Cruelty Is Bipartisan. Kindness Can Be, Too.
My town’s mayor is running for reelection this year. We don’t agree on much politically. A few weeks ago, I wrote a social media post critical of the fact that she and her family maxed out their donations to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. The thesis of my post is you could draw a straight line from the mayor’s donations to McConnell’s successful campaign to remake the federal judiciary to the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow Texas’ new abortion ban to remain in effect. I stand by every word of it.
About a week after that post appeared on a Democrats-only page, our family attended the town Labor Day parade. We brought our five year old. Her autism can make her participation in such events challenging, but she had a wonderful time. One of the highlights was when the Republican mayor marched by. She walked directly over to my daughter, leaned down, looked into her eyes, and gave her a lollipop. It was the type of kindness and generosity of spirit that not even the most skilled of politicians could fake. I was left to square my very real and appropriate disagreement with her political actions with my great appreciation for her kindness in this special moment. That moment and several other recent incidents that challenged my oversimplified view of the world forced me to grapple with how my reaction to Trumpism, which I critique for its closed mindedness and cruelty, had made me a more closed minded and even cruel person.
Trumpism is a philosophy that thrives on ideological absolutism, and the Trump era has divided us into diametrically opposed factions. That’s been entirely by Trump’s design, as his evil genius is understanding how dividing people enhances the power of an opportunist who can command the affection of one of those factions by making disputes about fundamental values. Many believe polarization is at its all-time apex right now. At a time when the world is already very dark and therefore need each other more than ever, politics is ripping us apart and making life even darker.
I am no stranger to the polarization of the Trump era. I’ve alienated many people, either directly or indirectly, because of their support for Trump. I’ve passed judgments about the totality of a person based solely on that one data point. My visceral hatred of Trump the person dulled my ability to see the good in people who might support his platform. When I did take the time to stop and think about this, I found ways to justify my behavior, but only abstractly, not when forced to consider the humanity of each and every person on the other side of the political divide. But a recent horrendous experience where I was alienated and isolated forced me to take stock of where I’ve been standing and to reconsider my own absolutism before it’s too late.
The day before the Labor Day parade, one of my cousins hosted a family reunion. It was very kind of her to open her beautiful home to all of us in honor of another incredibly kind cousin visiting from Texas. Although I hadn’t talked politics directly with either of these cousins, I knew them to be Trump supporters. A third cousin who would be in attendance- we will call her Cruella- had clashed rather intensely with me on social media, but I never engaged her. I knew her to a rabid Trump supporter and the variety of Trump supporter I found to be the most infuriating- ones who found a basis for self-righteousness (as opposed to cynical or resigned ambivalence) in their support for that man. She unfriended me during the heat of the election. I have been unconnected from her entire family on social media ever since.
I approached my reunion with Cruella as an opportunity to restore civility, even if there would clearly never again be warmth. Both my parents are gone, and most of my family connections are attenuated. The yearning for family that brought me home to New Jersey had generally led to disappointment. But here was a chance to reverse a grudge my mother first harbored decades ago.
We arrived at the party before Cruella, and we had a great time with our kind cousins and their extended families. Cruella’s arrival changed everything. She and her family wouldn’t speak to us, even my seven year old son, they wouldn’t look at us, and they wouldn’t be in the same room with us. In my entire 46 years on the planet, I had never seen anything quite like it. It was one of those moments when I felt true shock because I couldn’t believe what was actually happening. After the most awkward group picture in history, we left. But I’ve been coming back to this experience in anger ever since.
Looking in the Mirror
The easiest conclusion to draw would be that Cruella is awful because she is a Trump supporter, and all Trump supporters are awful. But the evidence doesn’t prove that to be true, as I also encountered a half dozen family members that same day who likely or certainly voted for Trump and nonetheless welcomed me with kindness and warmth. Even though life would be much simpler if it were so, decency and political affiliation are not directly correlated. This insight helped disrupt my part in the toxic process that has polarized our nation so much in recent decades. We take the worst excesses of any person who opposes our politics and graft those characteristics onto every person who opposes our politics. We let isolated instances of awful behavior confirm our prior prejudices and become a part of our belief system. Fox News has made this approach its editorial policy for decades, but it’s successful because it appeals to our tribal nature.
