The election of President Obama presented an opportunity to move toward Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community”—but I think how those who differ with a Trump presidency choose to engage him will be even more critical to getting us closer to this elusive ideal.
King popularized the idea of the beloved community as a nonviolent means of negotiating difference in civic life. The idea isn’t about achieving utopia—it’s more of an approach to conflict. It’s about figuring out how to disagree while recognizing the humanity of an opponent. Implicit in this idea is that we all live in our own “bubbles” and that understanding one’s own blind spots and biases is key to negotiating differences.
To King, conflict is part of public life, but the goal should be to engage in a way that achieves reconciliation in spite of disagreements. It is an affirmation of the inherent dignity of all people even when there is passionate disagreement.
This moment in our country’s history is just as good as any to again reach for the ideal of a beloved community. After an acrimonious election cycle where large swaths of the voting public were attacked because of their religion, ethnicity, gender or impairments—or were characterized as “deplorables”—I believe there is an appetite for something different in our civic discourse.
There are people who opposed the Obama presidency on strictly ideological grounds. He ran on progressive change, which is in direct conflict with conservative principles. But we also know there were those, including now-incoming President Trump, who actively sought to delegitimize the Obama presidency by suggesting he wasn’t “normal,” and who made unfounded claims as to the president’s citizenship,his religion and other accusations beyond political ideology.
The political left is now engaged in a similar tactic by suggesting that Trump is not “normal” due to his admittedly offensive rhetoric during the election cycle. Perhaps it is winning political strategy in the short term, but it clearly isn’t an effort to persuade or negotiate differences.
Trump won because he figured out how to talk to people who felt like no one cared about them or that they were somehow what was wrong with America. While he certainly offended people, his economic populismconnected to millions of people who feel left behind by dramatic shifts in our economy. He figured out how to talk about those challenges and people listened.
King’s idea of the beloved community is particularly relevant now as Congress and the new president begin their leadership of the country. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I need him to be successful for the country’s sake. I also recognize that my interests, both economic and social, persist. Citizens should engage in the process to voice concerns for and against issues and policies—but we should beware of leaders who pledge obstruction and participate in delegitimizing opponents.
As we prepare to transition from the Obama era to the Trump era, now is the best time to remember the King legacy and his challenge to all of us to embrace nonviolence, which extends to how one thinks about and treats an opponent through verbal deeds, as well as physical acts. Our goal shouldn’t be just winning but rather, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.”•