We all know that partisans place truisms ahead of the truth – although we only recognize such fanaticism in our rivals. Especially as anger mounts – and the stakes get higher – it becomes ever harder to see the convenient lies and half-truths we sell ourselves. Tragically, while too many mainstream Republicans have allowed themselves to be bullied into slavishly supporting Donald Trump’s monstrous presidency, too many AOC-Democrats have allowed themselves to become bullies in the fight to dismantle Trump’s bullying pulpit.
“Brick and mortar is not as important as life,” says Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey as a police station burns. “Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,” says the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones as looters ravage her city. “NEVER let them convince you that broken glass or property is violence,” says the designer Marc Jacobs as thieves trash his flagship store. “Property can be replaced, human lives cannot.”
And we wonder why so many cities were ransacked, with some innocent people beaten, even killed, in bursts of robbery, vandalism and arson that fit the dictionary definition of “riots” but politically correct colleagues sanitize as “protests.”
Meanwhile, as the president posts and postures, stirs the pot and pits “his” Americans against everyone else, Republicans cower silently. The few dissenters, such as Mitt Romney, know there is life without Trump – and there will have to be a Republican Party after Trump. But the sickening stillness on the right illustrates that as Trump’s poisonous presidency persists, silence is not just consent – but active collaboration.
Eventually, America will return to sanity. We will someday – with any luck, on January 20 – elect a commander in chief who accepts the sacred presidential responsibility to elevate not insult, unite not divide, heal not incite. We will relearn how to be F. Scott Fitzgerald-ians: intelligent people who “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time.”
On that day, we won’t demonize elastic thinkers who condemn the racism that murdered George Floyd and the hatred Donald Trump spawns while also condemning the rioting that caused real harm and terrorized millions. On that day, we won’t believe it’s too dangerous to pray together during a pandemic but not to protest; we will social distance consistently – while fighting for justice fervently and safely. On that day, shopkeepers whose stores are still smoldering won’t feel pressured to sound like they are in Communist re-education camp and justify the crimes committed against them in the name of “social justice.” And on that day, David Dorn, the 77-year-old African American killed trying to defend his friend’s pawn shop at 4123 Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis, won’t just be a right-winger’s “I told you so” cheap equivalence punchline – but a warning to us all not to embrace simplistic narratives.
Before writing these words – which risks alienating those on either side of our Great Divide – I watched the death of George Floyd again. Second by agonizing second, we not only feel his pain, but the pain of Africans ripped from their homelands, then packed onto slave ships. We not only feel his despair, but the despair of millions enslaved because of the color of their skin. We not only feel his fear, but the fear of proud black men called “boy” under the evil segregation of Jim Crow; of strong, black women obscuring their smarts or their spines; of young African Americans treated as suspects – and sometimes shot – for having the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But all that anguish still doesn’t justify trashing our cities, stealing from store owners while robbing them of their dreams, and terrifying fellow Americans who cower at home as their own neighbors delight in the mayhem on the streets.
For weeks until this violence, a different side of America was on display. Despite our “corona-time” arguments and chaos and missteps, hundreds of millions of Americans agreed to shut down, stay indoors and crater our economy to protect our most vulnerable from disease. During this first three months of social distancing, we witnessed epic acts of communal bonding.
Essential workers – from grocery cashiers to medical specialists to yes, police officers – bravely risked infection to keep us well-fed, healthy, safe. New Yorkers stuck their heads out their windows night after night to applaud these workers’ courage. Neighbors sometimes communed with neighbors, sometimes shopped for neighbors, sometimes sang “Happy Birthday” or “Happy Graduation” or just “Happy Wednesday” to neighbors. Although such graciousness wasn’t unique to America, the decency here often had an all-American accent, highlighting the America that preceded Trump, that persists beyond the constant headlines about Trump – and will outlast Donald Trump.
But that America needs more Republican rebels, more people of conscience from the right to break ranks, cross the aisle, defy the president, and march for justice and against racism, be it at the top – or on the street.
And that America has no use for mayors like Frey, who failed to see that when the mob burned down the Third Precinct station house, it wasn’t just about “brick and mortar.” Those red flames in Minneapolis became green lights, unleashing rampages coast to coast. That America has a legal system the New York Times Magazine reporter Hannah-Jones overlooks, which treats murder more severely than arson, burglary or assault – while recognizing all as crimes. That America has a dignity, a self-respect, a refusal to be bullied, that Jacobs lacked, even after pillagers ravaged his Melrose Place store.
These three influential voices violated three core lessons from the civil rights era. First, consistency counts. As Barack Obama recently wrote, “If we want our criminal justice system and American society at large to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.” So no, you can’t defeat injustice with more injustice, and the same forces in American society that have long treated certain words as violent can’t now claim that looting isn’t.
Moreover, nonviolence is not just a tactical cure to heal the oppressor – but a vaccine for the oppressed. Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer warned, “Hating just makes you sick and weak.”
Finally, more practically, historically, riots scarred communities without reforming our country – which is why Martin Luther King, Jr. always condemned riots as “socially destructive and self-defeating.” King so often is quoted selectively, but you cannot distort his core teaching that to progress, we must distinguish right from wrong, the constructive from the destructive.
A society so decadent, so self-loathing that it won’t defend itself, will never reform – just as a society that’s so complacent, so self-absorbed it won’t criticize itself, will never truly flourish. Remember the secret to America’s civil rights advances: Only a resilient civil society can root out uncivil behavior – be it a few evil cops murdering individuals, or thousands of malicious protesters spinning off from politics into plunder.
One of the great rebukes to arrogant politicians – and partisans – is Psalm 51, capturing King David’s agony after his ends-justify-the-means sin of neutralizing Uriah so he could marry Bathsheba. David salutes God’s desire for a pure, inconvenient “truth in the inward parts.” And he speaks of zivchei-tsedek – sacrifices of righteousness. The age of Trump illuminates that phrase’s deeper meaning. Sacrifices of righteousness require us to resist self-righteousness, to avoid the partisan bully’s orthodoxies and oversimplifications, to embrace the true patriot’s search for the best path in a complicated, confusing world, with enough passion to do good yet enough humility not to demonize everyone who thinks differently as bad.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s .