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Like many of you, I am disgusted, horrified, ashamed, and enraged by the direct assault on the U.S. Constitution and our democratic institutions that occurred on Jan. 6. President Donald Trump instigated an insurrection to disrupt the electoral process. That the preceding sentence is not fiction infuriates me to my core.
But we cannot be too hasty to cast judgment on all his voters.
My grandparents, with my five-year-old father in tow, took a stand against a brutal, populist tyrant in their homeland. They were driven from their country, leaving everything behind. They arrived in the United States as political refugees on Jan. 6, 1961 — 60 years to the day before the storming of the Capitol. When my 92-year-old grandmother saw the images of the Capitol riots on TV in her nursing home, the long-buried trauma of 1961 came to the surface. In a confused panic, she began calling my dad to ask if our family was safe and whether it was time to begin packing in preparation for leaving the country. These calls went on all day. Because of Covid-19 precautions, my dad could not comfort her in person.
As angry as I am, I share the hopeful attitude expressed by many. I have met several individuals in public office, and I believe most are good people. As a visiting politician recently told one of my classes, to lose optimism is to give up. As he eloquently put it, the history of our country — so often warped into a series of simplistic ideological parables designed to reinforce one political stance or another — is one of progress. Often halting and fumbling, often flawed and incomplete, but progress nonetheless. While currently an unpopular view at Harvard Law School, I find much to admire and much that inspires about this country’s history — while still acknowledging its many faults. I believe deeply in the ideals of our Constitution. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have joined the Navy 12 years ago ready to defend it and willing to die for it.
As revolted as we are, we can’t let our anger get the better of us. I am deeply worried by comments from those who hastily wrote off all elected officials as hopelessly corrupted or worse, or those who wrote off all Trump supporters as misogynists and racists. How quickly, in our well-justified rage, do we ascribe motives and labels to 74 million fellow citizens!
Trump has stoked racism, given a platform to extremists, provided a living example of misogyny and corruption, and attempted to warp and destroy our institutions for his personal gain. It is true that some of his supporters hold some of the very worst beliefs and prejudices that a person can have. But I hesitate to suggest that all or even most of the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump fall into these categories. Why? Because I know many of them. I’ve talked with them and debated with them. I’ve tried to learn what their world view is rather than ascribing one to them. I’ve tried to understand their fears, motivations, hopes, and dreams rather than applying a conveniently derisive label to the entire group and writing them all off.
I am not an apologist for those who are racist, anti-democratic, violent, or worse. These individuals and their views have no place in any democratic society. But I know that not all Trump voters fit that description. I know many who were appalled by what they saw on Jan. 6. I know many who have as great a lack of understanding and total disdain for all of us Ivy League-educated Biden supporters as many of us do for them.
Distrust and contempt are always easier from afar.
I’m grateful to be at HLS among you all, my fellow students. You all have my respect and admiration. But one source of frustration for me this first year has been the aversion to intellectual debate. Perhaps in this virtual environment I simply don’t know where to find it. But I often reflect on how in the Navy, we worked harder to understand the mindset, perspectives, and hopes of our potential adversaries — the people we might be called upon to kill — than some students try to understand their fellow citizens with different political opinions. How often, during virtual classes, do we retreat into chat channels of like-minded students to have our own views validated as we ridicule the opposing views offered by our classmates?
My message is simple. If you, like me, find yourself wondering how anyone could have voted for Trump, perhaps you should ask someone who did. Do not be so quick to label and dismiss, to ascribe motives that reflect more about your views than the views you are labeling. In these difficult and often disheartening times, we must not become intolerant, hateful, and arrogant in our quest against those same evils. Seek debate. Seek to have your ideas challenged, as iron sharpens iron. To quote the writer, Dr. Stephen R. Covey, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” There’s no other way to fix this mess.
Carlos R. Rosende is a first-year law student at Harvard Law School.
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