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The political high road: Do we want more Obamas or more Trumps?

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In a late 2018 speech, right before a Blue Wave hit Congress, the United States' last president spoke to students. He urged them to vote like their lives depended on it. Because it did.

In the midst of talking about taking a political high road against a "darker aspect" of Americana that relatively few trod these days, Barack Obama noted that powerful forces wanting to divide people "did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He's just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, a fear and anger that's rooted in our past."

When Obama gave that speech last year, I didn't really listen to it. I was too busy writing about Republican voter suppression and what a bigot Trump was and insulting his supporters on social media, calling them cult members and worse. It wasn't until I sat down a couple months after the mid-term elections to update a book called Not Our President that I really read through that address. The message resonated, but not enough for me to change the book's title.

Obama wasn't calling on people to ignore the many transgressions of Trump and his cult - oops, there I go again. He noted that when he was in the White House he complained a lot about Fox News, but stopped short of calling Fox journalists "enemies of the people" and threatening to shut them down. He noted that it shouldn't be hard to say that "Nazis are bad." But he also drew the line at fighting fire with fire, including making up fake news about the other side.

It wasn't because he was soft - it was because he believes that dirty political tricks and negative attacks only erode everyone's trust in government and favor pols who prey on people's fears. "That always works better for those who don't believe in the power of collective action," Obama said. To actually solve problems and make people's lives better, a well-functioning government and cooperation among people of different political beliefs were needed.

"We have to bring people together, not tear them apart," Obama said. "We need majorities in Congress and state legislatures who are serious about governing and want to bring about real change and improvements in people's lives."

The notion that Democrats need to choose between trying to appeal to white working class voters or appeal to minorities and women is nonsense, he said. "I got votes from every demographic," Obama said. "We won by reaching out to everybody and competing everywhere and by fighting for every vote.... We have to listen to them, even when we don't like what they have to say. We have to hope that we can change their minds, and we have to remain open to them changing ours. And that doesn't mean, by the way, abandoning our principles or caving to bad policy in the interests of maintaining some phony version of civility."

He noted that we've been through darker times, though not in modern history, according to the latest "Doomsday Clock" report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which maintained the clock at two minutes to midnight, tied with 1953 for the closest level. "If you get involved and you get engaged and you knock on some doors and you talk with your friends and you argue with your family members and you change some minds and you vote, something powerful happens," Obama said. "Not perfection, not every bit of cruelty and sadness and poverty and disease suddenly stricken from the Earth. There will still be problems, but with each new candidate that surprises you with a victory that you supported, a spark of hope happens."

So perhaps as we delve deeper into Trump's term and try to elect another Democrat to take his place if Robert Mueller's investigation doesn't help remove him first, there is something to trying to focus on talking to people about potential solutions to problems. There is something to talking about what you are for, what you plan to do about problems, rather than tearing down an opponent. There is something to getting beyond fear, fear of illegal immigrants that leads some to call for a stronger wall, fear of people who look and think differently, fear of crime that can cause gun sales to escalate, fear of the Russians stealing another election.

Autocrats rule by fear. Trump is used to controlling his own companies, sometimes to the point of bankruptcy, not listening to others and compromising. He knows the power of fear, which is the title of Bob Woodward's excellent book. That's why he harps on an easily-divisive issue like illegal immigration.

To combat that, you have to listen to their sides, then demonstrate that immigrants aren't taking the jobs that most Americans really want. You have to point out how the Obama administration deported more illegal immigrants than the Bush administration did. You have to point to the more complex issue of businesses hiring - even Trump's - and paying for the transfer of illegal immigrants to fill jobs and keep wages as low as possible. You have to do this without resorting to name-calling or attacks. You have to be better than the other side.

Sometimes I think that Abraham Lincoln should have just let the South go, let their leaders form their own country. North United States could have welcomed former slaves with promises to be free. Maybe a war still would have erupted, especially when South United States citizens would inevitably illegally immigrate across the border to claim "their slaves." And especially when North US industrialists wanted to keep the entire land intact as one country since that meant higher revenues and profits for them.

Still, having two separate countries might have delayed and lessened the seemingly inevitable bloodshed. It would have given each country the chance to show which system was better - one that used direct slavery or one that fielded a still racist, but more humane, economy. By the North setting a better example, perhaps leaders in the South would have come around to pay all workers and not treat humans as pieces of property. Perhaps like Germany eventually did, the original United States would have become reunified without too much bloodshed.

Different eras, different circumstances. But I'm just thinking out loud, wondering if there was a higher road to take back in the 19th century, a way to solve the North-South differences without so much bloodshed. Maybe leaders of Northern and Southern states did exhaust all avenues of compromise. Perhaps abolishing slavery without a civil war wasn't likely to occur. A civil rights movement was still needed to attempt to eradicate injustices decades after the devastating Civil War. And it would still be needed for this two-countries plan. Jim Crow wasn't going away by itself.

Taking the high road in politics doesn't always seem to work. It doesn't often seem to work. Especially in the moment. But when you think about it, isn't it better than everyone taking the low road? Perhaps we can have more taking a middle road, if they can't stomach the high or low paths. Maybe I'll only raise my middle finger towards Trump half the time - that's a start, right?

The bottom line is: Do we want to have more people walking closer to Obama's road in this country, or more descending near the thoroughfare used by the likes of Trump, Nixon, and Roger Stone?

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Jackson Thoreau is the pen name of a Washington, D.C.-area journalist/writer. Books include Not Our President: The Movement for Democracy and Against GOP Fascism [updated in 2022], The King of the Internet [2019], and Born to (more...)

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