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Refusing to Hate or Fear the Unknown



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I went to our local dry cleaners on a recent cold morning and was assisted by an individual who was clearly an immigrant from central or South America. He was kind, friendly and efficient. My sense is virtually the entire staff of that establishment are immigrants from one or more nations of that region. When I have asked, I have learned one or two hail from Mexico, another from Guatemala and another from Colombia. My interactions with each in every case have been pleasant. Likewise, we had to have a new roof installed on our home some months ago and the entire staff was Hispanic, and I cannot imagine a harder working or more effective crew. Similarly, a landscape firm recently helped me at my home and those employees, too, were Latino. They were attentive, courteous, disciplined and extremely hard working. I also work daily with a range of professionals who came to the United States from other nations to live and work and each of those individuals, too, have repeatedly proven excellent in their roles.

        I share these snippets of daily interactions to illustrate the frequent difference between abstract political rhetoric aimed at whipping up hate against the “alien other” and everyday lived experience. In each of these cases, the laborers with whom I interacted were working long hours for relatively low wages and doing so with diligence and grace. They were not lolling about or obtaining anything from anyone illicitly or lazily. They were not criminals or insane either.  For their part, the professionals with whom I interact are extremely well regarded in their fields. History teaches that this sort of capability and industriousness has been the case for the lion’s share of immigrants across our nation’s history.

        This is of moment because Donald Trump is once again running for president and has been employing fascist rhetoric and lies at his campaign events. He claims he will “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections.”1 This is a complete fabrication because no such malignant populations or intent exist. Indeed, he is the one lying about election outcomes. Trump has similarly attacked immigrants in the abstract, suggesting, “They’re poisoning the blood of our country. That’s what they’ve done. They poison mental institutions and prisons all over the world, not just in South America … but all over the world. They’re coming into our country, from Africa, from Asia, all over the world.”2

        This sort of dangerous rhetoric routinely earns him applause at rallies with his supporters. It is a lie designed foremost to elicit hate to inflame support for his candidacy. It has nothing to do with reality and it raises the question of how to deal with the willingness of millions of Americans who rationalize support for such hate against their fellow citizens and immigrants. And yet, many are supporting this absurdity as they feed on a steady diet of this shameful rhetoric from Trump, Fox media and Tucker Carlson, among other outlets.3

        I have spent countless hours trying to understand the appeal of this  liar and grifter. In normative terms, the moral answer to this challenge, contrary to what Trump has long urged his followers to adopt, is clear. One should find a way to acknowledge the humanity of the individuals supporting him with whom one disagrees profoundly, while simultaneously refusing to respect their decision to hate and to adopt a stance in many cases of racial enmity based on empty anger and fear.

        I have seen no clearer statement of this moral position than that Rabbi Sharon Brous offered in a recent essay in The New York Times. As she observed, when one feels hopeless or broken, as millions of Americans surely do as they watch this spectacle of cruel enmity unfold among a share of their fellow citizens, one should not isolate or give up. Instead, one should consider acting on the wisdom of an ancient Jewish text and practice, the Mishnah, in two discrete ways. First, Brous noted:

When your heart is broken, when the specter of death visits your family, when you feel lost and alone and inclined to retreat, you show up. You entrust your pain to the community. … Do not take your broken heart and go home. Don’t isolate. Step toward those whom you know will hold you tenderly. … Small, tender gestures remind us that we are not helpless, even in the face of grave human suffering. We maintain the ability, even in the dark of night, to find our way to one another. We need this, especially now.4

        Second, Brous observed that only wonder and curiosity can overcome a natural human propensity to fear the different or to fear the unknown or even the inevitability of change itself:

Here’s the second lesson from that ancient text. Humans naturally incline toward the known. Our tribes can uplift us, order our lives, give them meaning and purpose, direction and pride. But the tribal instinct can also be perilous. The more closely we identify with our tribe, the more likely we are to dismiss or even feel hostility toward those outside it. One of the great casualties of tribalism is curiosity. And when we are no longer curious, when we don’t try to imagine or understand what another person is thinking or feeling or where her pain comes from, our hearts begin to narrow. We become less compassionate and more entrenched in our own worldviews.5

        If one considers that Trump and those aligning themselves with his message of hatred are using tribalism as a strategy to obtain power and profit, one realizes that those responding to such assertions are being manipulated, and that the cost of their obeisance will not only be the rights of those innocent Americans and others whom Trump has targeted, but, ironically, their own rights as well.

        Brous is surely correct, while hatred against the abstract other certainly can be willed, it can be countered by curious and kind engagement with the world and with those vilified. Those encountered are unlikely to be perfect, as humanity is not perfect, but they will prove human and just “like me,” as those immigrants with whom I interact in my community have proven to be. The workers and professionals whom I have met personally are not despoiling anything as they seek a life of peace and purpose for themselves and their families. Nor are they disadvantaging me by “taking stuff” via governance as they work long hours in my community as physicians, engineers or scholars, or helping families by installing new roofs, by construction of various kinds and via a host of other gainful employment. They are not coming in hordes from mental hospitals as Trump contends, without evidence. They are, instead very human and interested in the same life goals as me. Recognizing them as human and being open to learning about their experience is essential to our nation’s pluralistic democratic project.

        As those attending Trump campaign events or supporting his candidacy revel in abstract and dehumanizing hatred and cruelty, other Americans should do all they can to understand why those individuals have chosen that course. But they should never countenance that group’s behavior or accept the legitimacy of its assertions. They should instead be prepared to remind those mired in, or otherwise accepting such cruelty for its own sake, that human and civil rights must be protected and that the only way to ensure that result for freedom is to practice it daily amidst our interactions with all. Cynicism and loathing will lead to more of the same. Meanwhile, hope and wonder can unlock empathy and compassion and a shared awareness of our common humanity—quickly lost in the mean spiritedness of enmity for its own sake. Americans today confront the signal question of whether they will collectively permit the hijacking of their nation’s democratic experiment. Only an open-eyed and disciplined curiosity and respect for human freedom and possibility will permit them to overcome this singular challenge.


1 Michael, Chris. “Trump tells rally ‘immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country,’” The Guardian, December 16, 2023,, Accessed January 20, 2024. 

2 LeVine, Marianne. “Trump calls political enemies ‘vermin’ echoing dictators Hitler, Mussolini, The Washington Post, November 13, 2023,, Accessed January 20, 2024. 

3 Bump, Philip. “Tucker Carlson’s revealing, ignorant disparagement of the vice president,” The Washington Post, January 17, 2024,, Accessed January 20, 2024. 

4 Brous, Sharon. “Train Yourself to Always Show Up,” The New York Times, January 19, 2024,, Accessed January 19, 2024. 

5 Brous, Sharon. “Train Yourself to Always Show Up.”

Publication Date

January 22, 2024