I don’t remember exactly when the break occurred. I only know that I first became aware of it back in the days of the Obama administration.
I’m talking about the deep ideological split that’s surfaced in recent years between me and some of my closest friends and relatives, a rift that’s grown dramatically in the Trump era.
It’s a divide that reaches far beyond ideology. It’s rooted in a fervent belief, now shared by tens of millions of Americans, that the cultural and philosophical mindset of “the other side,” for lack of a better phrase, is fundamentally impossible to fathom or suffer.
It’s one thing to strongly disagree on the best approach to issues such as immigration, education, taxation or health care, but quite another to fear, as I do, that President Trump and his most ardent supporters are a palpable threat to the future of our democracy.
Admittedly, some Americans actually believed the same thing about President Obama.
For most of my life I never understood how American society could have become so polarized that it led to the U.S. Civil War.
What I never understood about that period, until recently, was how brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, sometimes even parents and their children, could resort to killing each other on the battlefield. Strangers killing strangers was somehow comprehensible, but to kill a brother, a sister, a friend?
This article is meant by no means to suggest that I think we’ve arrived at the precipice of another civil war. I’m convinced our institutions remain strong enough, at least for the time being, to avert that horrifying prospect.
But even a cursory reading of history reminds us that all empires die. Not even the greatest of nations stays great forever. It may take 50, 100 or 1,000 years, but the American experiment will someday end.
I think that day is a long way off, but I’m also hardly alone in believing that unless we do something to curb the anger and incivility of our times that the disintegration and crippling of our most cherished institutions is inevitable.
What I worry about more immediately is the steady disintegration of longstanding, cherished relationships with friends and family.
I often remind myself that these are people who I grew up with. People with whom I’ve shared the most intimate experiences, good and bad. People who I love. People I thought I knew.
Partisan political rifts I can live with. Ending personal friendships and family ties is personally painful and much more difficult.
I heard a news story recently about a woman whose brother had smashed a mug into the face of a young immigrant woman because he couldn’t stand to listen to her speak in her native language. The woman eventually befriended the immigrant and disowned her brother. His violence and bigotry, she decided, had crossed a line.
The story made me think about the line I won’t allow to be crossed.
Racially inspired violence is an obvious one. What about people, including friends and relatives, who would vote for a man who orders the caging of children? Or someone who supports a president who’s turned away tens of thousands of desperate refugees at our border?
In truth, I know the line that I won’t let people cross, even at the risk of disowning a friend or relative that I’ve known and loved.
What I’m not sure of is exactly how I’ll tell them that they’ve crossed that line.