This Christmas season comes as the breath between two battles, the political battle that just ended with the election of a new president and the one sure to begin once he takes office. For some opponents, who see the election as a call to mobilize, there is no letup. But for many Americans, this interregnum is a respite, a time to turn away from the clash of ideas, interests and agendas we have just experienced as a nation. It overlaps a holy time, a time for silence, gratitude, humility. That time, and that spirit, seem sorely needed.
Greatness is a word we heard often during the last six months. Donald J. Trump campaigned for president on the need to restore American greatness; Hillary Clinton maintained we had never lost it. But national greatness never came about through advocacy or assertions of it—more often it is in response to dire necessity—and the greatness of America is so axiomatic among our politicians that it is easy to forget how prone we are as a nation, and as individuals, to arrogance, ignorance and error. Two failed wars during the past dozen years, a political system that voters in both parties perceive as corrupt and dysfunctional, a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, and a dearth of imaginative ideas on how to deal effectively with these and other challenges demonstrate our limitations.
The presidential race did not address those limitations so much as highlight them. Mr. Trump’s flame-throwing populism won the Electoral College, but the vehement opposition it stirred has the country more divided than it has been in decades. His candidacy showed our democracy to be more fragile than we had supposed and underscored how baseless are claims made about America’s superiority to other countries.
As a country, we do not examine our blunders. We ignore them, even our biggest ones. By not reflecting on both our failings and our many blessings and advantages, we lose perspective. Our problems are real but relatively minor when compared with those of other countries. We are a fortunate people living in an imperfect, not-so-great democracy, as has been true from its inception. Accepting and acknowledging our not-so-greatness, that as a people we are about average as regards conduct and sometimes worse, might be a saving grace—the beginning of an end to grandiosity and a rejection, at least for a time, of the delusions of grandeur to which we are prone. Donald Trump is not the only American to reside in Trumpland, that shining place we go to in our mind where we are forever strong, justified and righteous.
“Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds,” Henry Adams wrote more than a century ago in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. The son of Lincoln’s ambassador to Great Britain during the Civil War and the grandson and great-grandson of two presidents, John Quincy Adams and John Adams, Henry Adams grew up in a family steeped in politics. I hope that politics can be something better than our hatreds, that it can be also an expression of our virtues, but Adams’s statement is as apt in our own time as it was in his.
The I-hate-Donald-Trump camp and the I-hate-Hillary-Clinton camp seem roughly even today. After the election, the former may have the edge in intensity and fury. The impassioned opposition to him has not ceased with his victory, and almost every day prominent individuals and political groups make statements as to why his election should be overturned. But unless the Electoral College decides otherwise, Donald Trump will be our next president. As such, he deserves the good will of all Americans, even those who hate him, and the cooperation of Democrats in Congress when they can rightly give it.
The acrimony in our country will not be easily overcome. Forbearance, forgiveness, patience, charity—these are not democratic traits but what faith urges us to strive for. After 9/11, religion was regarded with suspicion. The election may do something similar for our view of politics, reminding us that if politics can inspire our best efforts, it can also elicit our worst instincts. In an increasingly secular society, in which many regard religion as irrelevant, we still need the peace of Christ, a peace that is neither created nor destroyed by politics.