In the New York Times on Sunday, Peter Wehner, the occasional Times columnist and former George W. Bush aide, had an appealingly conciliatory piece about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the strain it has been putting on friendships. The passionately anti-Trump Wehner is a nice writer who seems like an even nicer guy, but his column—which argued for putting aside politics in the interest of personal relationships—should not, in the age of Trump, be heeded.
Wehner starts out OK, writing:
Others have confided that differences over the Trump candidacy have caused such a loss of respect that they feared their friendships would not survive, and that even if they did, they would never be the same.
While I haven’t lost any friendships during this Trumpian moment, at least not yet, I certainly haven’t been immune to the heightened tension. Several friends whose political views have often coincided with mine in the past have voiced their anger to me over my public opposition to Mr. Trump’s candidacy.
Wehner then goes through a bunch of examples of friendships ending or being put under strain, before landing on this note:
In his first inaugural address, with the Civil War looming, Abraham Lincoln told his fellow citizens that we are not enemies but friends. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” he said. During his second inaugural, at the war’s end, he asked us to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” with “malice toward none, with charity for all.” This was an almost superhuman ideal, but it needed to be stated.
None of us is Lincoln, and our divisions today obviously pale in comparison to those he and the country faced. Yet we can still learn from him. Having lived through the previous decade of tumult and political division, he knew the importance an attitude of conciliation can play in the life of a nation. We should strive for a bit of the grace and largeness of spirit he showed.
Of course friendships should survive some political differences: I have friends who think differently than I do about everything from proper tax rates to abortion regulations. But having a friend who supports a blatantly (and proudly) bigoted candidate is categorically different. Everyone might have a different line about what issue to take some sort of moral stand on, but Trump has stepped over pretty much all of them. (The Lincoln comparison, moreover, doesn’t make much sense because it is Trump’s election that would tear the country apart.)
Wehner writes, “When political differences shatter friendships, when we attribute disagreements to deep character flaws, it usually means politics has become too central to our lives.” Call me moralistic, but I think being a racist or supporting a racist is a deep character flaw, and I don’t think I believe this because politics is too central to my life.
In fact, Wehner’s argument tends to undercut the case against Trump that he himself has made several times. Trump isn’t just another politician: No, he is a dangerous demagogue who could do real harm to the country, Wehner has argued. But he seems to forget all this when he writes of friendship: “Time and distance helped repair the breach. Passions cool, the gaps between you don’t seem quite as wide. The qualities that once attracted you to others come back into focus. Conversations turn to topics deeper and more personal than politics.”
The problem here is, again, Trump. To talk about issues “deeper” than politics is to make the assumption that family and friendship have greater emotional meaning to us than, say, the precise makeup of the Senate. But what if you have family members or friends who are Muslims living overseas who want to visit America or Mexican American children worried about being stigmatized during a Trump administration? Wehner has been right to point out Trump’s unique brand of awfulness, which is why he shouldn’t have so much trouble understanding that this election has come to be about something more than “politics.”
Of course, to say that decent people should have no social contact with Trump supporters is, for many of us, impossible and naïve. Maybe your lifelong chum backs Trump, or maybe your parents do. But people like Wehner—elites in every sense of the word—might want to ask themselves why they have friends or colleagues who are supportive of a bigot. The answer could have more to do with the political party they have long aided and abetted than the fraught and complicated subject of friendship.