It would be so easy for me to take as my lesson that Cruella is the face of Trumpism. But that doesn’t square with the kind, Trump-supporting family member who reached out on social media after I’d written an emotional essay about my current place in life and felt as alone as I ever had in my life. Or the Trump-supporting family members who welcomed me to a family birthday dinner decades after we’d lost touch and balmed the sting of my alienation just hours after that reunion. Or even the Republican, Trump-donating mayor’s kindness to my daughter. Kindness and decency are way more complicated and are not linear to political affiliation.
Cruella’s shunning hurt, and I texted some close friends about it. One of my best friends- who has that status not only because he’s kind and loyal but also because he calls me out on my bullshit- couldn’t help but note my own shuns of others during the Trump era. Guilty as charged. I have maintained some grudges for decades, even going so far as to memorialize an “Arya Stark” list of bad actors I would gain revenge against before I was gone. Some on the list were political operatives I barely knew. Look, I’m Sally’s son, and I’m half Irish and Ukrainian- some level of grudge holding was probably inevitable, but the recipients of my umbrage weren’t always deserving.
It’s plain that I need to take some accounting of myself. I have lots of shameful moments where I couldn’t let a political squabble go when I should have been able to get past it to see the humanity of the person underneath. As just one example, I rashly unfriended someone who posted (what turned out to be) a playful pro-Trump comment on my social media. Thankfully, he was kind and patient enough to get past that and he is now the most important new family relationship I’ve developed in a decade.
I reflect on three specific shuns of friends during the Trump era that leave me doubting my actions frequently. The first was a friend who I and many others were convinced should have known better, but his partisanship transcended all the pain that he knew Trump would cause. To me, his suffocating privilege meant that I had a duty to take away the one lever I had- my friendship. Another involved a distant friend who leveraged the Trump era into professional success. I knew this person to have a strong moral code, and to me it was unforgivable to watch him surrender his virtue for naked ambition. The third involved someone who had pretended to be liberal when it was convenient and had slowly revealed his true center right nature during the Trump era. It was his deception and phoniness that upset me the most.
Should I have left political beliefs affect what were all strong friendships at one time? I can’t answer that even now. In trying to justify my own Cruella behavior, I convinced myself that what I was actually rejecting was the underlying trait that led the friend to embrace Trumpism- the blinding privilege, the hypocritical ambition, or the deceptive superficiality. But maybe I need to call myself out on my own bullshit. I still will never equate the morality of opposing Trump with the morality of supporting him, but I have to acknowledge that Cruella and I were both acting out of “some” sense of morality and I’m too grizzled not to realize that many of certain moral judgments over the years have proven to be spectacularly wrong. Now, to be clear, I would never have acted the way that she did if I were in a social situation with any of the three friends that I shunned. Still, I might need to accept that my own behavior was not compatible with avoiding in others the kind of hurt that I myself felt at that family reunion. I need to do better.
Assuming that everyone in the political opposition isn’t just an accelerator of polarization and a basis for hypocritical behavior. It can also force you to put on blinders when it comes to those on your own team.
Decoupling Personal Rancor and Political Opposition
My least favorite person in the town where I live is the town’s only elected Democrat. She is a malignant narcissist who will act cruelly towards anyone who does not bow to her ambition. She delights in gaslighting and creating conflicts among others. I have yet to find a redeeming quality in her. And yet, to other Democrats in our town, she is a hero, purely because of having the dumb luck to run at the height of anti-Trump fervor and be re-elected when the Republicans inexplicably didn’t run an active opponent against her.
