An interview with E. J. Dionne, Jr.
E. J. Dionne, Jr.
E. J. Dionne, Jr., is the William Bloomberg Visiting Professor for 2017–18, a joint appointment between Harvard Divinity School, the Kennedy School, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. A syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and a university professor at Georgetown University, Dionne grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, and earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1973. This fall, Dionne has been teaching two courses at HDS. He sat down in his Divinity Hall office with Bulletin contributor Robert Israel to discuss his new book.
The subtitle of One Nation After Trump—“a guide for the perplexed”—calls to mind the book by the same title written by Jewish philosopher Maimonides in the twelfth century. How do you and your co-authors hope to similarly enlighten readers who are perplexed—indeed, deeply troubled—by Donald Trump’s presidency?
We were very much inspired by Maimonides. Norman Ornstein, my co-author, is responsible for giving the book that subtitle. We do not wish to imply that we are reaching Maimonides’s level by any means. Rather, we discuss how we, as a nation, can get on a better path now that Trump is president.
We see the Trump presidency as a threat that goes beyond the normal situation that arises from a president you might disagree with. We see Trump posing a fundamental threat to our constitutional government and the norms of how our government operates. Trump has broken these norms one after the other. Examples include his financial conflicts of interest [not divesting himself of business interests while serving as president] and his pardon of Joe Arpaio [the Arizona sheriff who illegally profiled Latinos]. He is a threat because of his autocratic tendencies. And while the American system is strong, it is only as strong as the people who occupy important places in it. We think it is important to resist those tendencies that we find in Trump.
By autocratic tendencies, we refer to numerous instances when Trump declared [at the 2016 Republican national convention], “I alone can fix it.” That is not fundamentally a democratic way of fixing things. Historically, when you see autocratic regimes like Trump’s take over, they go after the courts, the media, and they try to render the opposition illegitimate. Trump has done this repeatedly—there is a long list—and he has demonized not only Democrats but also members of his own party.
In the first part of the book, we examine why Trump’s presidency happened and how much of his election reflected the developments in the Republican Party during the last fifteen to twenty years. We also discuss the racial/immigration divide, on the one hand, and the real economic difficulties faced by a lot of people in this country, on the other, and how these factors contributed to make Trump’s election possible. In the second part of the book, we offer a way forward for those who are perplexed by these disturbing trends.
What factors paved the way for Trump’s win?
Early on in his candidacy, Trump was never challenged when it came to claims he made, for example, that President Obama was not born in the U.S., referred to as “birthism.” Trump also made false statements that President Obama was a Muslim. The way Trump delivered these two fundamental untruths—and the fact that the Republican Party, other than Senator John McCain in 2008, did not call him out on these untrue statements—paved the way for more of the same.
There have been a lot of dog-whistle controversies around the issue of race in politics for many years, and Trump has turned these dog-whistles into a bullhorn. Once you start down roads like that, particularly with the issue of race, it gets very dangerous. Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” The fact that the Republican Party did not call Trump out on these and other statements he made gave rise to his election.
How do these factors apply to the issue of voter suppression?
It’s interesting that when you look, historically, at the Voting Rights Act, it could not have passed without the support of the Republican Party. So their abandonment of that act is disturbing. It takes us back to the pre–civil rights era, when such things as false literacy tests were mandated and respondents were asked to answer questions that no one could answer, and the example of poll taxes, which we got rid of. But now we have Trump’s false charge of voter fraud, for example, which was, once again, found to be untrue, and other examples of suppressed voting. We decided, as a nation, that keeping people away from the ballot box was fundamentally un-American when we passed the Voting Rights Act. Weakening that act also gave rise to Trumpism.
In a chapter titled “Our Little Platoons,” you discuss actions taken against Trump by religious leaders, such as being “at the forefront in battling Trump’s immigration policies” (230). Can you reflect on this?
In my Divinity School course, “Religion in America’s Political Conscience and at the Ballot Box,” I argue that you cannot look at the long American story without seeing how religious groups intervened again and again, at critical moments, on behalf of justice.
