The spirit of goodwill can take us by surprise this season, without respect to religion [or even politics]. And while such a moment may not quite become an epiphany, it can still make us think again about our lives and times. Which is what happened to me over the weekend before Christmas.
Visiting the nation’s capital, as we do every year at this time, I was invited by friends to attend a holiday party hosted by an eminent conservative writer – someone I knew only as a political opponent of long standing. Our last encounter, on a radio show before the 2016 election, had not concluded on friendly terms, at least in my recollection. I held a caricature of him in my mind and assumed he would feel similarly toward me – notwithstanding the fact that during the intervening years, he had turned against the Donald Trump-dominated Republican Party and its reprehensible leader.
The writer assured my friends that I’d be welcome at his party, so I went along, still thinking this might become a highly uncomfortable situation because of past conflicts.
When I arrived, however, he and his wife both greeted me warmly. He graciously took the time to introduce me to other guests, and as we talked, his sincere friendliness was undeniable and uplifting.
I began to realize, as I should have much sooner, that his political journey had cost him something important. Like so many of the Republicans [and former Republicans] who have turned away from President Donald Trump, he had forfeited many friends and relationships in a wrenching experience that had changed his life. He had been forced to confront deeply troubling aspects of his own political affiliations and of people to whom he had once been close. Reading the messages we exchanged in the days that followed, I felt a twinge of unexpected empathy for this man.
For liberals, the never-Trump conservatives have presented a series of these conundrums. Each of them is an individual with her or his own ideology, career and future aspirations. Some of them have faced quite squarely the moral compromises that eventually led to Trump and Trumpism, including a history of Republican racial pandering that dates back to the Nixon era; others have not.
And so far, very few of these conservative Trump critics have asked themselves what responsibility they may bear for the decades of exaggerated animus against Hillary Clinton, whose demonization by the right and its media opened the way for Trump. While many of the never-Trumpers probably voted for her, and almost all of them have confessed we’d be far better off if she were president today, their own culpability in framing her as “Crooked Hillary,” in Trump’s infamous phrasing, remains a largely unacknowledged responsibility. [The same is still true of the mainstream media, which so eagerly cooperated in distorting her image.]
Reckoning with those old quarrels will have to wait. For now we look forward to a new year when we will have a chance to free our democracy from the curse of Trump. Every hand will be needed. My own strong impulse is to welcome new allies, assume their good motivations and treat them generously, without regard to the past. That is not only the spirit of Christmas but the spirit of America, a nation that has freed generations of people to reinvent themselves and build a new society.
Someday when Trump is gone, we may yet find ourselves debating intensely again with those who are now at our side in opposing him. When that day comes, it will be good if we can remember that our adversaries need not be our enemies, and that we should practice politics with decency and kindness. We will need to include everyone willing to share in that spirit, no matter their errors.
Difficult as that acceptance may be, it is still something for which we should hope.