President-elect Donald Trump can’t control whether we are a kind and loving nation or a cruel and hateful one. Hillary Clinton, had she won, couldn’t have either.
This nation is made up of the actions and attitudes of its 330 million people. The United States is us. No one has the power to make us behave badly. No one can grant us permission to do so. And no one on Earth can stop us from behaving heroically and angelically.
A lot of people, including some who voted for Trump according to exit polls, are very scared about how he’ll behave as president. It seems that in the best-case scenario, Trump will mostly appoint responsible people, ignore the irresponsible ones he has to hire in a nod to supporters, and pursue pragmatic solutions to our nation’s problems. It seems that in the worst scenario, Trump will fail to respect the nation’s principles, traditions and institutions, behaving badly and empowering others to believe they can behave badly, too. Based on Trump’s actions so far, both outcomes are possible.
But presidents do not define this nation. We do. They cannot do great good or great evil without our complicity.
We make this nation with every canned-food drive and hour volunteered to teach others to read. We make this nation by donating blood platelets to treat kids who have leukemia, or by working a suicide hotline, or by stepping in when someone weak is being bullied or someone with a different skin color or accent is being attacked. We make this nation with simple courtesy, a smile offered and door held, a “please” and a “thank you,” and sometimes, by extraordinary acts of bravery and courage.
Americans take bullets to save lives. Americans run into raging fires to save lives.
But shamefully, we also make this nation when it’s at its worst.
Trump is not going to spray-paint any swastikas on temples, physically accost any immigrants or even send people hateful messages on Facebook.
We are exiting the most contentious campaign season of our lifetimes and entering a holiday season that, if we aren’t careful, might be worse. According to the Nov. 8 vote tally, the nation is almost perfectly divided, which is nothing new. But according to the tone of our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, many on both sides agree on one thing: Those with whom we disagree are so wrong that they no longer deserve our compassion, our friendship or our love.
These breaks in our relationships can’t be blamed on the candidates or the political climate either. They are mostly our fault for seeking to be heard, but not to hear.
We can be wonderful, and not just in movies and books. People are shockingly wonderful in real life all the time. There is no excuse to be less than great, no matter who wins elections, no matter how ugly things get, no matter what risks it poses.
If our leaders make evil rules, we must disobey. If our leaders take actions that make the hungry hungrier, we must feed those hungry people. As individuals and working together, we can see that the sick are treated, even if that means paying for it, and the lonely are granted companionship and the grief-stricken are succored.
We have tremendous power.
The final bulwark against indecency is the goodness of people. Hitler did not kill 6 million Jews. The people did on his orders. Stalin did not slaughter 50 million. The people did. But other people, in Germany and Russia, took terrible risks to save some who survived.
If we all have the unbending courage to act with love, kindness, charity and courtesy no matter the obstacles and consequences, the United States will be a loving, kind, charitable and courteous place. It’s a simple reality no leader can change.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.