Donald Trump has probably done more to recruit converts to the political process than any politician in a long time. While his support base remains fixed, those in opposition to his policies are a rising tide. Many of them, as writer E. J. Graff points out, are new to citizen activism, spurred into action by outrage. (“They Persisted,” by E. J. Graff, Mother Jones, July/Aug, 2017, pgs. 34-37, 63.)
I ran into one of these converts while having coffee in the lounge at my retirement center. “Why haven’t you joined our Donald Trump resistance group?” She raised one eyebrow to suggest her disapproval. “Have you no sense of community?”
I’m never certain what a person means by that phrase, “a sense of community.” I know I belong to the human race. I know I believe in treating others as I’d like to be treated. But, beyond that, a sense of community seems to mean centering my interests around the interests of like-minded people. Unfortunately, I’m too eccentric to be like-minded with anyone for long.
When I was a county commissioner, a journalist from the local newspaper cornered me in my office one day. He was puzzled, he said. After observing me at work over several months, he wanted to know, “What constituency do you serve?”
The question was unexpected and my reply was tentative, fearing my answer might be wrong – as it often was according to the newspaper’s editors.
The journalist shook his head. “No, no. That’s not what I mean. You advocate for the poor. You advocate for minorities. You advocate for ex-offenders. You advocate for the homeless and battered women. But these people aren’t politically active. My question is, who do you expect to show up at the polls to vote for you in the next election? That’s what I want to know.”
He had me. Suddenly, I realized I had no community behind me. My advocacy wasn’t centered on a group’s approval. I acted on the basis of need.
What the journalist didn’t know, and I didn’t tell him, was that I didn’t plan to stay in politics. A good thing, too, as he was right: principles alone won’t sustain a political career. In fact, I’ve observed, they may even be an impediment.
To be honest, I’m a little suspicious of “community.” It’s fickle. The sense of it rises and falls and changes depending on the outrage of the day. Where are the activists of “Occupy Wall Street” now? The defenders of ERA? While our president, Donald Trump gropes women and brags about it, in my town, we can’t pull enough people together to form a viable chapter of NOW.
I’ll go further. To be true to one’s principles, sometimes a person is forced to oppose the community. Wasn’t that true for Martin Luther King? For Nelson Mandela? For Aung San Suu Ki?
I prefer to stick with values that will survive time’s passage. Conscience, rather than community, is the truest compass.