She’s not alone. There are scores of mean, thoughtless, cruel Democrats out there. I worked for several of them! In fact, more Democrats have hurt me deeply in my life than Republicans, that’s for sure. Democratic friends who abandoned me over the past decade hurt a great deal more than Cruella’s shunning.
But the cruelty of Democrats is not any more of a reason to oppose Democrats in elections than the kindness of certain Republicans is reason to support them in elections. Elections are consequential, meaningful events in which competing values are tested. I can find certain Democrats personally detestable and be disappointed in the party for giving them oxygen, but my foremost value of promoting fairness and decency only has a home in the Democratic platform. I will also continue to believe that there’s something uniquely malignant about Trump and his movement. Beyond that, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton seek to capitalize on the worst excesses of Trumpism even though it’s evident that they should know better than the movement’s namesake. So many of Trump’s most privileged supporters — too many of them my neighbors — are emblematic of his worst qualities- blinding privilege, malignant narcissism, moral reasoning that is identical to a self-satisfying id, contempt for anyone different, and punching down against the weak and vulnerable.
At its core, Trumpism embodies a series of traits that I find despicable, not a political movement. Those traits will remain long after Trump is gone; Trump has just masterfully whipped them together into a toxic brew to advance his own ambition. So how do I deal with fighting a movement I consider dangerous without alienating people who may vote for the leader of that movement without personifying any of the traits I find most distasteful?
Finding a Middle Ground
My parents handled this dilemma very differently, and I don’t find either of their approaches fully satisfying. My mother would have fought against Trumpism at every turn. But she was famous for alienating people and burning through family and friends without appreciating nuance or complexity. My father would have been publicly polite but quietly seethed in private. He had an innate sense of justice, but if he wasn’t fighting injustice publicly, did that help? Also, it’s not healthy to let others talk in ways that undermine your values and not push back. A couple weeks ago, I quietly seethed as I overheard wealthy men focus intently on purported instances of benefits fraud among the poor and vulnerable while ignoring the inherent and paralyzing unfairness of a system that allows them to sleep in mansions while others sleep on the street.
My entire life, I have felt the tension between these two models- avoiding conflict and therefore being admired but also leaving oneself open to being victimized, or fighting at the risk of alienating and angering many who do not deserve it. As you might expect, although it took me years of reflection to get here, I think the truth is in the middle. There are times when we have a moral duty to fight. On the other hand, some grudges seem silly given time and perspective.
Take Chris Christie. No, really, take him out of my town, please. Christie used his role as U.S. Attorney to go after my boss at the time, Jim McGreevey, and many friends on McGreevey’s staff. Christie’s pursuit of ethics violations is ruefully laughable in retrospect given his full embrace of ethically bankrupt Trumpism.
But a few weeks ago, I saw that McGreevey wished Christie a happy birthday on social media. The two seemingly have no hard feelings. And all those ‘friends’ who were wronged by Christie don’t give a damn about me or that battle anymore. So why was I holding on to this anger and leaving this man on my Arya Stark list? Although there are plenty of good reasons to loathe Christie that have nothing to do with McGreevey, he doesn’t belong on a personal list of vengeance for me.
In fact, I reviewed my Arya Stark list while writing this essay, and I examined those who had actually wronged me personally and those who were only there because I found their politics abhorrent. I was able to delete the names of some political opponents and, in doing so, I felt the anxiety and anger that often consume me decline a bit. It was clear that the three friends I’d shunned purely based on politics did not belong on that list.
Elections matter, but they don’t define who we are. And we should all be fighting to make this world a more hospitable place for those who treat others with kindness and respect, regardless of political affiliation. We do need people out there fighting against the cruel in our society, whether they support Trump or not. I pledge to be that kind of fighter, and I’ll continue to maintain my list. I’ll wait for my shot, sometimes for decades but when I take it, and I won’t miss.
You’re on the list now, Cruella.