The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one.” That unity has been elusive for the past few days, as liberal America struggles to absorb the shock of Donald Trump’s astonishing victory in the presidential election.
If Trump had lost, conservatives would have been the ones struggling to cope, although we would have had an easier time of it. We did not expect to win, and up until Trump took the lead in Florida, the scene at the Midtown Hilton was more of a wake than a party.
Among liberal friends and relatives, I have seen two reactions. Some have simply lashed out, even publicly. Those reactions are worth ignoring for now, because they reflect a raw emotional state of anger and distress that is not amenable to argument.
Others have approached me quietly, seeking reassurance that Trump is not the ogre they have been led to believe he is, or just trying to understand how rational people could have voted for him, so they can process what happened. That is constructive.
There are lots of reasons that smart people voted for Trump. But reason doesn’t really suffice to communicate the point. The truth is that there are reasonable people on both sides of the political divide. They come to different conclusions because they start with different assumptions about reality, even if the journey from assumption to conclusion uses the same kind of logical reasoning on both sides. So the question then becomes where our assumptions come from, and why they are so different.
The most important assumptions we make are about America itself. The default belief of the American conservative is that America is basically good. Liberals do not share this view, or think they do not. In their minds, America is capable of being good, but requires what Barack Obama called “fundamental transformation.” America is not good, and started out rather badly. That is not a belief that comes naturally to most people. It has to be taught, and in fact is taught, sadly, in our schools.
When Donald Trump ran on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” he rallied those who did not like the transformational shocks of recent years — Obamacare, globalization, illegal immigration. It was not difficult for Trump’s opponents to project, or to tell others, that what he really rejected were the positive changes that had brought America into closer harmony with its founding ideals, like civil rights and gender equality and religious tolerance. Trump’s rhetoric made his vision easier to distort.
And so the divide is partly about Trump, but really about deeper differences. Luckily, they are not irreconcilable.
There are moments in American history when the conservative and liberal impulses — to preserve and to change — were able to meet. Those moments were always mediated through faith.
We forget too easily that when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to change American laws, he appealed to white Americans through a common belief in God, and humans as “God’s children.”
We have largely neglected the power of faith in recent years. At the funeral for the slain Dallas police officers last summer, President Barack Obama borrowed Dr. King’s phrase: “I see what’s possible when we recognize that we are one American family, all deserving of equal treatment, all deserving of equal respect, all children of God. That’s the America that I know.” But then he moved on — tragically, given the opportunity he was wasting — to his political priorities, renewing the division.
God remains crucial to our national survival. You may not believe in God, and religion may play no role in your everyday life whatsoever. But it remains true that faith shaped the idea that each individual has dignity and inalienable rights, and that we are all created equal. As abstract philosophical postulates, those ideas had existed since antiquity. But they could never be put into practice without the uniquely American faith that such rights were God-given, beyond and prior to the power of the state.
That was something the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, understood.
On the Saturday night before the election, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, visited the Rebbe’s grave, his Ohel, in Queens. Their visit was more than just a way to ensure good luck on Election Day. It was an affirmation of the Rebbe’s understanding of America’s role in the world, which is so well described by Joseph Telushkin in the book Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History.
Telushkin writes about why the Rebbe saw America as special:
A nation of high ideals — the Rebbe routinely referred to the United States as a “government of kindness” (malchut shel chesed) — he saw America as perhaps the first society in which there was a hope of carrying out Judaism’s universal mission: not to make the whole world Jewish but to bring the world, starting with the United States, to a full awareness of One God, Who demands of human beings moral behavior.
At a meeting with Mayor David Dinkins, during the Crown Heights riots of 1991,
the Rebbe expressed the hope that the mayor would be able to bring peace to the city. “To both sides,” Dinkins responded. The Rebbe replied, “We are not two sides. We are one side. We are one people living under one administration and under one God. May God protect the police and all the people of the city.” For the Rebbe, and he emphasized this on different occasions, “From many, one” and “In God we trust” were the bedrock of the United States’ power and specialness.
In his stump speech on the campaign trail, Donald Trump had expressed strikingly similar sentiments in the last days before the election. I first noticed it on Monday, in his speech in Raleigh, North Carolina, when he closed by saying: “We’re fighting to bring us all together. … Just imagine if we started working together, under one God, saluting one American flag.”
When he said those words, which the crowd cheered loudly, Donald Trump was doing more than pandering to a socially conservative audience. He was connecting to America’s idealism at the most fundamental level.
Hillary Clinton’s slogan, “Stronger Together,” also contained an appeal to national unity. But it was an insincere appeal, because Clinton made clear that you were not part of the “together” if you held certain views. (That was why her “alt-right” speech backfired.)
The 17th century philosopher John Locke, whose ideas shaped those of the Founders, argued that people had the right to rebel against their government when it had been fundamentally changed against their will. One type of change was “when such a single person or prince sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws which are the will of the society declared by the legislative.”
In that grim circumstance, where public trust had been destroyed, “the appeal then lies nowhere but to Heaven.”
The Trump movement was a peaceful rebellion against the betrayal of trust — and it was, for many, an appeal to Heaven. One woman at a Florida rally on Monday, carrying a sign that said “God have mercy on America,” told me only God could really make America great again, but Trump would do, for now, as a way to start.
Now, after the election, faith in God is even more important. Faith contains gratitude for what we are, and hope for what we could be. It can bridge the divide. Let us seek Him.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, is available from Regnery through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.