As the “womp, womp” moment pithily captures the casual meanness of the political times in which we find ourselves, I sense that former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s response to the separation of a girl with Down’s syndrome from her parent as part of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at our southern border will regularly pop up on documentaries about the Trump era for decades. (That the exchange took place on Fox News, and the reason that Lewandowski finds himself a television commentator rather than a member of the Trump administration goes back to his physical attack on a female reporter early in the campaign, only makes it a richer synopsis of the political era.)
While telling, the Lewandowski exchange is only a relatively superficial example of meanness both rhetorical (“I think there is blame on both sides,” as the president said in response to the events in Charlottesville, Va., last year) and tangible (from denying transgender troops to serve their county to a variety of aspects of Trump immigration policies). However, it appears that it is becoming something of a catchphrase. At an Alabama rally opposing the separation policy this past weekend, a man was arrested after he shouted “womp, womp” and pulled a gun on the protesters.
We also know that anger-filled statements and actions are not limited to one side of the political spectrum. The shaming of Trump administration officials at restaurants in recent weeks because of policies they have supported or defended is indicative of a left that, out of frustration with its absent political power, seeks to “pay back” the GOP for its actions. And, based on evidence from my home, epithets about the Trump administration yelled at televisions often include quite creative imagery but are not exactly grounded in compassion. In this week in which the country is celebrated, it’s not a pretty time in America.
A key theme regularly employed by the Clinton campaign in 2016 was “Love Trumps Hate.” As New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said at the Democratic National Convention two summers ago: “Patriotism is love of country. But you can’t love your country without loving your countrymen and countrywomen … . We are called to be a nation of love. Love recognizes that we need each other, that we as a nation are better together, that when we are divided we are weak, we decline, yet when we are united we are strong – invincible!” For Booker, love should be seen as America’s empowering glue. But, in the “womp, womp” moment, it feels charmingly antiquated.
But, as the excellent new documentary about Fred Rogers — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” —reminded me a few weeks back, there’s something very right about recognizing the role of love in the public arena. Because I watched too much television, I literally grew up with Mr. Rogers, whose national public television version of the show debuted when I was a toddler. As the documentary shows, Fred Rogers combined his preparation to be a Presbyterian minister, his training in the newest research on early childhood learning and his awareness of the power of mass communication (for good or ill) to create a decades-long television “ministry.”
At the heart of this ministry was that love must triumph over the darker forces in life and that kids need to love themselves so that they can be most successful in loving their neighbors as themselves. Many will say, immediately, “Well, that was a different era.” It was, but it was a distinctly brutal moment as well. The program came on the air in early 1968 and, within months, took on directly the political violence of that year as well as the war in Vietnam. Kids were seeing those events on television and Mr. Rogers took responsibility for helping them grapple with the scariness of their childhoods.
I left the theater convinced again that love really can trump hate. Indeed, it may be the only path to a better America. First, while hate is a potent fuel, like jet fuel it burns itself out quickly. Compassion fueled by love burns more slowly, more evenly, more cleanly. Indeed, it actually is a fuel that regenerates itself. Second, because lasting social change only arrives through cooperation and coordination, there must be genuine trust between individuals to produce great works of social change. Love is at the heart of that crucial social trust that guides change in a liberal democracy.
At the most challenging political moment many of us have ever seen, I chose the path of Mr. Rogers rather than that of Mr. Lewandowski.