I am known to be an optimist, some might even say naively so. I prefer the word pairing of “idealistic pragmatist” or “pragmatic idealist,” whichever floats your boat.
As a turbulent Trump presidency has metastasized into an insurrectionist assault on the U.S. Capitol last week, I’m trying to reconcile the two.
The idealism is that I am profoundly and personally inspired by the American principles of “We the People”: the principles of free speech, free assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Even though the Framers fell spectacularly short of living up to them, the ideals they wrote about resonate in the core of humanity.
That’s why America, for all its historical problems, is a beacon of hope around the world. The nation’s motto is “E Pluribus Unum” – “Out of many, one.” It’s the pursuit of an ideal that despite our differences, we CHOOSE to be united. What can I say? I love my country.
The pragmatic dilemma is: How do you reverse engineer that ideal of America – especially when it’s the President of the United Freakin’ States himself that’s dividing us?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not realistic to expect our elected officials to talk to each other across the aisle when we, the people, are unwilling to do the same. And, as somebody who is trying to “not just talk about it but BE about it,” I wanted to reach out to some of my more conservative white college friends from my Ole Miss days.
So I called Frank.
The last time I talked with Frank was shortly after George Floyd died under the weight of a police officer’s knee. Also in the news, our home state of Mississippi finally retired America’s last remaining state flag with a Confederate flag embedded in it.
It should be noted that when I talk with Frank, I’m not trying to convince him of anything. Not trying to tell him he’s wrong for believing what he believes, and it works both ways. Accepting that neither of us will be changing positions creates a certain freedom to explore the space in between.
There goes that pragmatism again: You can’t create a safe space for communication if people feel like they must walk on eggshells with you. And you might wonder: What’s the point? If you’re not trying to debunk the lies, why even bother?
The idealist and the pragmatist both answer: Simply having the conversation. That’s the point. To keep alive this idea that people can disagree without being disagreeable.
So, on the eve of Donald Trump’s second impeachment for inciting an insurrection, I called Frank – only to get his voicemail. The next day, with a stream of impeachment arguments blaring in my ear, I called again and again. No luck. The idealist resists the urge to make any assumptions about why he hasn’t called back yet.
The pragmatist goes onto his Facebook page to see what he’s posted. Interestingly enough there’s a pre-election meme for his cover image. It reads “Jobs not mobs – Vote for America’s future” across a split-screen image of Trump and an angry mob. Funny how context changes things.
Anyway, I scroll past a deleted post and some grousing about Twitter closing Trump’s account before I land on this one, posted just hours before the siege: “I’m sure there are some hard-core racists who would disagree with me, but I love Donald Trump.”
As I chuckled at the idea of what a “soft-core racist” might look like, I clicked to read the comments. Of course, many echoed their adoration for Trump, one referring to him as a “savior.” One guy posted pictures of the invasion followed by a two-word post: “Nice job.” For the record, Frank believes there was election fraud (his pre-election prediction: Trump 310 electoral votes, Biden 228), but he denounces the mob’s actions at the Capitol.
Yet I also found genuine outrage, revulsion and regret from some Trump supporters in Frank’s feed. “I’m sick that I voted for someone so stuck on himself that he has no respect for the Constitution,” one person wrote. And some of Frank’s toughest criticism on his own page comes from his more progressive-minded older brothers.
Yet conspicuously missing, for the most part, was any acknowledgment that it was Trump’s own words that lit the fuse on the insurrection. I decided to fill the gap.
“Does he bear ANY responsibility for the events of Jan. 6?” I wrote. “Can any of you imagine finding all the tiny bits of your exploded brains if OBAMA had riled an angry mob to storm the Capitol, talking about overthrowing the government and killing lawmakers?
“Seriously? NONE of this $#!+ is HIS fault? NONE OF IT?!”
So much for those eggshells. And where I was expecting some sort of response from either Frank or another friend, so far . . . crickets. And I still haven’t spoken with him. The idealist hopes it means the door for conversation is still open. Given the alternative, the pragmatist agrees.
Can we still have conversations with “the other side?” Can we still hear each other out and work for the common good of the country? Can we disagree without the disagreement ending in violence and attempted coups?
The idealist in me believes that We The People can do these things.
The pragmatist believes that We The People MUST.
(TSD award-winning columnist Lee Eric Smith can be reached at [email protected].)