In recent years, we have tended to focus on the role of religious conservatives in American politics, which is not to say that they are not deserving of it, but, as a result of that intense focus, we have lost sight of what religious people historically did at other important points, including in the movement against slavery in this country. We’ve lost sight of what religious people did to form the original progressive movement. We’ve lost sight of the letter by U.S. Catholic bishops in 1919 on social reconstruction. We’ve overlooked the long history of Jewish groups and the role they’ve played in social justice. We’ve overlooked the civil rights movement itself, headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., who led this movement by quoting Isaiah, Moses, Jesus, and by citing the U.S. Constitution.
In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, four Jewish rabbinic groups protested President Trump’s lack of moral leadership by canceling their annual High Holiday conference call with the president.1 Are you seeing more examples of religious groups speaking out against Trump?
Yes, there’s greater clarity among religious groups to speak as one voice—for example, when the issue of immigration and deportation came up and the pope spoke out against that. And I think the example of Jewish and Muslim groups working together on behalf of justice is heartening for this country, too, by joining forces to work against prejudice. We’ve seen that when a Muslim site has been desecrated, Jews in many communities have stood up for the Muslims. It’s very heartening and very American. We will look back at this time in our history and ask, “When did people stand up?” or “Did they stand up at the right moment and for the right things?” In many instances, religious groups and leaders are leading by standing up against Trumpism.
What other instances can you cite in which citizens are coming together as a way forward against Trumpism?
During the town hall meetings that took place nationally during Congressional attempts to repeal Obamacare, many people came together to speak out against the Republican leadership, and many of these people voted for Trump, but they saw Obamacare as helping, not hurting, many people.
We see a coming together around the nation, for example here at Harvard, when the leadership spoke out against Trump’s decision to do away with DACA and voiced support to protect students brought here by immigrant parents from being deported.
In another example, we look at how corporate America, often reluctant to go against a Republican president, is speaking out. After Charlottesville, many corporate leaders said they could not identify with Trump’s lack of moral leadership. They did not say that Trump is not a good fiscal conservative, which obviously benefits them, but, rather, they stated that he is threatening the very foundations of American government. Many are even reaching out to the political center.
In the closing chapters of your book, you discuss a “restitching” of America—a word that evokes your hometown of Fall River, once a mill town. Do you believe we, as a nation, can “restitch” the gap that has widened under President Trump?
I like to describe myself as hopeful, despite the fact that there are many reasons now to be pessimistic.
We are divided as a country in many ways. There are times when it feels like we’re in a cold civil war with each other. In politics we are seeing that we are increasingly in opposing camps, more than we’ve been in a very long time. Economically, we’ve been pulled apart. There are some communities that are really hurting as a result. We almost look like a different country, depending on what community you look at. There is a lot of anger in politics, and I’m not talking about just our disagreements with one another politically, but increased anger against elected officials.
We can, as a nation, come together. In our book, we argue for a new economy, a new democracy, a new civil society, and a new patriotism. We explore some of the economic reforms we need to end this sharp division by region in the country over economics. We also insist that progressives should stand up for the whole working class and how we should worry about the white working class, but also we should worry about the Latino and the African American and the Asian working class and how we could bring those concerns together.
What signs are you seeing that this vision is taking shape in our nation today?
What gives me hope is that the Trump experience is so extreme that it is pulling people back and reminding them that norms in government really matter. It’s reminding people that when they say, “All politicians are crooks,” they are actually enabling the most corrupt politicians to succeed.
I see people coming together around the issue of immigrants, around issues of racial justice, and, in significant parts of the country, I see people reaching out to one another. I see these as positive signs. There is more willingness now than there was twenty years ago to deal with issues of economic inequality. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, a new civil rights movement is gaining ground. There’s more of a willingness to face real problems that exist in our country today.
And, last, because liberals tend to be more uneasy with patriotism, I see a re-embracing of patriotic ideas, rooted in our American values. This new patriotism that we call for in our book could be a way of getting excited again about the American idea.
Joni Mitchell once said, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I think we are becoming more mindful now that we are under threat to lose what we have in our country. We’re realizing how important it is to preserve and advance certain American liberties. Under Trumpism, we are not taking these values for granted.
- The four groups who took this action are the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Robert Israel’s last piece for the Bulletin (Spring/Summer 2017) was a review of an exhibit of Syrian art through the ages at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. He is a Boston-based writer and editor.