Early this summer, I emailed a neighbor of mine, whom we’ll call David, and asked him to go for a walk with me in the park. Although we had lived in the same building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for more than a decade, we had previously only shared pleasantries with one another in the elevator. But this neighbor’s political views diametrically opposed my own. Given the dire, toxic, runaway path to civil war our nation is currently on, and as a professed conflict mediator, bipartisan bridge builder, and depolarization pundit, I felt it incumbent on me to reach out and try my best to walk my talk. My spouse also talked me into doing it.
I thought my decades of training as a conflict resolution scholar and mediator of difficult moral disputes prepared me for just such encounters. But I spent most of the hour before our date in distress in my bathroom.
When I greeted David in front of our building, he also appeared ill-at-ease. Nevertheless, we headed toward the park for a brief jaunt, anxiety in tow.
On our way, we chit-chatted about our families, and then I explained to him my reason for reaching out. I said that I was increasingly worried about the political divisions in our country and the growing odds of extreme political violence. I was doing my utmost to better understand different perspectives on the situation. He replied, “You mean, you don’t know any Republicans you can talk to.” When I hesitated, he added, “Any Republicans that like Trump, that is.”
“That’s about right,” I admitted.
Then he told me about his upbringing. He explained that he is a devout Orthodox Jew, born in Northeastern France to Talmudic nobility. His grandfather was a village physician and founder of a temple in the Alsace region. He was raised in the U.K., and holds deep conservative values emanating from his religious convictions and his success in global business.
I, then, offered a bit of my own background—a Catholic-born, Irish and French-Huguenot with Chicago, Democratic working-class roots, who, much to his astonishment, married a one-half Jew. David inquired whether my wife’s mother was Jewish and he exclaimed, “So, your children are Jewish!”
“They are,” I replied. This fact seemed to register.
Soon after, we turned to politics. I asked him if he would tell me how he came to support Trump. He said he’d be happy to.