I was the product of an evolving nation. Both sides of my family were early 20th century immigrants to the United States. My mother’s side was Irish, my father’s was Russian. Settling in Chicago, they lived their version of West Side Story – a north side Jew mixing with a south side Catholic.
Being working class was about all they had in common. While my mom’s father was stationed abroad during WWII, my dad’s father returned home each night covered in axle grease. His wife taught remedial English at a small local college. My aunts, uncles, and cousins delivered the mail, put out house fires, and arrested bad guys. They had calloused hands, dirty shirts, and everyone worked hard; this is who we were.
So when my parents came together, their immigrant heritages produced a novel result: me – an Irish Catholic Russian Jew named John Murphy Goldman. My dad always said it was the perfect politician’s name, and maybe in the 1970s it was. Back then, it was bold for a Jewish man to marry an Irish woman, and I represented a new kind of American. We lit Hanukkah candles in the glow of Christmas tree lights, listened to Hebrew chants one day and Latin prayers the next, and there were bar mitzvahs alongside first communions. It was a little of this and a little of that, all mixed together to make something new.
My parents created this something new out of something old. In the ‘60s, Irish and Russians – even those who had been here for a generation or two – were still distinct from one another. They had rich, unique cultures with their own languages, customs, and histories.
However, these two nationalities were already united by the immigrant’s story. Famine, war, and poverty forced them to make a decision unimaginable to most people. My ancestors on both sides boarded crowded boats with everything they owned, rode the cold waters of the Atlantic, and, once here, cleaned floors, hemmed clothes, and did whatever they could to scratch out a new life. Despite the risks, a scary new beginning in America offered hope and change over stagnation or even death. Eventually, my family’s stories fused to make one, which could only be found in the United States.
At age 13, I had my bar mitzvah, a Jewish ritual marking a boy’s evolution into a man. Both sides of my family attended the Saturday morning service. As you might expect, the Irish Catholic contingent outnumbered my Jewish relatives by about 10:1. By the looks of the crowd, it could have been a Sunday Mass instead of Saturday services. The Rabbi, Barry Silberg, with his slicked-back hair and black robe, played to the crowd during his sermon. He talked of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, groups who were supposedly exiled after the Assyrian Conquest, and suggested that maybe, just maybe, the Irish were actually one of those lost tribes. Folks laughed at what seemed to be obvious pandering, but they welcomed the sentiment of unity. Whether it’s true or not, Rabbi Silberg was able to make my two families feel as one that day. I stood on the altar as the product of two completely different histories, fused together in a way that felt like a true American story.[dropcap type=”1″]R[/dropcap]econciling disparate histories, the darkness back home, and the challenges of assimilation are common American threads. For me, bridging different worlds would become a recurring theme in my life. And as an adult, I came to understand that the burden of reconciliation was not just mine, but the entire nation’s.
Weaving different pasts together into new futures is an American archetype. Because so many of us came from different circumstances, a feature of the American experiment is the crisscrossing and mashing up of different identities to produce a new act in the play. Over time, we’ve had a tendency to meld ourselves into new characters whose stories ended happier, safer, and freer than they began.
But today it feels like the arc of reconciliation has bent away from unity, instead breaking hard towards enmity. Racial antagonism is on the rise. Women and men seem to understand each other less than ever. Globally-oriented ideas clash with notions of Nationalism, as born and raised Americans compete with new arrivals. The children of Isaac and Ishmael play out their ancient conflicts in modern times.
These people, ideas, and stories seem to be at an inflection point: either come together and move forward, or peer into a future where conflict reigns over resolution.
The national narratives are screaming. This is our make or break time. Will we swirl our traditions together to form the new ore of American identity, or are we doomed to be “two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year”?
In my youth, the nation sought to soothe the wounds caused by past generations of strife. The ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were a time when the country aggressively moved towards a more civil union – one where whites and blacks had the same legal rights, where men and women were offered the same opportunities, and where the laws and customs of our country evolved along with its people.
There was a national commitment to unity, but on the local level, we each experienced this process differently. Progressive types were in the midst of it all, acting as civil rights activists, change agents, or leaders of a movement meant to heal historic wounds. The closed-minded fought progress, comfortable with the way things were and hopeful that nothing would change. As a child during this time, I was part of the solution. My role was to make new connections across color, class, and culture for the country’s common good.
