I was in Missouri for last fall’s presidential election, having timed a business trip to be there for what was clearly going to be a historic result. If Hillary Clinton were elected, it would be the first time for a woman to ascend to the nation’s highest public office; if it were Donald Trump … well, it would definitely be historic. I could not miss the opportunity to see it up close.
During the run-up to the election, American friends told me repeatedly, “Trump has no chance. … It will never happen. … Ultimately, common sense will prevail.” As Election Day drew closer, “no chance” became “there’s a small chance” and finally, after the results were announced, gave way to disbelief.
There is no point now arguing which candidate would have been better. Better for America. Better for Israel. Better for the world. But clearly America is going through difficult times.
Maybe America is undergoing a mid-life crisis at age 240. Maybe this is a backlash by conservative Americans reacting to liberalism and excessive political correctness. Or maybe it’s the frustration of those who until recently saw their country as the sole global superpower, invincible winners, and now feel that “the Russians and Chinese are schooling us.” Some consider it a delayed reaction to 9/11.
As always, there is more than one reason. True history (unlike what is written in most of the history books) results from many reasons and circumstances. History is always multilayered. History is dictated by currents, forces and motives that we are too small to comprehend.
Trump’s election and some of his first endeavors — if nothing more, at least he is fulfilling his promises — highlighted deep divisions in American society. Some of my American friends on the liberal side have told me they have stopped speaking to friends and even family members who voted for Trump.
These divisions remind me of the split in the Kibbutz Movement in the 1950s, an ideological and physical split over connections with the Soviet Union. At its height, some kibbutzim split into two and even separated families. Today some see resonances of this traumatic period, when people were willing to go a long way for an ideology even if, as it seems to us in retrospect, it was surreal and blind.
And yet Trump’s presidency contains a great historic opportunity for the citizens of the United States. The opportunity to transcend itself and prove to itself that it can. The opportunity to look inside and to show itself and the world the great power concealed within. The unique qualities that made it the cradle of democracy, the engine of growth and innovation of the 20th century, and the world leader of the modern era are the same qualities that it can once again proudly proclaim to the world.
I remember my father-in-law, Ian Winnick, proudly sharing with me the scientific, economic, social and humanitarian achievements of his America when I, already engaged to his daughter Betsy, first arrived in the United States 28 years ago. It is far too early to write the epitaph for that America. Maybe Trump’s election could awaken some of the great American virtues that have been dormant for too long.
When those who are stunned and frustrated cease mourning the America that was taken from them, and instead dedicate themselves to positive action, they can replace the frustration and rage with building and creating. If this shock causes American society to leave its comfort zone, then Clinton’s defeat and Trump’s election will be recorded in history as a seminal event heralding the return of the United States to its rightful status as a leader both at home and globally.
Sagi Melamed is vice president of external relations and development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and president of the Harvard Club of Israel. He is the author of “Son of My Land.”