If, as we’re told, every vote counts, did every gesture that might influence the voters also count, no matter how small? I’m hoping not, and doing my best to ignore Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that the mere flutter of a butterfly’s wing can have global impact.
Until this election, it didn’t bother me that I can’t vote. I came from South Africa during the apartheid years, and initially didn’t switch citizenship because it might have cost me access to my homeland; later, I simply forgot. It never seemed to matter all that much. This time, everything felt different.
I watched from the sidelines as the presidential campaign built to its horrible crescendo, agitated and guilty about my passivity. And then on Yom Kippur, reading a book about spirituality before going to synagogue, I got inspired to take action.
In the higher-minded mood of the Day of Atonement, more inclined than usual to see the best in everyone, I decided to send a message to Donald Trump. I’d fired off enough messages to the Bernie and Hillary camps; now it was his turn. While acknowledging his fervent desire to use his immense talents to serve this country, I wanted to ask him to do one thing: Express regret about the darker aspects aroused by the campaign and call for a more positive, mutually respectful approach going forward.
My message went something like this: “I don’t believe it will win you votes or lose you votes, but I think that expressing such feelings will make an enormous difference now and after the election, whichever way it goes, for the country and for you and your family — especially for your youngest son.”
By the following morning the impulse might have faded, squelched by the notion that it’s impossible to reach those giants at the top of the politics pile.
But then it dawned on me that the book I had been reading when the impulse struck, How’s Your Faith?, is by David Gregory, someone who by dint of his work as a CNN analyst was frequently in the vicinity of Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager. As chance had it, I had just interviewed Gregory in advance of a talk he gave to a local audience. Before timidity could set in, I sent him an e-mail, thanking him for his time and asking him to send my note to Conway, to be given to her boss. I wrote: “Please suspend judgment and just pass this on.”
Nothing happened, and in the vituperativeness that followed the third presidential debate, good will looked like a lost cause. How, even for a moment, could I have thought to get such a message across? The polls went up and down and the margins widened and narrowed. The tension mounted and, like most, I just wanted it all to be over.
Two nights before the election, with my attention focused on something else, a sound bite from the TV caught my ear. It was Donald Trump, and he was saying something about being positive. The words had passed but the echo sounded terrifyingly familiar.
Horror struck. With a great thump of the heart, it dawned on me that one tiny turn toward a more statesmanlike tone might influence just one minute sliver of undecided voters, those peculiarly wavering fence-sitters both campaigns were pursuing — and that that sliver, that butterfly flutter, might make the difference. And it would be the fault of this impetuous, irresponsible immigrant!
But then in the next breath, the candidate was back to his familiar rhetoric, attacking and warning and warring. Contrary to my despair all the other times I’d heard him vent, this I welcomed with a great sigh of relief.
In my more positive moments, I’m hoping the current whirl of discussion and argument — and even anger — is having a revitalizing effect on this country. To keep it going, I believe all who care need to stay engaged. But right now, this non-citizen is really happy to sit back, resume the passive role of helpless onlooker, and just share my views with friends and Facebook — and in venues like this. Let bolder souls go flap their wings. •