The march to civil rights and reconciliation led us to some extraordinary destinations. We’re all the same now before the law. There’s no more three-fifths of anything, no system-wide plan to render people ignorant and uneducated, no formal barriers keeping the needy from the basic necessities of life. The language of power and oppression guided us out of legalized discrimination and the politics of hate. Equality of opportunity has been enshrined in both law and practice. When Barack Obama shattered the black ceiling and became our first African American president, it felt like the final scene in an inspiring movie: America voted a black man to lead the country, and we were proud to do so. I know I was.
But sometime during the Obama administration, the energy around race bent towards darkness and decades of progress seemed to evaporate. Racial and gender animus began to worsen around 2011. Instead of coming together, we were now being torn apart. Obama’s election was the end of a journey which began generations ago. Each passing decade built a stairway which helped lift him, and us, to the highest office in the land. But once we got there, it was as if we didn’t know where to go next. Instead of stepping safely onto the landing, we stumbled and fell on our face. Peak unity was already behind us.
The 2016 election marked the end of the civil rights era. An arc which began even before slavery was abolished, it crescendoed through the 20th century, finally hit top altitude, and then came crashing down, punctuated by the inauguration of Donald Trump. The righteous work which aimed to free the slaves, restore their individual liberty, and enshrine equal opportunity under the law didn’t deliver a harmonious new age where Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a colorless society reigned. Instead, generations of effort delivered us burning cities, torch-bearing mobs, and open street violence. The more we worked towards unity, the more it seemed to tear us apart. Though the language of race relations had tempered over time and racial resentment among all groups had diminished, its sudden resurgence took the country by surprise. While some people like to blame Donald Trump for this phenomenon, it’s misplaced condemnation. He didn’t create this moment as much as the moment created him.
Our nation’s success was fleeting. For a country that may have thought it reached a new plateau of unity, this resurgence of conflict has been a jolt. The same forces which ended discrimination and delivered freedoms now work in reverse. A new religion of outcome equality devours liberty and redistributes oppression. The power dynamics haven’t disappeared; they’ve simply been recast with new actors and scripts. Instead of fighting for freedom for all, it now seems like we’re all just fighting for power – which really shouldn’t be all that surprising, seeing as the power hierarchy is the indestructible backbone of life. The only change now is the matter of who is powerful and who is powerless.
And so here we are. In a time where the struggle for power is obscured by the language of equality, the American story of dueling identities clangs against the evolved reality of dominance. Reconciliation has been replaced by liberation, harmony moved aside for revolution, and reconstruction abandoned for dismantling. Talks of building things together have been muted by chants to tear it all down, and the chants grew louder than ever during the 2016 election.
2016 brought new challenges, new ideas, and created a new type of voter. Identifying as neither Republican nor Democrat, the nine million Obama voters who embraced Donald Trump feel the fault line of American culture pass through our middles. We are the last bridge keeping these worlds from cleaving apart and spiraling away into two unconnected universes complete with different languages, customs, expectations, and worldviews. We’re not Republicans, so we’re strangers in a new land, and we’re not Democrats, we were banished just as we walked out of camp. We “Democrat to Deplorable” voters are a new breed, and perhaps the future of American culture. We’ve gone through the wilderness of exile to find our new home. In many ways we are the lost tribe of American politics.
Today, the country needs its own Rabbi Silberg, someone that can help find our commonality in a sea of differences. As tribalization takes over our national dialogues, we need to find that shared story which leads us back together. This book is meant to give a voice to the misunderstood Obama/Trump voter, to explain how one can make the perplexing switch from Obama Democrat to Trump Republican, and to give shelter to those evolving from Democrat to Deplorable.
The American story in the early 21st century has moved into the insurmountable crisis of the second act, with Democrat to Deplorable voters as key characters. We’ve seen both sides. We’ve lived among both groups. We’ve broken bread with true believers from both the right and the left, and we see just how far apart the worlds have become. While my life story, and that of America, may have been an inexorable journey towards unity, today’s detour leaves us panicked. How we handle the next decade could restore our joint sense of mission or extinguish any last hope of an American togetherness.
In the process, our national narrative will resolve itself as either an epic hero’s journey, or a historic tragedy.