Dividers in Chief

I saw a reference to Donald Trump as the “Divider in Chief” recently, and the comment made me laugh.

The context was that of the pandemic and response to it, and how to frame the response: the model most people take is that of motorcycle helmets, and the model the poster preferred was that of sewage systems; when you refuse to wear a helmet, you are the one who pays, but if you dumped your sewage in the street, everyone suffers the consequences for it. (There’s irony here, but it’s secondary.)

The comment that made me laugh was the “Divider in Chief,” though, because otherwise the post was pretty good. And its point was probably apt; Trump could have phrased the response to COVID-19 such that people responded more appropriately, and if people had responded more appropriately early on, not only could more lives potentially have been saved, but more lives might be affected less even now.

I say this, typing from my home office, wondering how a good friend is doing in surgery, surgery that might have been delayed due to strained medical resources, while also hoping a close relative isn’t being ignored by his own doctors who don’t feel like they can take the time to actually properly diagnose him. I am in this world. I have skin in the game.

But “Divider in Chief…”

We are flotsam, droplets in a sea of ignorance. We are not pearls among coal; we are not diamonds in a plain of glass.  We are the coal, we are the glass. From dust we are formed, to dust we shall return. Every one of us.

It’s one thing to believe in a messiah that will rescue us from our state, staunch the bleeding and cure the disease… but it’s foolishness to rely on the messiah to change the world first.

Yochanan ben Zakkai, a rabbi from the time of the destruction of Judah, said “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you that the Messiah has come, plant the sapling and then go and greet him.” This does not diminish the role of the Messiah; it simply recognizes that a Messiah whose duty and power it is to actually change everything can do so after you plant the sapling… and if you know anything about the history of messiahs, well, it’s a safe bet that the sapling will outlive the so-called messiah anyway.

(This was after the revolution of Bar Kochba, a man that another great rabbi, Akiva, proclaimed as the messiah… and this was but one of many proclaimed as messiah who’ve somehow left the world in its current state.)

Our leaders… they are not gods. They are not special. They are not messiahs in any mystical sense. They are coal, glass, dust just like we are. If they have power, it is because we assigned it, not because they are special or wise or … anything. Any access they have to greater things, we gave them

And if we gave them, we can take them away. The implication that we cannot suggests that we are lesser beings, that there are lesser beings of less worth than others.

I reject that suggestion.

Otherwise, I would expect election by the general populace to conform some kind of power to heal upon the elected; a President becomes a sort of god, who can wave a wand and heal the world, and who bears the guilt of not doing so.

To be fair, an elected official does bear some additional responsibility; we do not choose candidates who do not seek power, and to seek power is to seek responsibility, too.

After all, “Divider in Chief” is funny in part because in some ways it’s apt. Trump certainly bears some responsibility in this, although his detractors also bear responsibility; in my opinion, his opponents should have been willing to accept the possibility that he was greater than they claimed, and he should have been a strong enough person to reach out despite their opprobrium. Neither situation occurred.

(Follow the logic: there was nothing Trump could have done to make some of his detractors willing to acknowledge anything good he did – and yes, I asked; at best, it was “even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while,” and even that kind of grudging response was rare, and became more rare over time. So what would Trump, who is a simple transactional thinker, get by reaching out to such people? Nothing – and so, in the nature of such transactional psychology, he stopped trying, which only amplified the criticism, which only meant he had even less investment in trying to satisfy the unsatisfiable. Both groups bear guilt here, and I’m quite sure that both groups would point to the other and say “they started it!,” thereby completely missing the point. Guilt isn’t only about having started it – guilt can be found just as much in voluntarily continuing it when you have a choice.)

I would love to see Americans stop worshiping their leaders. We made them; we can remove them; we shouldn’t see them as guides, but as simply people who’ve been called upon to be reliable. They will not succeed, every act they make is a chance for failure and glory; when you take 100 shots, you have a lot of chances to miss.

Their only chance for true success is to do less, but the current climate is to demand they do more.

So we as a people need to recognize our own complicity in creating failure, and stop saying stupid things like “Divider in Chief” – Trump’s a divider, yes, and he’s certainly not done anything to tell Americans that he’s not who he always said he was. 

But “in chief?” No.

That’s us.

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