State Senator Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) offered thoughts today on how people who disagree with President-elect Trump's views should respond to his election.
As I think about the consequences of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, two instincts keep coming to mind — and initially, they seem almost contradictory.
On the one hand, he will be our duly elected president, and regardless of any disagreement I might have with him, our country absolutely requires a peaceful and legitimate transfer of power. We have an obligation to accept that he is all of our president, to continue to respect the office, and to offer him our support and wish him success in leading our nation — after all, his success will in some respects be America’s success.
At the same time, throughout his campaign he demeaned group after group of people: immigrants, Latinos, African Americans, Muslims, women, and more. If we accept or legitimize this behavior, we further victimize these populations — and diminish all of us.
In other words, to impair the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency is to erode our nation’s democratic institutions, but to accept the legitimacy of his behavior is to erode our nation’s soul — and our own.
Here’s how I reconcile these two imperatives.
It is natural to think that the president speaks for all of America. After all, we elect a president to be our leader. And, indeed, as head of state, the president does represent our country when speaking in a diplomatic context with other nations. But when it comes to representing America at home, while president’s formal powers bring with them a tremendous platform, they do not include the ability to determine our nation’s values.
This line can feel a little blurry because most presidents and presidential candidates have sought assiduously to speak for all Americans, and to speak in support of inclusiveness and pluralism. There have been plenty of presidents whose policies, in my opinion, did not advance those goals, but these presidents nonetheless went out of their way to use language that reinforced the principle that all people are welcome in America, that all people have equal rights and dignity, and that America benefits from its status as a diverse nation of immigrants.
For instance, think back to President George W. Bush’s rhetoric about Islam: as passionately as I disagreed with his foreign policies, it was very important that he clearly and vocally and frequently exhorted Americans to remember that the enemy was not Islam — and that Muslims must be welcome and wanted here.
It’s wonderful that our presidents have used their bully pulpit to remind all of us of the defining American values around immigration, diversity, and equality, but it strikes me that maybe it’s made us a bit lazy. After all, if the president is always advocating for a particular value system, then maybe nobody else needs to, right?
These values shouldn’t just be given to us in a speech — they should be lived and performed by us every day and every hour. Part of this is a series of high-level views about the value about diversity and the meaning of equality, but part of it is simply being kind to people — especially people who are unlike us in some way or who are being mistreated in some way or who lack a form of privilege we have. And much of it is to go through life doing our best to understand our own privilege and to compensate for it when possible, and to imagine the people we encounter in a nuanced and complex way.
I certainly hope that our new president will change his behavior and begin advocating for this value system. But we obviously can’t count on it. And if he doesn’t, we must never for a moment imagine that his approach is what defines America simply because he’s the president. Prohibiting people from entering the country based on religion isn’t American, and we know this because it’s right there in the constitution. Disparaging and deporting immigrants isn’t American, and we know this because our history is defined by the achievements of immigrants. Touching women (or anyone!) non-consensually isn’t American, and we know this because we’ve chosen to make it illegal. And nothing any president says will change any of that.
As we wonder whether our new president will speak and live up to these values, we have an especially heightened obligation to do so ourselves. To live kindness, inclusion, and love in every moment. To live compassion and service. To live unity.
If our president doesn’t do the same, then we’ll be acting as a tragically-needed bulwark of core American values in a time that they’re in mortal peril. But guess what? Even if he does, we’ll be doing the right and necessary thing and all of our lives will be better for it.
I’m ready to do my best. Thank you for everything you do every day for our community and our nation, and for always inspiring me to be better.
And now, onward. We are strong and our values are eternal. The arc of the moral universe is surely long, but it still bends toward justice