“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements
Last week on the way to Vigeland Park in Oslo, Norway, I drove by the Nobel Peace Center. The Nobel Peace Prize came to mind. Later, as I reflected, peace in general came to mind.
Europe and America are at war against Russia in Ukraine fueled by the grievances and hatreds of Vladimir Putin. And peace at home is too often missing. Several days ago, an 18-year-old opened fire at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY killing 12 people; his motivation, racial hatred. Where did that come from? We know it was not an isolated instance.
As usual much of the talk among politicians was about gun restrictions. It always is. Nothing happens. As a practical matter, not much can happen unless the Courts re-interpret the 2nd Amendment freedom more narrowly or we amend the Constitution. Not anticipating the former I favor the latter.
A pinnacle of hope over reality in my life was when Barack Obama was selected to be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize a year into his presidency. Even many of his enthusiastic supporters wondered why.
Peace is not a political card. It should not be thrown around willy-nilly, although it is. Peace is a reality or its not and in America today too often it is not. But what we know for sure is that people who use the political playing deck without regard to the responsibility of living in a free society are toxic. Peace is essential in a free country.
American Presidents live in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln understood the necessity of being a wartime President to achieve a national peace. He accepted the challenge of reestablishing the United States while ending slavery.
Hard times followed Lincoln’s assassination; there was plenty left to do to achieve Lincoln’s dream and we know that President after President came up short—some way short.
Today do we live in a Democracy where problems can be peacefully resolved? The conditions we now face are not promising. Tribalism. Polarization. Hateful assertions spread instantly by electronic networks. And what about freedom’s facilitator and interpreter. What happens when news coverage is eclipsed by viewpoint news?
Our Constitution says hands off speech. We are left with a puzzle. Discernment is the only way to peaceful solutions, but the problematic elements turn back on themselves. Emotion begets emotion and so often trumps logic. And when it comes to leadership the logical are infrequently good at performance.
It is damnably hard to push beyond pre-dispositions and emotions. For politicians and voters alike. We are barraged with claims and their opposite and virtually every candidate has had a bad day telescoped as simply a bad human being.
Returning to the warnings from Eric Hoffer (President Eisenhower’s favorite philosopher) who watched the masses assemble behind Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”
Donald Trump chose to cast first Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton as devils. And then his list grew to include any person of some prominence that was critical of his words or actions. And, over time the “devils” extended to Republicans who didn’t kneel—RINOs (Republicans in name only) he called them. They too were enemies. Ronald Reagan charmed his adversaries; Donald Trump damned them with vicious language.
America’s strength is in its optimism about the future and the way we understand accomplishment. Rarely have I heard somebody who is honored not expand the recipients to “our team”. But that is not Trump’s world. Trump’s world resembles boxing—there is one person in the ring and the enablers are largely invisible. Trump as Rocky.
Peace in American political culture, Left and Right, can at any point be elusive and when it is lacking the reasons can be damnably complex. But I know this, politics and public affairs in general are the worse for Donald Trump, his tactics and acolytes. The sooner he and his legacy of bitter politics leave the scene the better.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.