Sewing America Back Together, Stitch by Stitch by Peter Eisenstadt

images-150The paradox: Can a legitimately elected president be illegitimate? As Ian Millhiser has written, “to declare him illegitimate is to shake the foundations of the American system, to fail to do so is to risk leveling those foundations to the ground.” Both are terrible choices. He is legitimate because, under the rules (and they are of course remarkably stupid rules) governing the election of a president, he won the election. He is illegitimate because it seems clear that he does not feel bound by the rules, written or unwritten; regulations; customary practices and the like that have governed the presidency. Beyond the groups that he has announced he will target, especially undocumented residents and Muslims, the rights of everyone is at risk. He will make the press a frequent target of his attack, and he will ruthlessly attack critics—never has the term “bully pulpit” been more appropriate, and he will use every tactic and gambit available to maintain his power, and vaingloriously magnify himself, a Caligulan presidency.

What is to be done? Democrats and the anti-Trump forces will not have to agree on everything, but they have to agree on a common strategy. We have to get beyond the narrow debate between “class” and “identity politics” as the reason for the defeat of Hillary. (A defeat in which she of course got 2.5 million votes more than her opponent, but that is another story.) Given the closeness of the electoral vote, any one of a number of factors could be decisive—Hillary’s defeat was overdetermined. An analogy: a few weeks ago, the previously undefeated, highly favored Clemson football team lost 43-42. In discussing the game afterwards with my football buddies (almost all of whom voted for Trump, but that’s another story) we all agreed that Clemson underperformed, but all pointed to different factors for the defeat (an interception here, a missed first down there.) In the end, they all contributed to the loss of a close game. And as several commentators have noted, the 100,000 voters who made the ultimate difference between Clinton and Trump could have fit nicely into a big football stadium.

I think if we focus too intently on the details of exit polls we are in danger of missing the big picture. Trump’s victory is not an anomaly. It is part of a world-wide surge in right-wing populism from the Philippines to Brexit to Netanyahu, with many other contenders waiting in the wings. Perhaps Sanders would have done better; perhaps not. But if he had won he would have been bucking this trend. The problem with left-wing populism as an electoral strategy is, I think, pretty clear; it is opposed to free trade but supports relatively open borders and immigration. The position of Trump, a fortress America opposed to both free trade and immigrants is for many simply more consistent. The problem the left faces is, without betraying our core values, somehow address the popular anti-global mood. I don’t think there’s an easy answer.

Let me speak a bit about identity politics. I have been reading, the last few days, Max Weinreich’s classic History of the Yiddish Language. It’s a remarkable book, though weighing in 2 volumes and nearly a thousand pages, and depending on one’s appetite for reading about idiolects, arcolects, phonemes, and the like, there’s a lot to skip. But it’s a fascinating book, much more than a history of Yiddish, but rather, a gigantic meditation of the languages Jews have spoken since the time of Ancient Israel.   Why did Jews develop their own language? (And as Weinreich notes, Hebrew and Yiddish are only two of the distinctive languages Jews developed.) Yiddish did not develop because Jews were isolated. As he points out, until we get to situation in the contemporary United States and, to some extent, Israel, Jews, throughout history, have been bilingual or more, speaking a Jewish language, a local gentile language or two, and often what Weinreich calls “loshn-koydesh” (the sacred language) which was not just Hebrew, but Aramaic, and Aramaicized Hebrew and Hebrewed Aramaic, along with bits of Greek, Persian, Arabic, and whatever.

Weinreich concludes that Jews spoke Yiddish not because they were isolated, not because they couldn’t speak the local language, but because they wanted to speak their own language, just as they wanted to practice their own religion. Their language was an expression of, to use a word that has been in the news a lot since the awful news earlier this month, their “identity.” But Jews have always had multiple identities; Jews lived among others, did not agree on what it meant to be Jewish, and so on.   In the age of nationalism, multiple identities have declined, for Jews and others. One’s nation becomes one’s primary identity, and often, as a condition for full membership the state demands that sub-groups shed their distinctiveness, which usually means adapting cultural practices to dominant mores and standards. So Jews, both in America and in Israel, were under pressure not to speak Yiddish. (My mom remembered telling her mother, in the early 1930s, when she spoke Yiddish at home to “speak American.”)

Trading one’s distinctiveness for the protection of full equality and citizenship, if it works, might be a good deal. It has largely worked out for the Jews in the United States. But it hasn’t worked out as well for blacks, Muslims, immigrants, members of the LGTQ community, women, and others. This is the point of “identity politics,” as I see it. With only a few exceptions, they are not seeking separation, they are seeking inclusion as equals. The point of “identity politics” is, though recognizing our diversity, to forge a common American identity, one flexible enough to share enough in common to enable us to tolerate, or better, celebrate, our differences.

Everyone has an identity. Everyone wants to live proudly, safely, with security, and taking pride in who they are and taking pride in being American. This is what the “white working class” that we have been hearing so much about recently want, though the security and stability of the world of 50 years ago is not returning.   I was speaking to a friend the other day who told me about his grandfather, who worked for Kodak for 45 years and towards the end had six weeks of paid vacation and a good pension. Kodak was a leading example of what was called “welfare capitalism,” in which companies, to avoid unionization, gave their employees comparable compensation to union shops. Nothing has hurt the “white working class” more than the decline of unions, but this was hardly an issue in the campaign, not even by Sanders. Ending free trade is not a magic elixir to restore America to the 1950s.

Trump will only represent part of America. Like all populists, he divides America into “the people” and their enemies.   The anti-Trump forces need to represent all of America, and work toward strengthening the institutions that once held this country together, but now are fraying. We will be largely without power, but that might be a good thing. We cannot allow ourselves to be cowed or intimidated, but we need to continue to provide an alternative vision, of an America that is better, kinder, and gentler than anything that Trump imagines. And an America that is also tougher than anything that Trump will provide, that will deal with serious issues; the concentration of wealth, the banking system, global warming. For better or for worse, the Democratic Party has to be rethought. It’s new basis has to be economic fairness and justness for all, in an America in which everyone’s difference is respected.

In conclusion, we need to, with all of our strength and power, seek ways to emphasize Trump’s illegitimacy, and our legitimacy, as long as the legitimate institutions (our elected officials, governmental and non-governmental organizations, a free press) continue to operate. Yesterday, with a few friends, we discussed the most enigmatic book in Tanakh, Koheleth or Ecclesiastes. It contains much cryptic wisdom. Perhaps the most famous part of the book is chapter 3, starting, in the familiar King James/Pete Seeger translation: “To everything there is a season, and a time and purpose to ever purpose under heaven.” We are in a new season, my friends. There is “a time to rend, a time to sew.” America has been torn asunder by this election. We have no choice but to try to sew America back together again, stitch by stitch by stitch.