It was heartening to see a photo of President Barack Obama shaking hands with President-elect Donald Trump, an image that was quickly distorted by social media memes and discredited by countless digital voices.
The duty to a purpose greater than individual interests, an ideal central to the American experience, has been one of the casualties of this election cycle of instant analysis and incompatible viewpoints.
Trump opponents see nothing but a broken nation in dire straits since the real estate mogul was elected as the 45th president of the United States.
Trump supporters used to see a broken nation in dire straits – a “rigged system” of corruption – until the electoral math broke their way despite losing the popular vote on Nov. 8. Suddenly, with victory secured, all the rigging talk stopped. And just as suddenly, the country didn’t feel so promising to a “pantsuit nation” heartbroken by the defeat of Hillary Clinton. An America that rejected electing the first female president began to take on an ominous feel.
Even Kevin de León and Anthony Rendon, the Latino leaders of California’s Legislature, released a statement identifying themselves as “strangers in a foreign land” the morning after Trump’s election.
Lost in the tumult of fiercely held individual perspectives was the larger point reaffirmed when Obama and Trump shook hands and pledged to work together for the good of the country. The first black president of the United States sucked it up to be gracious to the reality-TV star who spent years questioning Obama’s birth certificate and legitimacy as an American.
Trump seemed genuinely humbled by the experience. As they shook hands, Trump did not immediately meet Obama’s gaze. He called Obama “a very good man.” He said it was an “honor” to sit with the man he spent years denigrating.
Many of us are so consumed by our personal agendas that we fail to understand the historical resonance at the heart of this exchange. The peaceful transference of power is a tradition dating back to 1797, when George Washington stepped aside after eight years in office so that our democracy would outlive him. It has, even though there can be plenty of personal antipathy between the person leaving the Oval Office and the person coming in.
They dealt with it, though, even when we struggled to deal with it ourselves.
Last week, it was tempting to give in to the despair felt by people who voted against Trump, as I did. I know folks – Latinos, African Americans, Asians, Muslims – who are afraid after a year of listening to Trump’s race-baiting rhetoric.
But I just can’t go there. If I did, I would be disgracing the legacy of my deceased parents – immigrants from Mexico who came to this country without speaking the language or having much money. They created a loving home, paid their taxes, looked out for their neighbors, voted in U.S. elections, loved this country and taught my brother and me to do the same.
There were struggles and, yes, occasional racism to confront. My dad – Reynaldo Breton – was once mugged in downtown San Jose by men who called him a “beaner.” As the story goes, one of them tackled my father, who fell on his back as the guy landed on top of him. The right index finger of this gentleman jutted into my dad’s mouth. My dad bit down. Hard. The man screamed, “My finger! My finger!” An accomplice to the mugger ran off. So did the mugger, crying and bleeding.
My dad used to tell me that story and chase it with two thoughts: Never back down. Nobody is better than you.
I listened and believed. The road my parents traveled in 1960s and ’70s America was for one purpose: for me to have a better life than theirs in this country. My country.
I woke up Wednesday to learn that members of my own family – people born in Mexico – voted for Trump. So did some Muslim people I know. This despite Trump’s pledge to ban Muslims from traveling to America and to build a huge wall on the Mexico-U.S. border. Some people I know label Trump support by Latinos and other minorities as self-hatred or idiocy. But those kind of reductive generalizations do little to help us understand the complicated world we collectively inhabit.
Meanwhile, Trump will be my president even though I didn’t vote for him. And yes, that’s a departure in perspective from protesters who have flooded the streets in numerous cities while chanting “Not my president.” Does that mean I condemn the protesters as some Trump supporters do? No. Does it mean that I won’t oppose Trump when I disagree with him? No.
Last week, too many people on both sides continued with the sneering exhortations. Trump shaking hands with Obama says to me that we are in a time where we need to stop shouting and start listening.
I was assailed by some Facebook friends when I recently posted a quote from Abraham Lincoln on national unity: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Can you believe it? In their grief and anger after Trump’s election, some of my own friends bashed me for quoting the man who appealed to “the better Angels of our nation.”
What my friends missed was that Lincoln said those words at his second inaugural address, after more than 600,000 men had been killed in the Civil War. Somehow, some of us in the digital age believe that the election of Trump is more daunting than a nation recovering from the blood of generations.
The nation that survived Lincoln’s assassination, the Great Depression, world wars, Vietnam, segregation, Watergate and many other scandals or scoundrels will endure whatever shape a Trump presidency takes.
Why? Because the people peacefully protesting in the streets love their country and their love is no greater or more important than the love expressed by those cheering for Trump. Because I’ve seen the most anti-Trump people make the progression last week from despair to resolve.
On Wednesday, a longtime friend of mine posted on Facebook that Trump’s election had made him feel more frightened than ever before. By Friday, he posted this: “If you’re upset about the election … work. Organize. Join your school board. Attend town meetings.”
Both were expressions of his individuality. But his love of country bested his weaker moments. It was one tiny manifestation of the spirit that moved Trump and Obama to come together despite what I assume to be their personal feelings.
Can Trump live up to the dignity demanded of the office? Will he speak out against those who commit racist acts in his name? Or will he bring the ugly rhetoric of his campaign to the Oval Office? None of us really knows what to expect from a man who has never held elective office and whose campaign was short on meaningful details.
But I’m going to give my new president a chance. I hope to do better on that front than Obama’s opponents did for him.
As Americans, we get to criticize and protest our leaders if we don’t agree with them. Trump is the president, not a king, and he has to answer to the people. We can support him or oppose him as we choose – all day, every day.
God bless America.