America’s Domestic, Post-Trump Peace Process

Commodified polarization rationalized so much of the Trump presidency. The wall of propaganda that has maintained that divide might now be breached. 


Lisa Van Dusen

November 9, 2020

As America shakes off its hair-raising Trumpian bender and emerges, blinking, back into sober, saner reality, a heartening number of voices have urged their fellow citizens to take a cue from Joe Biden’s skill set and empathize.

“Remember when I was here four years ago, remember how bad that felt? Remember that half the country right now still feels that way,” Dave Chappelle said during his Saturday Night Live monologue, hours after Biden’s victory was announced. On Monday’s edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, branding expert and political pundit Donny Deutsch read an email from a veteran whose correspondence with him started out as a heated attack and, after a series of exchanges about why they hold the political views they do, now invariably ends with, “Love you, brother.”

Years ago, when I was working for a Middle East Peace Building program, I learned about the power of dialogue between people who’ve had different life experiences, especially who’ve lived through different personal narratives of a shared history. Part of the training for fellows from Israel, Palestine and Jordan in their Masters of Social Work program at McGill University was to hear each other’s stories: What’s it like living as a Palestinian refugee in Amman? As a Black Palestinian mother? Growing up on a Kibbutz on the border with Lebanon? Being in Kings of Israel Square (now Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and vowing then and there to work for peace? Living your life circumscribed by surveillance, checkpoints and ubiquitous police presence? The impact of that one exercise — not just as a prelude to, but as a prerequisite for, conflict resolution — was extraordinary. People from both sides of the political, religious and cultural divide were often emotionally overcome, because they were absorbing the perspective of “the other” for the first time after years of being steeped in propaganda.

These days, in the region, the most potent symbol of the power of dialogue is the separation wall that has largely cut Israelis and Palestinians off from each other. Having spent time in rooms full of people from both groups working to secure rights for and provide services to the most disadvantaged communities on both sides of the wall, I can attest to the propaganda-defying power of personal contact, and what a threat it poses to both conventional political wisdom and those who rely on isolation and division to maintain their own power.

People from both sides of the political, religious and cultural divide were often emotionally overcome, because they were absorbing the perspective of ‘the other’ for the first time after years of being steeped in propaganda.

In the United States, there has been a wall of disinformation, demonization and commodified polarization erected between Americans whose political affiliations have become shorthand for the same sort of one-dimensional profiling intelligent people from both sides of the wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem have been known to reject in the face of truth. It has been fuelled by performative politics, leveraged by professional propagandists misrepresenting identity for political gain and continuously curated on cable shows and social media. It serves the double purpose of portraying two solitudes decoupled beyond hope of unity while obscuring or minimizing evidence that could undermine that narrative.

Above all, it lends credence to the otherwise dubious legitimacy of political figures who rationalize channeling the fears of half of a hopelessly bifurcated society instead of serving the interests of all. That justification for otherwise extreme, belligerent or incompetent policy choices perpetuates itself at election time unless those choices are so overwhelmingly, undeniably self-sabotaging that voters recalibrate their self-interest. This process is exclusive to neither Donald Trump, nor America, nor 2020, but humanity owes Trump a debt for clarifying it this time.

At their victory rally Saturday night, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris presented hope for dialogue and national reconciliation simply by carrying the stories of so many “others” within themselves onto that stage: the outsiders, the struggling, the underestimated, the financially vulnerable, the stereotyped, the devastated, the grieving, the defeated, the recovered, the redeemed, the striving, the principled, the aspiring and all the routinely checked demographic, racial, socioeconomic and resumé boxes that translate as elements of perspective, sources of knowledge and gateways to empathy through that wall of propaganda.

That should make the process of healing America that Biden called for if not simple, at least less daunting than it otherwise would be.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.