has local projects in 14 cities.
“You can’t have a political revolution if you don’t talk to people who disagree with you.”
The Dallas TRHT project works to bring together people of diverse racial and economic backgrounds to share personal histories and learn more about the history of Dallas. The project’s materials explain how Dallas was built on land stolen from native peoples, with slave labor. “When folks begin dealing with that truth,” says Jerry Hawkins, the project’s director, “they are then ready to move into the healing space, a space of listening, hearing, and sharing, where you have to think differently about who you are.”
For the most part, those who participate are already open to working for greater racial justice. The harder part is figuring out how to find some common ground with the more than 47 percent of Americans who voted for Donald Trump. George Goehl says his Deep Canvass project has met occasional resistance from his usual allies, who have little stomach for engaging with racists. “You can’t have a political revolution if you don’t talk to people who disagree with you,” he says.
“Trump reinforces polarization almost in religious terms,” Arlie Hochschild observes. “He says, ‘I’m surrounded by enemies—the press, the deep state, the Democrats. I suffer for you. I need you to protect me against my enemies.’ He takes on the role of Jesus Christ. He gets COVID, and then he is resurrected.”
Steven Hassan, who has studied a wide range of cults, observes in his book The Cult of Trump that the parallels are striking: the air of confidence, the talent at sowing fear and division, the need for total loyalty, the pathological lying and creation of alternative realities, the demonization of critics and apostates. “These are the same methods used by [Sun Myung] Moon and other cult leaders such as L. Ron Hubbard, David Koresh, Lyndon LaRouche, and Jim Jones,” Hassan writes.
What happens when the Leader turns out to be a false Messiah? In 1956, the social psychologist Leon Festinger wrote a classic book called When Prophecy Fails. It was based on his study of a cult whose leader, Dorothy Martin, claimed to have received signals from superior beings from another planet warning that a massive flood would destroy the Earth on December 21, 1954. When no flood occurred, Martin explained that the world had been spared because “the forces of Good and Light” (in the cult) had proved too powerful for the forces of evil planning the flood. Many members of the cult only intensified their faith, though others left. From this study, Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the propensity to hold firm to beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence.
Looked at in terms of rational self-interest, a lot of people supported Trump based on cognitive dissonance. Yet, because of the practical benefits of being white in a racist system, especially for the working class, it’s naïve to conclude that whites and Blacks necessarily have common interests. Dr. King famously observed, at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965: “The Southern aristocracy … gave the poor white man Jim Crow. … And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the Black man.” Unless lower-income whites can look forward to better economic lives, those racist habits will persist for lack of anything better.
In both Northern Ireland and in Israel-Palestine, there have been creative efforts to put young people from both sides into neutral settings where they can overcome generations of mutual distrust and better get to know each other just as people. The Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine does this with Israeli and Palestinian teens. But there is one key difference. In Northern Ireland, the British, long the colonial master, actually relinquished some power. Not so the Israelis. So when the Palestinian Seeds of Peace kids return home, there is scant reason to build on a summer of personal trust.
The philosopher and historian Susan Neiman, in her recent book Learning From the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, describes the decades-long educational process by which ordinary Germans came to terms with their nation’s responsibility for the Holocaust and World War II. At first, most Germans, having suffered horribly in the last years of the war, thought of themselves more as victims. Neiman points to the uncanny similarity with the white South, which has long considered itself the victim of the Civil War. In Germany, stumbling stones remind citizens where Jews once lived and worked. A Holocaust museum is located in the center of Berlin. In the U.S., while some Confederate statues have been toppled and Jackson, Mississippi, has a museum about the civil rights movement, there has been only the bare beginning of a general acknowledgment of the brutal realities of slavery and Jim Crow. Until that process moves forward, accomplished by a true shift in who makes the rules, lions can converse politely with lambs but with little real change.
The Winding Road Back to America
Speaking last year at a dinner in Concord, New Hampshire, Joe Biden declared, “With Trump out of the White House, you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.” That’s exactly what is not going to occur.
“Normally,” says pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg, “a party that gets trounced at the polls moves towards the center.” Not this time, he points out. As long as the base remains far-right, most winning GOP primary candidates will be those who run hard right, at least for another few election cycles.
Stuart Stevens, one of the leaders of the Lincoln Project, correctly writes in his confessional book, It Was All a Lie, that Trump is not a break with the post-1980 Republican Party but its logical conclusion. Stevens’s hope is that a successor, traditional center-right party might emerge from the post-Trump wreckage. Someone like Mitt Romney could base a bid for the 2024 nomination on that premise, but he is likely to be disappointed.
Over time, the task is to reduce the power of the cultish Trump base with a long-term process of deprogramming, which engages their concerns with curiosity and respect, alters the policy terrain on which these clashes are fought, tries to meet economic needs, and looks for greater openness in younger generations. Even with all this, the hardcore Trump base is likely to be at least 30 percent for a long time to come. But that’s a lot better than 48 percent.
This far-flung local work should not be misunderstood as a progressive version of George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light.” Deep listening needs to be informed by deep political strategy. The wager is that tolerance is infectious; that if citizens can become more open to different views and different people, and more willing to examine evidence, such a shift will make people less anti-science and less susceptible to demagogues and cults. The not-so-hidden agenda is to help Americans, especially younger ones, to open their minds and hearts. Yet if elites continue to beat down ordinary people, they will continue to look for scapegoats. So deep listening needs to be combined with deep practical help and deep economic reform.
To say that this is a long-term project is the mother of understatements. A good shorthand for what we are trying to recover is the Enlightenment—the ancient argument of reason versus blind faith. It dates to Galileo versus the Church, Copernicus versus Ptolemy, and the Salem witch trials versus modernity. One of America’s founding myths is the idea of progress, something that Biden keeps invoking as he tells us that the future keeps getting better. But we have learned from our four-year brush with fascism that history does not move in one direction. Dark eras of regression can last for decades, even centuries. The work never ends.