A better tomorrow for America?


My favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra, is said to have quipped, “Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future.”  Another, related, alleged “Yogi-ism” is: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

In general, my versions of the future have been no more on the mark than Yogi’s.  In the early ’60s, for example, I attended a Joan Baez concert in Asbury Park, New Jersey, during which she introduced her scraggly guitar-playing sidekick, who had a scratchy voice and called himself Bob Dylan.

“That Dylan guy will never amount to anything,” I informed anybody who was willing to listen.

But, when perusing my COVID diary a few weeks ago, I came across my entry for Oct. 30, 2020, which has turned out to be truly prescient.  I sensed in my very bones that the coming Election Day, on Nov. 3, just four days hence, would be the most significant election of my lifetime.  I noted my sense of foreboding: “Sandy and I have already voted by absentee ballot.  The US Postal Service having been rendered ‘iffy’ by Trump’s shenanigans, I checked my computer last night to learn from the office of the RI Secretary of State that our ballets have been ‘received’ and ‘accepted’.”

I went on to write that “for the first time in my life I have been less concerned with the results of the election – Biden should defeat Trump – than about whether or not the voting results will be treated fairly and freely.  Trump and his Republican cronies seem to be running not against Biden but rather against the process of free and fair elections, a process which Trump, without a shred of evidence, has called ‘rigged.’ In his delusional ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ mind, ‘Only I can fix America!  Only I can make America great again!  Only I deserve to win!’ ”

As it turns out, Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by a wide margin: 306 to 232 electoral votes and by more than 7 million popular votes.

Yet Trump, and many of his most ardent supporters, insist that the election was stolen and that their task continues to be to “stop the steal.”

Trumpists seem to agree with football coach Vince Lombardi that “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

While such words might help to fire up a football team, this all-or-nothing thinking is poison to our democracy, which depends on losers accepting the validity of their opponents’ victory and taking comfort in the hope that in the next election, to use Dylan’s words, “the loser now will be later to win.”   In a democracy, where there are by definition always winners and losers, it is essential that every citizen acknowledge and play by the same rules.

This summer’s congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection have added significant detail to the somewhat blurry picture that most Americans have carried with them for a year and a half.  The witnesses who have testified – almost all of them Republicans – have presented an ever-more damning record of the actions of Trump and his associates leading up to Jan. 6, 2021 – and of their actions and inaction during the day itself.

As of this writing, no witness has proved more significant for the future of our broken country than 26-year-old Cassidy Hutchinson, a senior aide to Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff.  Hutchinson served in the White House for most of Trump’s term of office.  She was known to be an ardent, hard-working and highly intelligent Trump loyalist; her testimony cannot be shrugged off as a partisan rant.

Under oath, Hutchinson told the world the candid truth about Trump’s out-of-control behavior, his mad insistence that he himself lead the weaponized mob – “his people” – to the Capitol in order to overthrow the newly elected but not yet formally inaugurated Biden administration.

We learned from Hutchinson that Trump knew that many in the mob were armed, yet he tried to order the authorities to remove the “mags,” the metal detectors, so that “his people” could march with their weapons to the Capitol; after all, they were no threat to him.

What might Trump have done had he succeeded in pressuring the Secret Service to drive him to the Capitol after he finished his incendiary speech? The answer, thankfully, remains in the realm of the might-have-been.

A huge question hangs over all of us in these un-United States: given all that we now know about President #45, can we find a way to come together in the service of justice?  Or will the cornered Trump find a way to finish tearing us apart?

To echo the biblical Amos, “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet.”

In this moment when the future of America seems to hang in the balance, I take refuge in the words of one of our greatest poets, Walt Whitman. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856), Whitman dares to affirm the ties that bind him to the generations of Americans yet to come:

“It avails not, time nor place – distance avails not,/I am with you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,/Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt/Just as any of you is one of the living crowd, I was one of the crowd,/Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the flow, I was refresh’d ….”

Whitman sings his trust in future generations of Americans to repair the brokenness of his own day.

If we are to survive as “one nation, indivisible,” we must prevail against the current darkness and echo Whitman’s spirited optimism in both word and deed.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeitus@templehabonim.org.