In 2004, I was dispatched to Florida’s Gulf Coast to help organize initial recovery operations in the wake of Hurricane Ivan. One of the crews assigned to me was filled by firefighters from Mississippi and Texas, and they cast a wary eye on their Yankee supervisor.
From past experience, I expected the Civil War would come up. Sure enough, on our first lunch break, one of them casually mentioned “the War between the States.” I said, “Hold on, don’t you mean the War of Northern Aggression?”
A burst of congenial laughter all around, acknowledging that I was savvy to the code. Rightly or wrongly, I gained credibility. But we were all government employees working on an unambiguously righteous mission. It was just teasing — no more contentious in that setting than debating the merits of the football Vikings and Falcons.
Yet anyone who’s lived in the South knows that a certain real bitterness lingers over the Civil War, even 150 years later. That antifederal mind-set spread west with the frontier — witness the recent acquittal of those who staged an armed occupation at a Bureau of Land Management office in Oregon, or the noises made a few years ago in Texas about seceding from the Union. I’ve occasionally mused that instead of electoral maps being colored blue and red, they should be blue and gray.
The morning of Nov. 9, when I awoke to the reality of President-elect Donald Trump, I entertained the crazy notion that voters had elected a Confederate president, the first since Jefferson Davis. The modern Mason-Dixon Line is ideological and demographic, but also roughly geographical along an urban/rural divide.
I watched the news conference at which Trump and President Obama spoke to reporters about their first transition meeting, and was struck by how difficult these duties must be for Obama. It’s probably one of the greatest challenges he’s faced in office, and the severest test of his leadership. It is right and proper for him to make the transfer of power as smooth as possible, to bend every effort to set up his successor for a sensible start.
Leadership change without gore in the gutters is one of the principal aims of the U.S. Constitution. Whatever may happen to the rest of his legacy, Obama will be judged by how well he transfers command, and rightly so. I wish him strength and courage of character to transcend the painful irony that a man who capitalized on racist undercurrents in American society will be his replacement.
To his credit, Trump looked like a deer in the headlights.
For the many millions disappointed by the election of Trump, the mature course at this moment is to follow Obama’s lead. I’m sympathetic to the protests that have arisen after the vote. But proclaiming “not my president” is ineffectual unless you actually intend an overthrow of the government. The election happened, and the only rigged phase was the Democratic National Committee’s preordained coronation of Hillary Clinton, regardless of the grass-roots enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders.
Surely right-wing propagandists can now temper their invocations of a liberal-media conspiracy jamming the path to power. The ball is in the conservatives’ court. Trump will have both houses of Congress in his corner, and the opportunity for one or more Supreme Court nominations. In our political system, you can’t ask for more raw material than that.
I am a working-class, small-town/rural man and have held blue-collar jobs my entire life. Nevertheless, in early October, in these pages, I detailed why I vigorously opposed Trump’s candidacy. And I’ve discovered no reason to change my mind. Indeed, after watching the three presidential debates, I’m even more convinced he was the wrong choice.
But he is the choice made, and he deserves a chance to govern.
That said, I hope Trump is acutely aware of his twofold responsibility.
His first duty is to behave in a manner that defuses the explosive hatred he generated with juvenile and inflammatory rhetoric during his campaign. The morning after the election, one of my acquaintances, who voted for Libertarian hopeful Gary Johnson, said he was afraid for the welfare of his gay brother. He feared Trump had offered de facto encouragement for bigots of all stripes to act out their prejudices. The vitriol Trump so casually dispensed had impact. A high school teacher interviewed on national television reported overhearing one of her students crowing that “we don’t have to be politically correct anymore.” My translation: We don’t have to be civil anymore.
On public television, there were reports of a proliferation of spray-painted swastikas. That is not, I trust, approved of by a majority of Trump voters, but the candidate did urge his supporters to beat up protesters. A psychologist I know reported that on Nov. 9 she gained five new clients, an unprecedented business day.
Trump needs to deliver a national address — before his inaugural — that mitigates the injury done by his stump speeches. He did make progress when he said of those demonstrating against his election that he admired “their passion for their country.” But that was only after he called the demonstrations “unfair.”
Unfair? Really? Coming from him? He needs to thicken his skin. Since I heard many of his supporters say they didn’t take his more outrageous statements literally, it would be appropriate for Trump to follow suit and apologize to those he smeared.
Trump’s next duty is to surround himself with an administration of experienced, nonpartisan people who understand government, foreign affairs, economics, science. His personal ignorance of these matters during the campaign seemed profound. Since Trump displayed little loyalty to the Republican Party, and once was a Democrat, it should be easy for him to avoid hiring firebrands of either persuasion.
Over the past several months, I’ve heard more than one reference to our erstwhile governor Jesse Ventura. Despite his Trump-like personality, did he not do a credible job as governor? You can build a case that he did, but notably, he was not commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world. Other nations had very little stake in Minnesota politics, and Ventura did have the sense to bring aboard competent staff. Whom Trump appoints and how much he listens to their counsel is important to the entire planet, and he owes everyone a sacred sense of duty he has so far not displayed.
I do not respect the persona he’s projected, but for the good of the nation and for the good of myself and those I care for, I sincerely hope he does better than he’s schooled us to expect.
That said, I admit that even this tepid equanimity is easy for me, a white male nearing retirement. Women I love and respect wept at Trump’s election. They have cause. If he is not an aggressive misogynist, he offered a convincing imitation of one. And if you are a Minnesota Somali woman — immigrant and Muslim to boot — what then? Trump pedaled fear with a vengeance. During the Republican primaries, he even promised to reinstitute torture. As our next president, he needs to reassure those who now legitimately fear him and some of their neighbors.
Whatever enduring good he attempts to accomplish in office will not be expedited or augmented by fear. President-elect Trump has made it clear he believes our nation is in crisis. He should therefore take to heart what another president, Franklin Roosevelt, asserted during a time of national crisis: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
I yearn to be hopeful. Trump is about to become the most influential individual on the globe. If he chooses to grasp it, he possesses a unique opportunity to be a necessary third force in American politics — beholden to neither of the two major parties that have catered to privileged elites and alienated so much of the electorate.
I fondly recall that bantering lunch break with my “rebel” comrades. Despite our differences, we shared common purpose in the face of great challenge — just as all Americans do today. We have the capacity to make this work.
Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.