In early October of 2008 when it started to become clear that Senator John McCain was not going to win the presidential election against then Senator Barack Obama things started to turn ugly at his campaign events. His supporters started getting angry. They were frustrated at the state of the race, confused how their candidate could be falling so far behind, and exasperated at the reality that was becoming clearer with each passing day.
On October 10, 2008 this frustration reached a fever pitch at one of Senator McCain’s events in Minnesota where his supporters called Obama a liar, terrorist, and an Arab. Being where he was in the polls, lacking a spark, and quickly running out of time to make up ground, Senator McCain could have taken the expedient route. He could have played off of the fears of his supporters and used their words as fuel for a campaign running on fumes. He could have channeled their hatred, disrespect, and dishonesty into one last push to round up his base and make one final concerted run at the nomination. However, that is not what Senator McCain did.
He stood up, grabbed the microphone and said, “I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States…He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about. He’s not an Arab.” The crowd booed him loudly, implored him to embrace their views, and use them to the benefit of the campaign. Senator McCain never budged. He never let the urgency of the moment supersede his integrity. If he was going to win, it would be on his merits and not on misinformation and hatred.
I am a Democrat. I did not vote for Senator McCain, but I do respect him. He did not cave under the pressure of a room full of supporters to score political points. He did not cower in the face of such vitriol. He did not do what was easy, he did what was right. He did not trade in the currency of fear, but instead rejected its value outright. He understood that at the end of the day, we are better together than apart.
Senator McCain embraced what President Lincoln said during his first inaugural address, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” He understood that while we may disagree, we do not have to be disagreeable. He knew that our country is not strengthened by its divisions, but diminished by them. The United States of America: It’s not just a name, it’s what we are. United is what we should always aspire to be.
Does being united mean we cannot have divergent interests we feel passionate and may disagree about? Absolutely not, it is normal and healthy for our union when we have civil disagreements and differing viewpoints. Is it okay to voice our differences and let it be known that they are real and important to us? Definitely so, that is one of our most fundamental rights. The ability to speak freely about the things we believe is essential to being an American. It is a primary reason why our country has survived for as long as it has. It is why I can sit here and write my feelings about the current state of affairs without fear of being reprimanded for doing so.
However, being able to speak freely and passionately about what we believe in does not grant us permission to disrespect the views of others. Such actions are counterproductive to progress and unity. We get no further by deepening the divisions that divide us. It is a lot easier to cross a bridge than to traverse an unspanned valley. Therefore, we cannot continue to burn bridges before we have the opportunity to cross them. There is value in unclenching your fist and opening your mind.
Unclenching your fist may not be the easy thing to do, but violence and discord only beget more of the same. Sometimes turning your cheek is the strongest message you can send. Letting someone know that you will not be dragged down in the dirt, but instead are willing to lift them up is a very strong statement. John McCain understood this. From his days as a prisoner of war, he understands this better than most people. Senator McCain definitely understands it more than someone who says, “He’s (John McCain) not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
The above quote was spoken by none other than Donald Trump. He simply doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand what being a leader is about. For someone who loves to hear himself talk, he doesn’t understand the force with which words carry. The United States is a country borne not on lines of race, ethnicity, religion, tribe, class or color. Instead it is a country built on ideals, principles, and the unifying words written on our founding documents. We are Americans by no other definition than those written into the Constitution. Words may not matter in a lot of countries, but they definitely matter here. We are created, bound, and freed by our founder’s words, not divided by them. We are a country not of divisions but instead unities, we always have been, we always will be.
If you’re in a position to influence people, to change their minds about the way they see the world, to inspire them to take action, let that inspiration be to unify and not divide. Let your words encourage people to reach out and shake someone’s hand instead of punch them in the face. Let your actions inspire people to engage in discourse that is respectful and productive and not derogatory and inflammatory. Be the voice that speaks to the good in people and not the fear. Let your leadership work to bridge the lines of division that divide us and find a common ground in the middle where we both can stand.
In a country as diverse and disparate as the United States it is a leader’s responsibility to do all of that. To inspire the good and not the bad, the hope and not the fear, the understanding and not the anger, the acceptance and not the rejection. It is furthermore an essential function of a leader to stand up for what is right, to correct people when they are wrong, to condemn actions that run contrary to unity and common purpose.
As citizens of the United States we have such varied interests that it is inevitable that we are going to have disagreements, misunderstanding, and arguments. However, if we disagree, let’s try to find common ground. If we have misunderstandings, let’s try to better understand where each other comes from and why the other believes what they do so that we can at least respect how they feel. If we argue, let us at least keep some semblance of civility and reason.
Leaders should set a positive example and never seek to divide us. They should offer realistic solutions to our problems and not insults to our people. A leader should not publicly, or privately for that matter, call people pussies or say that women are disgusting because they breastfeed or are overweight. A leader should not diminish the service of our military men and women for being captured when they never even served themselves. Nor should they instill fear in their followers or inspire hatred in their opponents. A leader should not accept the endorsements of groups that condone hatred either. They should not offer to represent followers who assault protesters or encourage them to fight back physically. Leaders do not threaten violence or riots if they are denied their aspirations. A true leader accepts blame when it is due and does not blame others for the fury they incite themselves. Leaders do not talk about how well they are endowed on public television. A leader should not stereotype entire groups of people in monolithic terms. To that point, a leader should not say that we should ban all Muslim’s from entering the country, at least not in this country, a country founded by and enriched through immigration. Lastly, they should not berate illegal immigrants and still have used their labor.
What they should do is hold themselves to a higher standard and ask that others do as well. Leaders, especially presidential candidates, are not applying for just any job. They are applying to sit in one of the most important seats in the world and therefore they should hold themselves and their followers to the highest of standards. Their words and actions speak to more people, and can do more harm or good than almost anyone, and therefore they should not speak so carelessly in public. Their words should be measured, well said, and informed. They should not speak misinformation or promote unverifiable facts. They should be someone you can sit your child down to watch and not have to worry about what will come out of their mouth. They should be the example that we strive for and not the one we shudder from. It’s great to be honest and up front with people, but there are ways to express your opinion respectfully and without diminishing or disparaging the thoughts and opinions of others.
Senator John McCain understood all of this while he was running for the nomination and he was an exemplary model of what a leader and presidential candidate should behave like during his campaign. When the fire started burning too hot, he immediately doused the flames. He stood up for reason and defended his own opponent. He set the record straight with his followers and let them know that while he may have had fundamental disagreements with Obama, he still respected him. He insisted to win or lose on his merits. He was not going to win by pandering to the insecurities of his followers or by insulting his opponents without any respect for the truth. If only every presidential candidate held themselves to the same standards we might be a lot further ahead today than we are.
I am admittedly, as I stated earlier, a Democrat. I am and have been since I can remember for a number of reasons. However, I am by no means a raging partisan. I actually find value in some Republican policy stances and respectfully disagree with others. I understand that there are fundamental differences between how Republicans and Democrats view the world, but I have never thought the gap to be so substantial that common ground cannot be found on the most pressing of issues.
However, Donald Trump is simply someone I cannot tolerate as a presidential candidate. I am steadfastly unwilling to accept that someone as distasteful and ignorant as him could ever become president of this great country…yes, don’t let his campaign slogan fool you, America never stopped being great. If I was a Republican I would literally be offended that Trump will likely be the standard bearer of the Grand Old Party come November. The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, Grant, Eisenhower, and Reagan. Presidents who understood what it meant to be a leader, who respected the office they occupied, who valued the power and importance of words and used them with force and tact. Donald Trump falls so incomprehensibly short of the standard those men set it is laughable and scary at once to think he is as close to the office they once held as he is. He is a disgrace to this country, an embarrassment to Republicans, and a mistake to every voter who’s casted a ballot with his name on it so far. He is the very embodiment of everything that is wrong with this country and Washington: a singular representation of the divisiveness, immaturity, narcissism, dishonesty, and ignorance that plagues this country and our politics.